Monday, October 04, 2021

Kabul Bufe: Afghan Lunch in Budapest

Pilav of our dreams
Hungary, if you read the news these days, is not a nation that is exactly welcoming to immigrants, especially refugees. Viktor Orban made a political career out of demonizing refugees as "migrants" since the 2015 refugee crisis, when thousands of mostly Syrian refugees faced a bottleneck at Budapest's Keleti Train Station. The crisis was handled in the worst possible way by Hungarian officials denying services to the encamped families and then intentionally misleading them about travel onward to Germany. It was not Hungary's proudest hour. The crisis has passed but the sour attitude remains. The government controlled media refer to all emigrants and refugees simply by the perjorative "migrants" - usually adding that they are being sent to Hungary by the demonic financier George Soros, because, you know, he can. The volunteer organization that helped feed the refugees during their brief stay in Budapest was treated as a subversive antigovernmental plot and many of its participants were harrassed out of the country. I was out on the street when thousands frustrated Syrians at Keleti finally decided to take their fate in their own hands and march on foot toward Vienna. As I watched them march towards the Danube bridge leading to Vienna, I actually felt a sadness. I had been hoping for some new neighbors. And now they were marching away, never to return, taking their Syrian culture and cuisine with them. And we are poorer for it. 
You have to look closely for the Kabul Bufe.  Népszínház u. 27,
If you visit Budapest, you will notice that Budapest, unlike most European cities, doesn't seem to have any real immigrant neighborhoods. The unfortunate truth is... people don't emigrate to poor countries. Hungary is not dirt poor, but it can't offer the wages and opportunities that its western neighbors can to families looking to resettle in Europe. And the anti-refugee rhetoric plays into the canard that Hungary is "protecting Europe" and by extension, Christianity, from the hordes of hummus eating, kebab grilling, and fatoush mixing Middle Easterners lining up to take up Evil Master Soros' command to move to the eighth district. The result is... very few immigrants and very little of the advantages that come with growing up in multicultural environments. Like immigrant food. 
The daily double: Kabuli beef pilav, and chicken pilav, both with kidney beans.
Presently, we are facing an unprecedented refugee crisis in Afghanistan. Hungary - a NATO member - was a military participant in the Afghan War since 2003, and it has flown in 540 Afghans who had connections with the Hungarian government and military during the conflict. Hungary already has an Afghan community of around 2000, but unless you stroll along Népszinház utca in Budapest's 8th district you would never know it. Népszinház has become the street which immigrant multiculturalism shines the brightest in Hungary. We bike up Népszinház utca about once a week to stock up at the Troya Turkish Supermarket, which offers a full selection of Turkish products including an onsite butcher selling the best and cheapest lamb in the city (but no longer stocks fresh fish...) . The big magnet along Népszinház utca for us, however, is the Kabul Bufé. This is a tiny hole in the wall lunch spot serving Halal Afghan food  open from 11AM to 10 PM. There are several Middle Eastern luncheterias along Népszinház utca offering the usual felafuls and shwarmas and Iraqi, Pakistani, and even Nigerian food, but we couldn't pass up the Kabul Bufe when we first found it. Now we are addicted
The choice: with or without.
The menu consists of what you see: a choice of two rice pilavs. One is Kabuli Pilav, a brown spicy beef or chicken and rice mix, and the other is usually meatless with some veg and raisins floating around in it, and some mildly spiced creamy chicken stew to spoon on top. There is usually a bean or lentil dhal of some kind to add on the side, my favorite being the kidney beans. And that's it. Both are good: I always order one of both to go, because there is hardly any space to dine inside beside a single table. Also: they are incredibly cheap. A Styrofoam container that can fill two normal people for lunch costs about the same as a Big Mac. Also, as soon as we finish we want more.
Two pilavs... with string beans and spud-filled samosa on the side.

The real fast food of Afghanistan are bolani, supple stuffed flatbreads filled with spiced leeks, potato, or chicken. these are worthy of a meal in themselves, so I usually take a few home, and later dry fry them up in a frying pan for a quick evening meal. The samosas are a bit more substantial than ones you might find in an Indian restaurant: the potato filled ones are some of the best vegetarian food available in Budapest. And again: you can afford them. Several of them. 

Bolani
One last suggestion: if you see plastic cups with some kind of creamy dessert in the cooler... get them. I have no idea what they call them... and I don't usually eat dessert, but The Queen Who Rules My Existence loves any kind of flan or cream dessert with sweet spices and She loves them. The last one was some kind of creamy mango with cardamom flan... She also took the photos, at least the ones that are in focus...
Two cups of cardamom mango flan next to our usual order.


Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Roma Ételbar: Hungarian Food in the Post-Kadar Era

Marha pőrkőlt: when people want 'goulash' (Roma Ételbar)

When somebody asks me to recommend a good authentic Hungarian restaurant in downtown Budapest these days, I can't. I live in the 7th district "Party Quarter" which is still - invisibly - the Jewish Ghetto. This area is crowded with bars and eateries catering to the swarms of tourists - both foreign and domestic - who pack into local hostels and Air B&Bs within staggering distance of the bars and clubs, most of them operated by fly-by-night bizniz sleazebags who could not care less about the negative impact they have on one of Budapest's most unique residential neighborhoods. People in this community know each other - many have lived in its flats for generations. We greet each other by name on the street. We have resident forums in the park. If you actually live in this district it can feel more like a village than a downtown Budapest neighborhood. What we don't have is a decent Hungarian restaurant. 

Krumplis tészta at Roma Ételbar (veggie-friendly spuds 'n' noods)

There are lots of Hungarian restaurants in Modern Magyarland, so you would think that all you had to do to find some good honest goulash or a nice country style bean soup is to wander down to the corner, pay a reasonable price, and tuck in. Sorry, that doesn't happen anymore. Most Hungarian restaurants kind of suck, for lack of a better term. Well, at least many do. There used to be a lot more of the non-sucking variety, but they are getting sparser on the ground (or are found way out yonder in Óbuda, fer chrissakes. The Kéhli, for example.). Many aspire to either some mis-imagined version of Magyar haute cuisine, or they serve some crazed fusion dreamed up while working in the kitchen of a cruise ship or German hotel - which is where a shocking number of Hungarian culinary school graduates end up ( explaining the strange and now almost universal custom of sprinkling dried parsley all over the edges of the serving plates and adding ginger and pineapple to dishes where pineapple simply do not belong.) Hungarian food is peasant food, at its best simple, filling, and made with local ingredients. Károly Gundel, the famed restauranteur, knew this when he stressed the essence of Hungarian cuisine began with simply "frying onions in lard."

When Yorkville was still the center of the universe.
I was raised on Hungarian cooking. Growing up in the Bronx my Mom used to take us to Manhattan to the Hungarian enclave in Yorkville  on Second Avenue to shop at the legendary Hungarian grocery Paprikás Weissz, to stock up on hurka at the Hungarian butcher, and bring home big, very un-American loaves of real Hungarian bread. I love Hungarian food, and my family heritage here is rooted in the food industry. So yes, I am intolerant of bad, overpriced, crappy Hungarian food. I have a right to be. I have eaten the good stuff.

Hungarian Yorkville... now just a memory.
One reason Hungarian restaurants have declined in quality is the astonishingly low pay for trained chefs. If a chef is any good he will get recruited for an Austrian resort hotel or a Belgian cruise liner. I just perused a few online ads for chefs in Budapest... want to make $6.00 an hour making tapas in a fancy downtown tourist joint? That's also the advertised pay rate for a chef at the famous Gerbeaud Cafe... the best advertised chef positions in Hungary pay around US$800 -$1000 a month. You can make four times that in Germany, and so that is where capable Hungarian chefs go, later to return to Hungary sprinkling parsley everywhere and adding ginger and pineapple to their Kalbshnitzel Asiatische arte. The folks working the kitchens here at home tend to be either inexperienced youngsters fresh out of cooking school or grizzled old reprobates too sozzled to hold a job in Austria. And it is reflected the food you are served. 

Székely Gulyás... has nothing to do with either Székelys or goulash. 
As we noted on this blog, our local favorite, the Kadar Étkezde, closed last year, a financial victim of the first phase of the covid-19 pandemic. The Kadar was an étkezde, which are small restaurants that often only serve a limited menu for lunch, and are often located off the main streets in small, unassuming shop fronts. Although I doubted anything could ever replace our beloved Kadar, I had heard that the Roma Ételbar, an étkezde in Buda, had closed down in 2019, but it had such a loyal following that a few young investors got together and reopened it, preserving not only the original décor and menu, but hiring the original owner, Cica, to keep the spirit of the place going as well. We had to try it. Luckily, it is located a few blacks away from our health clinic, so we gave it a try. The first person you meet as you approach the place is the legendary owner, Cica.

Kitten in command
Cica ("kitten") is in her late 70s, having run the Roma for over 36 years, but she still shows up every day and takes her seat by the door, making sure that everyone is happy and aware of the specials and that they know they would really like a bowl of cold cherry soup or glass of good old retro raspberry syrup soda to go with their meals. She is lot more than a hostess. She is the étkezde Goddess. One must Obey Her. The food at Roma is classic Hungarian lunch: beef or pork paprika stews, tripe (pacal) with potatoes, and potato pasta, a surprisingly good simple mix of paprika spuds and thick square noodles that reflects the older, hardier meals that kept our grandparents going before protein became affordable. The salads are familiar to anybody who has ever sat at Grandma's table: cucumbers in sour cream, simple sliced tomato, cabbage and horseradish.
What is this tripe that sits before me?
The Roma doesn't have a huge menu, but everything at the Roma Ételbar is a perfect version of a Hungarian classic dish. It is a must visit if you have visitors from abroad who want Magyar flavor without the fru-fru and snotty waiters. Also, it is convenient to the Buda Castle - where no sentient being should ever even  consider sitting down and ordering anything beyond a Snickers bar. (I know that the Mekons enjoyed a lunch at the Roma a couple of years ago when they were in Budapest, so there is a good chance you will too. The Mekons have exquisite taste.)


Also: I recommend going while the weather is nice: they have great outdoor seating on the street, but avoid going in large groups because they are not really set up for it. It may be in one of the least appealing aluminum and cement neighborhoods of Buda, at Csalogány utca 20 between Széna tér and Batthyány metro stations, but it is an island of wonderfulness in a sea of cement. And do not go late: the Roma is open for business every day between 11 AM and 4 PM. We usually try to get there before noon, at the latest, to avoid waiting for a table.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Romanian Stuffed Cabbage and That Old Jewish Guy Who Collects Folk Music

My son messaged me yesterday that all his friends had heard me mentioned on the podcast of the Budapest news portal 444.hu, and that they said that they liked my food blogging. They actually said that if you wanted to find decent, honest food around Hungary you ought to depend on advice coming from English language bloggers, like the one written by "Some old Jewish fiddler who lives downtown with his Japanese wife who collects folk music." OK. My cover is blown. I was hoping everybody would think I was some retired British rock star living with a sexy Russian spy/diplomat, but now the truth is out. My fictional alter would probably drive an Audi, nibble on caviar, fly first class, and never eat stuffed cabbage in Romania. I, however, have been living on the stuff for a couple of weeks now. And looking for older fiddlers in the Iza Valley of Maramures in Northern Transylvania in Romania.


I have, indeed, been collecting folk fiddle music in Romania for years, and I am there now, tapping away furiously on my tablet in the village of Ieud, in the Iza valley of Maramures. In 2000 we stayed at one of the five houses in the village that had indoor plumbing. Today... am using the village internet network and sipping espresso... although I tend to eat at the home of our host, a woman we have known in Ieud since we first came to record the fiddler Gheorghe Ioannei Covaci in 1999, almost every home we visit offers us a feast when we visit. The hospitality of the Moroseni, as people from Maramures are known, is boundless, and part of that hospitality is liquid: horinca, clear fruit brandy distilled three times into a clear, hellishly strong schnapps that is pure enough that you can drink it without fear of raging hangovers. And drink it they do! I actually stopped drinking back in the spring. No good reason, I just did, but I make an exception up here. Most drinking in Maramures is ritualized and social. It is the welcome wagon in a glass when you enter a house. You always begin a meal with a shot of horinca. 

u

Sarmale is stuffed cabbage, and if you think there is only one type, think again. Right now we are eating a summer version, which is made from fresh cabbage leaves which are parboiled and then brined in salt water and vinegar befored being stuffed. In colder months people use leaves from whole heads of cabbage made into fermented sourkraut in large buckets. Then there is the filling. In Romania, where country folk remain devoutly religious, lent is taken seriously and a lot of the year feature meatless days. This is served by meatless sarmale de post (Lenten sarmale) filled with rice, carrots, and mushrooms. Otherwise, the filling usually includes soaked rice, onions, and smoked pork. 

Stuffed cabbage is something you always make in bulk. Like all cabbage foods, it improves with time, reaching cabbage and rice nirvana around 36 hours after cooking. This is the reason so many visitors to Hungary are disappointed at Hungarian restaurants. They arrive expecting to try Grandma's stuffed cabbage in the old country and find to their horror that it is almost never on any menu. Hungarian law requires restaurants to prepare and serve all dishes on the same day. Time consuming preparations like stuffed cabbage (and stuffed peppers) that require a day to ripen and reheat are nearly impossible to find except at home. Szekely kaposzta, a blend of stewed sourkrat and paprika pork stew tend to serve as a stand in for the real thing, but luckily you can find sarmale in most restuarants in Romania. If you are ever in Cluj ( or Kolozsvar in Hungarian  or Clujenstadt or some other, real name in German , Kokoshvar in Romani)  go to the Restaurant Varzarie (The Cabbagerie) on Strada Eroilor 35-37 for some of the best sarmale in the world. 

While we were recording Covaci Gheorghe, who at 88 may be the oldest fiddler in Maramures, his daughter treated us to some of amazing Dobrudja style sarmale. She explained that her mother in law came from the Black sea region of Dobrudja and she had learned the Turkish style beef stuffed grape leaf version preferred by her husband, who is from that region. They were fantastic, and like a lot of Turkish influenced dobrudja dishes, free of forbidden pork. I happen to like forbidden pork, but I like Turkish influenced Romanian cuisine better. I got to make some plans to visit the Dobrudja again sometime soon.


This trip is the first time we have done any traveling since the covid19 pandemic began, and with the immanent rise of the delta variant I have no idea when we will be able to return. Romania takes its covid precautions seriously - masks are always worn indoors, on transport, and free vaccinations are available in shopping centers. But the virus likes the cold weather, so it may be a while before we feel this safe travelling again.



We will be back...

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Things Fall Apart: Seafood in Hungary.


oyster
An Oyster. In Hungary. 
I know that this is something of a blog record for not posting (since November!) but I have a perfectly lame excuse: the covid pandemic! For a year now there has been no travels, adventures, visitors, or even trout. Covid has put the kabosh on all of that. We've all been living through it, surviving as best we can. We retreat into ourselves. We become boring. Basically... we make lunch.

An effective response to the covid pandemic: Shrimp pesto with tagliatelle.

Given my age and my less than perfect physical state I'm a prime target for the Covid-19 virus. Those little corona spikes were virtually designed for me! A few of those not-quite-living critters may be floating around in a droplet of sneeze juice and if they see me they just go weak at the knees and want to use my biological real estate to replicate their little strands of DNA... and I am not going to give the little spikey bastids any easy advantages. At least not here, on my home ground. Hungary managed to pull together during the first two waves of the virus, shutting down the borders and enforcing curfews and limiting meetings. The situation was admirable until the third wave hit late last fall, and since then Hungary topped the list for the world's highest death rate for covid patients. Hospitals were not a good place to be: remember the ad slogan for Raid Ant and Cockroach Hotel traps? They check in, but they don't check out... Things have gotten better recently, but the best advice I can share for aging Jewish fiddlers in Hungary is to simply do not get sick.

Shrimp and Scallops.


On the other hand, Hungary has one of the world's most successful vaccination programs - all kinds of vaccines were purchased and distributed, from Pfizer, Moderna and AZ down to a few that seem to have been tossed into the delivery bag alongside the Szechuan spicy pork and shrimp rolls. And - a remarkable feat of Hungarian beauracracy - I have still not managed to get vaccinated, even though I have registered and pestered local doctors and followed every rumor and lead I can. Only the Government - not private clinics - can distribute vaccines and decide who gets them. Rumor from the embassies is that foreigners and other folks lacking Hungarian social security numbers will be able to get our shots at the end of this month. (They said the same thing last month, but heck... we're keeping our fingers crossed. In Central Europe, as we all know, official spokesmen never lie!)


Traditional Hungarian shrimp pesto risotto.
So we keep to ourselves, maintaining a rigid social isolation that means we rarely go out except to do our shopping or ride bicycles for exercise, we avoid crowds, we don't eat out, and since the relaxing of mask rules in Hungary and much of Europe, we still keep our masks on in public. And that makes for pretty boring blog subjects. What we actually do is... spend a lot of time preparing intricate meals. Of fish, preferably. 

Locally smoked salmon and Russian black bread.

Early this spring a fish seller appeared at our local Klauzal ter market offering something we hadn't seen in a long, long time: fresh fish. Let me qualify that: fresh good fish at a very affordable price. He displayed the usual carp and bullhead, but also fresh dorado, branzino, salmon, and even haddock - my favorite North Atlantic fish. Fresh tuna. Smoked tuna - and salmon, both of which he expertly smoked himself. He also offered fresh shrimp, scallops, and sardines. Once we became regular customers he even offered us each a free oyster. I took it home, popped the shell, and immediately wanted to sell my vintage 1934 Gibson mandolin and buy more oysters. 

Tuna sashimi with daikon radish.

Until now we could get fish in Hungary, but only if that fish is carp or any of its lesser, bonier, and more garbage oriented smaller relatives  known collectively in the English language as "trash fish." We can also get catfish: either the traditional harcsa, European Wels catfish which grows as big as Volkswagens on the muddy bottoms of whatever industrial trough passes for as river in these parts: or the "African catfish" which is a fishlike product artificially cloned by Tesco and other supermarket chains for its ability to resemble fish. There is also törpeharcsa "dwarf catfish" which is the American brown bullhead. It is a fine eating fish in its native North American waters - kind of like a KFC chicken leg that swims - but in Hungary it is a thumb sized pest with sharp spikey fins that clogs waters and is mainly boiled into a fishy sludge as a base for a fish soup. I'll pass.

Sole, also known as "better flounder"

As a general rule, Hungarians do not like ocean fish. Compared to the more familiar freshwater carp the meat of sea fish seems hard and dry and lacks the sharp Y-shaped carp bones that Hungarians have grown to love in their fishermen's soup (prepared in a stock of spicy paprika and pulverized bullhead sludge.) When Hungarians do eat oceanic fish it is usually in the form of hekk - frozen whole Norwegian hake served as a snack fried at  beaches and riverside snack bars.

Hekk

Hekk isn't the worst thing: it originates in an ocean, albeit one far, far away. It is usually served at snack bars at beaches located on lakes because in Hungary it naturally occurs frozen and then battered and deep fried and served next to soggy French fries with a pickle. It is a boney fish, but mainly it has one huge mega-bone running all along its body so you don't have much to fear. That's basically the non-carp repertoire of Hungarian seafood dishes. But hekk does satisfy an urge for  beach resort fish and chips if you are drunk and don't want ice cream for lunch.  

The sole object of our affections.

Recently some ocean fish, primarily the Mediterranean Sea Bream (dorado) and Sea Bass (branzino) have become widely available in some local supermarket chains. Hungarians are familiar with these fish due to the popularity of the Croatian coast - particularly the city of Zadar - as a magnet for Magyar holiday goers every summer. Needless to say, no fishermen are involved, since these two species are both artificially spawned in aquaculture farms. Which is to say they are cheap. The problem is that they are never really fresh. They are refrigerated, for sure, but only in the same sense that Ötzi the Ice Man was kept fresh atop an Alpine glacier. Looking at the eyes of a fish  - or of a frozen ice age hunter - should usually tell if they are fresh or not. 

Shrimp and Asparagus risotto. 

I know fresh fish. I was raised in New York, and lived many years in Boston, so I have always expected my fish to be fresh and - ahem - from an ocean. I often traipse down to the water to catch and kill them myself. (But not trout or grayling.) My wife is from Tokyo and knows fish better than me, and in fact she believes all the fish in the entire planet personally belong to her. And yet we choose to live in a landlocked nation where people eat carp bones and bullhead sludge. So yes, when a new fishmonger appeared at the market across the street from us we did react like Evangelicals meeting Jesus in the parking lot of  a suburban Walmart. We crapped our pants. We were happy. For a few months... 

"Say Beef, why so sad? Because CARP IS BACK AGAIN!"

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold / Mere Anarchy is loosed upon the world." William Butler Yeats really knew how to describe the feeling when you walk into a market hall on a Thursday morning expecting to find you fish seller and he is not there. We did what any fish eating cosmopolitan covid stranded in a landlocked country would do: panic. We asked the neighboring vegetable seller if she had any news of the phantom fishmonger. "He's gone. Don't expect him back." NO! No! No! This would not do... I searched out the market manager and got a cagey "The fish seller? He's on vacation... for a while..." We are devastated. Our world has collapsed. I spent the last week in virtual vegetarian penance praying for the return of fresh fish at our market. We have our fingers crossed, though. Come back, fish guy... come back!


As you can guess, I haven't updated the blog in a half a year, and I needed an excuse to post all these pictures of delicious fish. As soon as we get vaxxed and get our vaccine passports and things seems safe enough to get out and around more, I will start updating more frequently. But the sad truth is... not a heck of a lot is happening around here lately, at least in our balliwick.