Monday, June 16, 2014

The Final Death of the Four Tigers.


We all knew it was coming. We were warned. For years the Four Tigers Chinese Market has faced being shut down by Hungarian politicians, especially the creepy FIDESZ mayor of the Eighth District in which it is located  (previously made famous for criminalizing homelessness in Budapest.) The word had gone out months ago, and the stall owners and retailers of cheap Chinese underwear and bad fishing equipment begin their sorry exodus across the road to the newer market area across the street. Branded in the Hungarian press as a hotbed of crime and mafia dealings, a magnet for smuggling and stolen goods, and even for making less than exemplary tofu in illegal - yet artisanal - factories, The Four Tigers Market was all of that and much, much less. To put it bluntly: if you are Hungarian (or Slovak, or Czech, or Romanian, or Ukrainian) and you wear socks or underwear or pop viagra, shoot off fireworks, or fish for carp in the Tisza with budget gear then you can thank the Chinese market for providing these to you at a price you can afford. No Chinese market means a whole lot of sockless, shit-stained, limp, quiet and fish-less East Europeans. Not a happy image. ( Next photo is also from

A lot of Hungarians were afraid to even enter the market, a scary multilingual zone full of Romanians and Arabs and Gypsies and Chinese, Vietnamese, and even Mongols all chatting away in distinctly non-Hungarian languages and snacking on really good things with no name in Hungarian. (You could actually get freshly baked Turkish breakfast pastries in the center of the Market where a knot of Muslim eateries all tried to outdo each other with the same Gyro menus.) It was also a place where I saw a large number of Transylvanian Gypsies actually speaking in Vietnamese, and Hungarians happily chatting in regional Chinese dialects. Not many of them, mind you, but apart from its evil reputation it was actually one of the safer areas of the eighth district if you knew the rules (no photographs! no samurai swords!) It will be missed, but not all is lost: the Chinese Market is basically moving across the street. 

The first sign of this was the empty shell of the once glorious Dang Muoi Vietnamese Buffet, which was - and I am not exaggerating - the best restaurant in Budapest for many, many years. Sure, we now have a Nobu, and there is a Michelin Star tossed here and there, but Dang Muoi was the place we would go to eat if we had the choice. We even took visiting friends and dignitaries to eat there. 

Fumie and I do a lot of our food shopping at the stalls inside the Four Tigers, as well as the huge Chinese supermarket across the street. Next door was the Vietnamese coffee stand where we could get primo Cà phê sữa đá and free lotus tea and chat with the owner. The Vietnamese fish market offered affordable frozen squid and dozens of seasonal herbs and greens unheard of in Hungarian markets. And we usually stop for pho or bun cha noodles at Dang Muoi, since the area's Viet food is a bit more interesting than the Northern Chinese stodge that you can find poking around the stalls across the street. The woman working the last remaining Vietnamese grocery stall told us the Dang Muoi had moved across the street, as they would be doing, to "Vietnami Utca" in the Europa Piac, the more recently developed miniature Chinese wholesale suburb that has taken over the old factory district. 

We checked it out: all is well. Dang Muoi now has a small grocery and lunch counter near the entry gate to Vietnam street in the market, as well as an upstairs dining area and a couple of outdoor picnic benches.The food remains the best in Budapest if you don't want yet another helping of frozen Tesco chicken and CBA paprika. The wall shows offerings of over dozen soup based specialties, but I still find myself mysteriously drawn to the mysterious steam table: belly pork in spicy sauce, pickled veggies, Vietnamese slaw, chicken done four ways, tofu, eggs, and even slices of stewed or fried fish... just point... and as long as it fits on top of a plate of rice, it is yours.

My yardstick for Viet buffet dining is always going to be bun cha - grilled pork on cold rice boodles dunked in spicy fish sauce dip, but today I went for bun nem, the same but with fried spring rolls in place of pork. It is the perfect meal for a hot day. Note: if you want bun cha or bun nem you have to ask for it, it wasn't listed on the wall menu. All this for about FT 1000 a serving (about USD $4.00) The drill goes like this: dump salad and herbs into bowl of fish sauce and spicy broth. Then dunk heaps of rice noodle into broth bowl. Now dump a piece of spring roll or meat on top of that. Use chopstick to convey to mouth. Splatter with their home made sriracha sauce if need be. 

We hit this market for grocery shopping about once a week, so we will be searching around the winding alleys of the Europa Piac for any new eateries that may pop up. It is a wondrous world back there. I mean... how often can you have a fresh, tasty, affordable lunch al fresco and look out to a glorious panorama view like this one? This, my friends, is terroir! I love this place. 

It almost makes me feel like I am back in New Jersey. We are truly blessed. But if I wanted to look up from my bowl of pho and see some downtown skyscraper office building full of suited worker drones, I would have chosen to eat downtown.  Of course, you don't have to trek out to the market to test Dang Muoi. They have expanded and opened several Vietnamese restaurants in Budapest, including one on Nagymezo utca. 

Or you can do what we do: shop for your basic ingredients at the Vietnamese and Chinese grocery stalls in the market and make it all yourself. This is Fumie's idea of a light lunch: spring roll with shrimp and pork wrapped in lettuce leaf, basil, and mint with fish sauce and lime dip. Or maybe I should just have a couple of turo rudi instead?

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Holocaust Revision, Hungarian Style.

Hungary has grown a reputation in the press as a hotbed for antisemitic political movements over the last decade. The other day my father's friend, a guy in his 80s who tends to repeat himself a lot  looked at me through a skype screen and asked "Is there a lot of antisemitism in Hungary?" He asks me this every single time I have ever met him. And for the first time I simply told him "Yes." Usually I go into a convoluted explanation of Hungarian society and history, pointing out how Hungary didn't develop a political antisemitic tradition until the 20th century. Hungary didn't match the classic Russian definition of Jews as outsiders, there were no church sponsored pogroms such as my paternal Grandparents faced. The classic Austrian Catholic antisemitic tradition was blocked by the rise of the Hungarian middle class in the 19th century, which found urban Jews and Protestant (poor) nobles from east Hungary in an alliance both linguistic and economic. So why does Hungary now face the accusation of antisemitism? Simple. Because its political leaders are ethically challenged baboons.

Back in January, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, taking valuable time from his busy schedule of building himself a personal football stadium in his backyard, announced the erection of a monument in Budapest's downtown Kossuth Square to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the "Occupation of Hungary" that led to some 700,000 Jews being deported to the Nazi death camps in a matter of months. Except, if you are Hungarian Jewish (and about 100,000 of us still are) you may not remember History in exactly that manner. As in "What occupation?" Hungary was not an occupied country, it was an Ally of Nazi Germany. This was seen by members of the Jewish community, as well as most literate Hungarians, as a whitewashing of the role of Hungary in the Holocaust. Orban said he could not discuss the matter while busy fixing the national elcctions ... er... running for re-election. Subsequently, most of Hungary's Jewish organizations chose to boycott the government's planned events and refuse its funding.

"Dialogue, not doubletalk!"
Now, originally I wrote a detailed analysis of that history, which I then decided to shelve. You can read about the monument debacle at the Wall Street Journal, the Hungarian Spectrum, the Economist, also here and here and a zillion divisive articles to boot. Meanwhile, Jewish organizations are taking the effort to support independent memorials, such as that prepared by the Yellow Star Houses Project. These were houses around Budapest in which Jews were allowed to reside in 1944. They are everywhere - there are two on my street and another two on the corner two blocks away, and I don't even live downtown. The corner on Andrassy housing the Polish institute was also one.

This was a Star house. Remember on June 21."
The monument planned for the memory of the "German Occupation of Hungary" has yet to be completed. From the location and the existing structures - which would not be out of place in any Greek restaurant toilet in central New Jersey - it promises to be a classic of FIDESZ kitsch. It will be located on a strip dividing two lanes of an underground parking garage exit. How's that for an honored and sanctified location.

For a while the site was the scene of protests by Jewish organizations and their supporters. Nonetheless protesters were detained by the police and the right wing news cycles went into overdrive painting the events as disruptive left wing violence. Now the monument itself is under wraps, literally, guarded by police awaiting the day - soon - when Prime Minister Orban will dedicate the completed statue.

In the meantime, the area around it has become something of a spontaneous shrine to the victims of the holocaust. People have left mementos of lost family members, or objects symbolic of those murdered in the Holocaust, marked by piles of stones in the Jewish cemetery custom.

For years I have spoken defensively when asked about "antisemitism in Hungary." I still stand by it: it is not the Hungarian people that are markedly antisemitic - it is the Hungarian political system, whether right or left, communist or "Christian", that can't exist without the rhetoric of the antisemite. It is the Hungarian political system, with its stubborn addiction to hair-brained "third road" schemes and creative economics combined with bad bookkeeping (and too many hungry poltical in-laws waiting in line to be fed) that sends the ping pong ball of Hungarian history on its eternal trip bouncing off the table. Blaming nationalism or the hangover of communism is a bluff. Hungarians have been locked out of a participatory role in politics by their ruling class ever since King Arpad arrived in the 9th century. The PR machine that keeps Orban's government going believes it can revise history in its image with an humongously ugly statue. The problem is: its image is just as ugly as that history.