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. 


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...