Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Maramureș: "A Sausage Every Day!"

In July I was up in Maramureș, the northern region of Romania which has become my second home-away-from-home-away-from-home over the last twenty five years or so. When I first began visiting Maramureș, it was one of the least developed regions of Romania. This was partly due to Ceaucescu's suspicion that Romania would have to sacrifice this slice of Transylvania if there was ever a Soviet invasion (Ceaucescu was paranoid, but in hindsight, not that paranoid.) Accordingly, Maramures was left a backwater region during communism, with no industrial developement beyond forestry and mining. As a result the peasant culture of Maramureș was able to maintain a sense of cultural continuity that was beaten out of most of East European peasants in the late twentieth century. 

The Moroșeni, as people of Maramureș are known, are famous for hard work. The mountain land is unforgiving, and it takes twice as much work to produce a crop of potatoes than it does in the lowlands.  Traditionally Moroșan men would travel to do farmwork or construction in order to send money home. Today that tradition continues with adults leaving to work in Italy, France, or England and returning in August for a family reunion. And they return with their earnings - western earnings - which they invest in weddings, home contruction, fine new embroidered folk costumes to wear to weddings and dances, and a growing investment in village status. It also means that during the year the children stay at home to be raised by their grandparents, which means that the traditional skills and values of the village are passed on and continued. 
Dancing in front of the church... these guys all work construction in Manchester...
In August there are often four or five weddings going on in any village on any weekend day, complete with processions marching through the streets and house receptions where guests are greeted with music, food, and a glass of plum brandy horinca at the gateway. We usually stay in Ieud, a large village in the eastern Iza valley that was described by anthropologist Gail Kligman in her monograph The Wedding of the Dead. (google books link here.) 
Ion de la Cruce,
When we are there in August, we often get impromptu invites to weddding receptions, which means fiddle music, stuffed cabbage, and serial shots of plum brandy at 11 in the morning. The ceremonies involved receptions at the homes of various inlaws (cake, brandy shots, fiddle music) marching aroiund in the streets to and from churches and inlaws (cakes, brandy shots, fiddle music) and finally, at night, buses to transport the whole party to one of the new Wedding Halls - huge, kitsch modern catering halls with garish lights, pink tablecloths, and monstrous sound systems blaring... fiddle music.

We met Nița Dancuș, our host and good friend, back in 2001 when we went to Ieud to sepnd a few months immersing ourselves in the local dialect of Romanian language while I spent time with the late Gheorghe Ioannei Covaci, the eldest of a dynasty of fiddlers who, at the time, had a large repertoire of Jewish melodies learned in the 1940s from playing with members of the Shloimovici family of Klezmer musicians from thre neighboring village of Rozavlea. 

Nița is an encyclopdia of Iza Valley folklore, history, recipes and jokes. She is from one of the most high status families - the Iza valley had a strata of "noble" peasants during Austro-Hungarian rule - and was an activist on behalf of her beleagered Greco Catholic Orthodox Church during the Ceaucescu years. She is also a great cook, and her sarmale (stuffed cabbage) may well be the world's best. Her goat soup isn't bad either, and I particularly like her stuffed peppers.
The stuffed pepper that defines stuffed pepper.

Back in 2001, I wanted to record Gheorghe Ioannei and his family for a Cd to release to my friend's label in Germany, a mix of their local and Jewish repertoire. I backpacked into Ieud in the winter - transportation was bit more difficult back then, involving a freight train from Cluj to a lumber station on a mountain above a village and then hitchhiking and walking to get to Ieud, hauling a huge Marantz professional recorder and microphones stufffed into my backpack. My spine has never forgiven me. Ghorghe lived in a one room log house on the "gypsy" street along the river in Ieud, and he continued working as farm labor into his late 80s. He once told me about his time as a Hungarian Army POW in an American Prisoner camp in Germany after WWII. "It was wonderful... We ate so well!  They gave us a sausage every day! Imagine that! A sausage every day!" The imagined title of the CD I had hoped to produce was, of course "A Sausage Every Day!"
Gheorghe Ionnei Covaci and wife.

I arrrived just in time to find Gheorghe's son and designated accordion player Ion, sick with an abscess that looked an eggplant growing out the side of his cheek. I paid for the transport and doctor bills and we sent Ion off to the hostpital in Sighet, followed in true Romani style by his entire family - the family band I had hoped to record. I was left alone with the old man. Hoping to salvage the recording, I still went ot visit him every day, but he insisted his wife accompany him on guitar. Mrs. Covaci was not a great guitarist... A lot of older Maramureș fiddlers heard on field recordings are accompanied on guitar  by a single chord rythymically droning on behind them without any chord changes... this is a clue that the guitarist is, in fact, the wife of the fiddler. Instead of hiring a guitar player (usually a brother or neighbor) the fiddler saves money... and so... we never released a CD of one of the most amazing fiddlers ever to pick up a bow in Romania.
Nicolae Covaci from Dragomiresti, MM.
Gheorghe Ionnei Covaci passed away at the age of 88 almost two decades ago, but since then I have been tracking down his brothers, all of whom are fiddlers, to record more of this older repertoire of Maramureș fiddle music., along with other older generation fiddlers, most of whom had never been recorded for commercial or even folkloric purposes before. Gheorghe's brother Nicolae and Viktor lived in the neighboring village of Dragomirești, and for the next few years I visited them regularly until Nicolare passed on some years ago... Nicolae was as poor as a proverbial churchmouse, but he lived next door to his daughter and her husband who worked as a miner. We always make sure to pay village fiddlers for sessions - they are professional musicians, after all - and we always bring a shopping bag for the fiddler's wife: coffee, chocolates, salami, cooking oil, juice, cigarettes, and violin strings. (Cash gifts you pay directly to the primás lead fiddler.) Seeing the treasures we gave the old couple, Nicolae's neighbor was convinced we were making millions of dollars from our recordings of the old man. There is nothing quite like a drunken Romanian miner screaming at you while you adjust your microphones to start a day of field recording.

Most people identify Maramureș with the fiddle, guitar and drum sound that was made popular on Electrecord records by the Frații Petruș (Petruș brothers) in the 1960s. The success of those recordings caused Romanian State Radio to declare that all music from Mramureș would thenceforth be broadcast or recorded only as a fiddle and guitar style. This ignored and pushed out an older style of music that was predomonant in the Iza valley, music played with fiddle, three stringed kontra viola, and bass, the classic Transylvanian string trio ensemble. This was the style of orchestra heard up into the 1970s, and was the preferred style for playing Jewish music. This is a recording made by Romanian ethnomusicologists Ghisela Sulițeanu and Anca Ghircescu around 1970 of the left handed fiddler from Borșa, Gheorghe Covaci known as Stingaci ("Lefty") playing a set of Jewish wedding dances. (Yes... everybody is named Gheorghe Covaci... you get used to it.)

 This older style of Maramureș fiddle music has become increasingly rare as the older generation of fiddlers passes away and the slow, odd metered Transylvanian and Jewish repertoire was replaced by more popular local neo-folkloric music spread through popular recordings and video channels. At this point, there may be only one older fildder who remembers having played with Jewish musicians in Maramureș and maybe four who still keep up any of this repertoire. I once asked Ion Pop, the acknowledged curator of Maramures musical tradition, who was left playing the old style music if Maramureș. "You and me... maybe only you and me." that is not entirely true, but that's a blog post for another time.
The late Gheorghe Ioannu Covaci from Saliște, known as "Paganini"

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Transylvania: Mera World Music Festival

Mera is a village about 15 km west of Cluj (Kolozsvár in Hungarian) in the Kalotaszeg region of Transylvania. Mera - whose population is almost entirely Hungarian speaking - is famous in folk music circles due to the role it played in the revival of Transylvanian Hungarian folk music and dance in the 1970s Hungarian Dance House music movement (táncházmozgalom) Young Hungarians from Budapest seeking to learn Transylvanian traditional fiddle style and dance gravitated to Mera, which famous for its Gypsy musicians, the Berki family, also known as the "Árus" family. "Old Árus" died in 1975 and his son, Ferenc, moved from playing bass in the family band to playing lead fiddle as "primás" He was also considered the best dancer in the region and during the early years of the dance house revival dancers flocked to him to pick up tips on his amazing rendition of the verbunk, the men's  virtuoso dance of the Kalotaszeg.

In 1970 National Geographic published a photo book called "Gypsies: Wanderers of the World" by photographer Bruce Dale. Dale accompanied British Romany Clifford Lee on a journey from England to India, producing some of the most striking photos of Roma people I have ever seen. I was around 14 years old when I stumbled across it in the school library and was entranced by one photo of a couple dancing to an older fiddler on a hillside in a village named "Mera." 

Clifford Lee dancing with Rozineni and Feribacsi in Mera, 1969.

That photo told me that someplace out there in the world (i.e., not in Teaneck, New Jersey) there were communities of people for whom traditional music and dance were a vital part of life, a life I needed to know more about. Around that time I first began to play the fiddle. In  Budapest in1973 my Uncle Jozsi bought me a Czech violin for the equivalent of $14 and a boxed set of Hungarian folk music from field recordings. I spent the next fifteen years becoming a fiddler of sorts: I mostly played Appalachian and old-time American fiddle, but driving me all the while was a passion for the thick, ancient sounds of the Transylvanian fiddle music I had heard from that boxed set. In the pre-internet world Transylvanian music was not easy to come by in the USA. I found mine from LPs in Hungarian language bookstores and in the archives of the NY Public library research division. It was this music that drew me when I moved to Budapest in 1988, and it was in October of that year that I first got to travel to Mera, After Ceaucescu fell in 1989 the musicians from Mera were allowed to travel to Budapest, and I began a deep  friendship with Berki 'Árus' Ferenc - Árus Feri - that lasted until his passing in 1996, which I have written about here. 

The Berki "Árus" brothers: Feri on violin, Béla on accordion. Mera 1994

In Mera I basically apprenticed with Feri, who was 30 years my senior, but I never mastered the full virtuosic Kalotaszeg style. When I began looking for specifically Jewish music repertoire, Feri accompanied me to visit all the older fiddlers around Cluj who had played weddings with his father - "Old Árus" - before World War II. Mostly I hung with the family and learned to speak their local dialect of Romany. And it dawned on me for the first time: Feri and his wife, Rozinéni were the couple dancing with Clifford Lee in that 1969 photograph taken by Bruce Dale

With Bruce Dale, Mera, 2022

That made this summer's Mera World Music Festival even more interesting: Bruce Dale was invited to exhibit his photos in the village during the festival. (Dale has been revisiting communities that he had photographed in 1969 and connecting with some of the people he met fifty years ago.) I was there to play Jewish music with Craig Judelman's Klezmer Kapelye, the band I had played with in Germany in June. Its an interesting concept: Craig sings a lot of Hasidic material and rare Litvak Yiddish songs, but the band uses a classic old lautar rhythm section, with the cobza (me) standing in for the bass alongside cimbalom, played by Shaun Williams - the American ethnomusicologist widely known in Bucharest music circles as the lautar accordionist Jean Americanu. 

Zoe, me, and Shaun onstage with Judelman's Klezmer Kapelye

Craig shared fiddle duties with Zoe Aqua, who by now counts as a local Transylvanian musician. Zoe has been doing a Fullbright research fellowship in Cluj studying the ways in which Transylvanian music is passed onto younger generations, and she has been learning from some of the old and not so old masters like Ioan "Nuku" Harlet and Florin Kodoban. 

Zoe also just released her own CD, "In Vald Arayn" in which she mixes what she has learned about Transylvanian band playing styles with old style traditional Klezmer and comes out with something amazingly new. It officially came out just as we were driving around in Transylvania so we had it on the car stereo all the way to Mera. While we were in Mera I checked in with some of my old acquaintances from the Berki family. 

Berki Jeno and Árpi, 1999 [Photo: Fumie Suzuki]

Feribacsi's grandson Árpi was the apple of his eye: Árpi's mom had left to work in Hungary, basically abandoning him as a child and he was raised by his Grandparents. Feri had hoped Árpi would take command of the Mera band, but between the stiff competition among fiddlers and Árpi's need to work as a shepherd in the high pasture stana outside of the village, combined with a passion for women, partying and shitty tattoos...  his musical talent was never quite tamed. 

Back in the summer of 1999 I bought an old fiddle at the Cluj flea market and gave it to Árpi in hopes that he had the stuff to become a primas.  Unfortunately, Árpád, known as Pipi - never rose to the level of leading the village band, and suffered from a series of misfortunes in his life, the most recent of which was a pit bull terrier attack this summer that chewed up his leg and his butt so bad he nearly died.

Every time I meet Pipi my heart breaks - I remind him of his Grandfather and he starts tearing up and turns to me for advice he never takes on how to get his life in order. One of the reasons I stopped visiting Mera after Feribácsi passed away was the simple fact that even as a quasi-adoptive family member, there were expectations that I could preform economic miracles. While Rozinéni was alive we tried to take good care of her - taking her to doctor visits in Cluj, trying to get her eyes fixed, helping out with the bills. 

Rozinéni singing in 1999. (Foto: Fumie Suzuki)

But after she passed I didn't return to Mera for nearly 20 years. Until the Mera World Music festival called.  It is an impressive event. Held in a former barn turned into a stage, it features not only local traditional music but also a wide spectrum of names on the world music circuit - I had to miss  a few on the final day of the festival, including Craig's Old Time American band Interstate Express and the Ghanaian Alostmen, featuring the half Romanian half Ghanaian Wanlov the Kubelor. And I missed the set by Erdofu, by far my favorite Hungarian traditional band right now. And my legs are no longer quite enough to get me up the mountain to the cemetery where Erdőfú plays a memorial set to honor the memory of the great Árus musicians at their burial site. A wooden "kopjafa" memorial marker (top photo) was erected this year, but three years ago I did get the chance to haul up to the cemetery to pay my respects to Árus Feri and Rozinéni while at the festival. Erdőfú and the local musicians of Mera:  Berki Béla on accordion, his son Béla on kontra, "Kis Netti Sányi" on violin) did the honors.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Hurka: The Tastiest Turd in Hungary

Blood and guts and oh so good!

East Europe doesn't offer a lot in the way of extrémé foods. We don't eat bugs, we don't find grubs and worms very tasty, and we do not to eat anything alive. This makes us a bit boring for the TV food travel shows - like Tony Bourdain's No Reservations - which tend to dwell on the portion sizes (case in point: the Pleh Csarda) and the exciting blood and gore of a countryside pig killing feast. But there is one food most visitors to Hungary and its neighbors will probably miss out on: hurka. Hurka is the dark underside of Hungarian sausage. Hurka is the lunch which dare not speak its name. Hurka haunts the nightmares of small children and vegans. Hurka is neither a polite nor a dainty food. Hurka is a culinary afterthought stuffed into a pig's ass. Unless you are invited to a pig killing feast, you are not likely to taste hurka outside of a butcher shop lunch counter. No restaurant offers it - none - and most home cooks avoid it due to its tendency to explode while cooking, splattering grease and guts around the kitchen and reacting exactly like a garden slug that has just been sprinkled in salt. Hurka is a problem food. Also, it tastes really good. 

Blood sausage and liver sausage, in action.

Hurka is a kind of sausage made out of spiced ground pork liver or blood mixed with rice as a filler. Hurka is not really that strange except for one thing: it really looks like pooh. This is a point not lost on Hungarians, for whom the term hurka is a polite alternative term for "turd". Hurka was the first food I discovered that could also be used as a psychological weapon against my sister. When I was growing up in New York my Mom used to take us down to the -now vanished - Hungarian neighborhood in Yorkville, on Manhattan's upper east side, to stock up on essentials like poppy seeds and paprika at the famous Paprikas Weiss Hungarian delicatessen on 2nd Avenue. 

The next stop stop was at the aptly named "Valodi Magyar Hentes" butcher shop to pick up some kolbász and hurka and the wonderous thing sold there which was actual Magyar bread. The bread was unlike anything available in the USA in the 20th century... which is to say it was real bread. At home my Mom would cook up a family favorite - lecsós kolbász -  and a couple of hurkas on the side. Nobody except me and my Mom would eat the hurka. It elicited groans and cries of "ewwwww gross!" from my brother and sister, who couldn't bring themselves to taste the turdlike mix of organs and blood. The mere idea of eating a tube of congealed blood and ground pig weenie was enough to send my sister running from the table. (Update: she has since become a respected and world renowned Oncologist.) You know the saying "don't ask how the sausage is made"?  The stuff they don't use to make the sausage is what goes into the hurka

Hurka, fried liver, ribs at Brunch at Ica Mama Meatshop

You may ask yourself "Why were these otherwise traditional Yiddish speaking New York Jews happily eating pig privates ground with pig blood in casing made of pig intestines?" Simple: my mom was born in Hungary, and we are not orthodox Jewish, kosher, or otherwise bound for glory on tkies hameysin when the souls fly up to find their reward in heaven. When I was nine my Dad took me to City Island in the Bronx to introduce me to eating live clams on the half shell, which is about as unkosher as anything you can put in your mouth except maybe for rabbit. It was a rite of manhood, but also a guarantee that I would not adopt the ritualized eating disorders of my more observant mates... I mean, dude, you ate a living clam, for pete's sake! As for my Mom... Hungarian Jews split into orthodox and Neolog (reform) a long time before that was an issue with the rest of East European Jews, and part of the social assimilation of Hungarian Jews was the acceptance that virtually everything ever eaten in Hungary is made out of a pig. Pushing boundaries is just what we do. The origin of the Neolog movement in Hungary started in 1798 when Rabbi Aaron Chorin chose to make a foodie argument about whether or not sturgeon was a kosher fish. Today many Orthodox Jews won't eat sturgeon, yet it features in the less rigid Jewish tradition of the New York smoked fish "appetizing" shops like Barney Greengrass and Russ and Daughters. 

Poland: Kiszka or kaszanka at a restaurant in Krakow

You can go into virtually any Budapest hentesbolt - a butcher shop serving hot foods - and there will almost always be a steaming tray of grey liver majás hurka or black veres blood hurka. Most are made from ground mystery meats mixed with rice, but you may see some labeled "Svab hurka". For some reason, the German speaking Schwabians of Hungary - most of whom were deported to Stuttgart after WWII - preferred to mix their mystery meat with bread crumbs. Those crafty Svabs... what will they do next? Either way, most commercially made hurka is insipid, oversalted, and usually dried out by the time it gets served. Never buy hurka from a supermarket meat refrigerator. Most of the hurka available today is made in factories, and is a rather banal and usually too dry and salty ghost of what a good guts'n'organs'n'blood sausage should be. Worst of all they are often kept warm under infared lamps which dries them out into a sandy, dry, unpalatable bit of pooh in stick form. 

The butcher at Klauzal Piac. Hurka on the lower left...

The search for a good, locally made artisanal hurka is never ending. The best was once found at the lunch stand run by an old guy named Palibacsi who made his own organic meats on a farm north of Budapest and for a couple of years his lunch counter at the Klauzal market was easily the best place to experience Hungarian food in Budapest besides the also now defunct Kadar Etkezde, located four doors down from the market. Today, seek out private butcher shops and look for misshapen, odd looking, and juicy hurkas that defy commercial sizing and try your luck. Hurka and other meat products sold by peasant stands at big markets or smaller farmers markets like the one at the Sunday Szimpla Piac or the Czako kert are a good bet. The lady who brings homemade bacon and smoked meats to the Klauzal market on weekends has good hurka, but it sells out fast. At home you can bake them in an oven (in a tray with a bit of water) or fry them at low heat in a pan, but either way they tend to explode while cooking. If you have the time, try soaking them in water for an hour or two before cooking: it helps the skin resist exploding.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Germany: It Gets Würst...

June found us traveling around the Berlin vortex of the European Klezmer music world, a world in which Jewish traditional music comes in contact with two of my favorite things: Turkish food and Würst. Berlin has two iconic street foods: the Berlin doner kebab and the curry wurst. I managed to not eat either of them. I have eaten curry wurst, many curry wursts... and I don't like curry wurst, which is basically a wurst with ketchup and curry powder or some hausgemakht version of the same. I like my bratwursts clean, hot, and straight off the grill. 

Bratwurst, Leipzig, Mozart ate these.

I especially do not enjoy the post WWII east German invention of the "ohne darm" skinless bratwurst such as those served by the famous Konnopke's Imbiss in Prenslauerberg. One stop up the Ubahn at Schönhauser Allee is the nostalgic East German Alain Snack kiosk, which provided the classic bratwurst and mustard seen above. It was so good I tried to get a bockwurst (more like a fat Katz's Deli frankfurter that went to heaven) in a bun with mustard but the chef objected to the mere thought: the Ketwurst was designed by the East German State Gastronomical Research Center to provide the communist workers of Berlin with a convenient snack. 

The stupidest food I have ever posted.

A Ketwurst is basically a hot dog (in this case a pretty darn good bockwurst) stuck in a bun heated on a toaster spike which has been filled with "special sauce" (i.e., ketchup.) It is an unmistakably East Berlin nostalgia flavor and it is an incredibly stupid food in a country known for incredibly stupid food. East Germans didn't simply melt into a post 1990 German" identity: a lot of them cling fiercely to the small things that once defined them as Ossies... like Ketwurst! 

Bockwurst is the one item I always bring home with me after visiting Berlin. For some odd reason, Hungarians - who love German sausages - do not produce anything nearly as good. Only the Czech and Slovak supermarket parky rivals the Hungarian virsli for lowest place on the frankfurter quality index (as defined by snap of skin, texture of mystery meat filling, and rate at which it dries out into a wrinkled turd in your fridge.) So all available space in my home bound luggage is filled with bockwurst. Did I mention that Berlin is probably also the most vegan -friendly city in Europe? Yes, it indeed is. As if I could give a shit.

The other thing I bring home is mustard. The mustard available in Hungary does almost nothing beyond stain your white T-shirt yellow. Somehow people in Eastern Europe fucked up mustard. I don't know how, they just did. So I bring it back from my trips to Germany, in particular the Dusseldorf brand Lowensenf, which beats any French Dijon mustard for making sauces or just dipping hot dogs into. We picked up a bit of the Bautz'ner brand, which we tried in Leipzig, and while in Erfurt we picked up some of their local "Born" brand, which is good but definately a classic "Ostbloc" mustard. Erfurt has a beautiful old town that seems to go a bit overboard about their mustard industry. There is a Mustard Museum downtown, and I was even given a gift bottle of "Born Mustard Brandy". It was truly vile, but it is the thought that counts. 

Berlin is easily the city where a visitor can spend less and eat better than almost any other European capitol. There are other things to eat in Berlin besides Turkish food and sausage, but trust me: they suck. I don't use the term "suck" to simply indicate lesser quality... I mean "Whoa! That sucks!" Most of the nicer places specialize in what we ex-kitchen staff know as "pretentious tweezer food". Another problem is that Germans can not eat spicy food. That is not a stereotype." If a German unexpectedly encounters a blast of hot pepper they can - and sometimes do - sue the restaurant. So the smart chef dumbs everything down: watery stocks pass as pho, bland plates of noodles with peanuts sprinkled on top are labeled "pad thai" alongside menu categories identified as "Asia Wok" and of course, "China Box".  There are hundreds of these "pan-asian" monstrosities all over Germany. The late Ed Ward - one of the best American expat writers ever to set foot in Europe took umbrage at the easy racism that powers this perception that all "Asian" food is the same  It's undeniable, though, that this sort of racism -- Orientalism, to give it its proper name -- is acceptable here. There's a snack food that comes in "Thailandische süss-scharf" (sweet-hot) flavor, and features a "Thai" on the package wearing a coolie hat, slanty eyes, a pigtail, and those kind of Japanese wooden shoes with the two platforms, the kind that geishas wear. It's an offensive stereotype, but it isn't even a remotely accurate offensive stererotype.


On the other hand, Berlin has glorious Turkish food. Most of the Turks living in Germany today have Anatolian roots, and also something very few people in Anatolia have: a decent income. And it shows in the restaurants in neighborhoods like Wedding. Wedding has the lowest income level and the highest percentage of foreign born residents in all of Berlin. That may sound like something out of a Viktor Orban fever dream, but it is one of the more pleasant parts of Berlin, especially if you have an appetite. We randomly chose Köyluoglu Turkish Restaurant in Wedding and it was one of the best restaurant meals we've had in years. I was converted to köfte (roughly: meatwads) years ago in Istanbul: Fumie always goes for Adana kebab. Either way, nobody understands ground meat better than a Turkish kitchen. I have spent decades trying to make a decent Turkish style köfte in my home, and only recently had any success in producing something that does not resemble a small dried hamburger. Good köfte  proves the rule that simplicity can be deceiving. Köfte is rapidly replacing doner as the King of Turkish street meat on Berlin's streets. 

Köfte sandwich at Gel Gö

Later, after rehearsing in Neukölln, I had late lunch at Gel Gör, a grill famous for its inegol köfte and that stays open all night long and is famous for impromptu street dancing at 4 AM on weekends. This rates as the best sandwich of the year so far, considering that I have not been able to visit Katz' Deli this year.  And just down Kottbusser Damm on the next corner was La Femme, specializing in Turkish breakfast. There is a saying in Turkish (I am not making this up) that "lunch is for your friends, dinner is for your family, but breakfast is just for you." Omelets, cheese and olive plates, perfect for wasting a morning outside with your friends. I even ordered a breakfast to go on a travel day, only to offer it in sacrifice it to our unfed cimbalom player who was driving us to our next gig. 

Su burek: think non-tomato lasagna for breakfast. 

On the upside, the music - with Craig Judelman's Klezmer Kompanye - was great. With Craig and Zoe Aqua on fiddle, Shaun Williams on accordion and cimbalom, and Dasha Fomina on flute. We played the Panda Platform in P-berg, Berlin, and it was like a homecoming for all kinds of Yiddish friends and klezmerei... Michael Wex, Shane Baker, Tamas Wormser were all in the house. The road always leads home.

Friday, May 27, 2022

Hungary: It Could be Wurst...

Lunch at Pinczi Hús és Hentesüzlet
I've been back in Greater Magyaristan for several months without any updates to the blog. There are good reasons for this. Putin's insane war in Ukraine and the Hungarian election essentially rendered me mute with rage for two months. You wouldn't like me when I am mute with rage. Also, my wife went to visit her family in Japan. This meant that I would awake in the morning to find that I was somehow transformed into some kind of unsanitary zoo animal whose keeper had forgotten to clean his cage and give him his proper feed. ("Hey... this isn't mine... this tastes like... PENGUIN FOOD!") But it also meant that I could pretty much eat whatever I wanted for two months without guilt or portion control. (Or residual religous conviction. Seriously.)  Yes, I am talking about pigs. I ate a lot of pigs.

Szafalade: Tubular Baloney of the Titans

Regardless of Hungary's historical and contemporary shortcomings one thing they do well is cook pig meat. While it is easy to imagine that the Magyars eat more pork than anybody else in Europe, they don't - Spain and Austria lead the pack for treyf hounds. But the plucky Hungarians make up for it in ease of availability. Sausages are available for snacking within a five minute walk of almost anywhere you might find yourself in Budapest... but you have to know where to find them. We don't have wurst stands like you would find in Austria or Germany, nor do restauarants serve the humble kolbász (as many foreign born Hungarians are shocked to find when visiting the motherland for the first time and find that their favorite national delicacy is not on the menu. Ever.) This isn't tourist food on sale at the faux-street-food stands downtown. For cooked sausages you have to visit... a butcher shop.

Interior of Pinczi Hús és Hentesüzlet accross from Nyugati pu. train station

Hungarians often eat lunch at a butcher shop. Considering all the changes in Hungarian life over the last fifty years, a simple, cheap kolbász and a slice of bread at a standup table next to the meat counter is one of those constants that define "comfort food." There are no trendy sausage stands, although some have tried. And failed. The food is predictably good - like pizza in New York, there is no bad kolbász.

Unnaturally patient Hungarians waiting to order lunch
Many, but not all, butcher shops double as lunch counters. There is usually a vat of greasy hot water with an armada of meat tubes floating around in it, and a shelf of roasted meats gradually dessicating beneath heat lamps. A hand written chalk board announces the theroretically available offerings (half of which will always be sold out) and the price per 10 dekagrams. You order by weight: 20 dekas of sausage or smoked meat is a modest lunch, 30 dekas is what a small Hungarian would order. 

The butcher shop at Bosznyak ter bus stop in Zuglo.

Larger Hungarians  - there are many - often order shocking huge piles of sausages, cuts of smoked pork, three or four pickles, and maybe some roasted potatos crowded onto a plastic cafeteria tray, to be taken to one of the stand up tables lining the walls of the shop and eaten - preferably with a single bladed pocket knife that nearly every Hungarian male proudly carries around just for such occasions, known as a szallonázás bicske (bacon snacking knife.) You have to specify how many slices of bread you want, what kind of pickle or salad,  mustard or horseradish, and bottled drinks are always self serve from a standing cooler.If you don't speak Hungarian just point and smile and shake your head when they give you too much meat.

The sausage tub

The king of the butcher shop dining experience is kolbász, the humble sausage. I suggest you go with debreceni - a paprika rich, dense and meaty sausage considered the King of the kolbász world. the Decreceni is one of Hungary's real gifts to the world. Forget the fountain pen, subway transport, heroin, illiberal democracy, or any other famous Hungarian invention. This chunky paprika laced pork weenie is, perhaps, Hungary's most lauded and beloved gift to the world.

Debreceni, virsli, roasted pork belly

Most shops offer plain főtt kolbász (boiled) and súlt kolbász (grilled) but time has not treated the kolbász family gently. After the fall of communism and the rampant price inflation that followed, meat became expensive and the iconically cheap kolbász gradually became... cheaper and insipid, the actual taste of poverty. Today most főző kolbász are simply tubes of orange colored protein. I used to love straight boiled főtt kolbász... but it is hard to find a good one anymore. The roasted and grilled ones which you often see for sale at outdoor tourist markets are always so salty (and I like salt!) and greasy that it is like somebody crossbred a shipping container of paprika with a small Arab Emirate. 

Beware the salty tourist kolbász!

There are always a few virsli hot dogs floating around in the hot tub, but you might see a big fat krinolin or a shorter stubby szafaládé wurst: go for the szafaládé. They are both basically baloney in an intestine skin, but it hits the spot at 11 in the morning when you haven't had breakfast. And of course, it is all mix and match here, so point at some of the unidentifiable meat wads on display and try your luck. It could be a chunk of smokey pork hock csülők, or maybe a chicken leg or fried chicken livers. We were just at the Pinczi Hentes and took a chance on a piece of mystery meat that turned out to be a delicious slice of braised pork belly with very little extra fat. This chunk of meat would cost you dearly if you were to meet it in a legitimate restaurant. Our whole lunch for two came to FT 1700. Not quite five dollars.

Mystery Meat Award of the Year
It is hard to reccomend a "best" butcher shop, but we took most of these photos at the legendary Pinczi Hús és Hentesüzlet, a butcher shop across the street from Nyugati train station at 60 Teréz krt. in Pest. I used to eat lunch here nearly every day when the old Budapest Week offices were located around the corner, and today they have summer tables on the street, shared - ironically - with the halal Turkish fast food joint next door. A lot of info can be gleaned (albeit in the Hungarian language) on the facebook page of the aptly named "Eating in Butcher Shops Facebook Appreciation Page

Pinczi Bucher Shop on Terez Krt. 
I could go on... I have not even touched on the topic of hurka... but I am hungry and writing this has inspired us to hop on the bikes and hit another butcher shop... so more later. It sure beats talking about illiberal democracy!

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Paterson NJ: Peruvian Chaufa. Fried Rice of the Gods.

Nobody goes on vacation in their home town. You go on vacation to get away from it all, to put your troubles behind you, to enjoy the sights and flavors of being far away from daily life. So maybe you can understand that I have spent the last few months in New York without actually visiting New York. I'm a New Yorker, Bronx born and bred, and this is not a vacation. I'm in New Jersey. Nobody in New Jersey is on vacation.

This a not a vacation view.
New York City is four miles away from us in New Jersey but we have yet to cross the bridge. This is because we are staying with my Dad, who is a few years short of a century. And we don't want him (or us) exposed to Mr. Covid, so we have been avoiding the city like, well, "the plague." We arrived on the crest of the Omicron wave in December, so no crowded subways for us, no Christmas shopping crowds, no packed Chinese food courts on this trip. I don't, however, feel like we are missing very much. Manhattan has changed over the years into a playground for the very rich and very infected, and apart from a few neighborhoods like Chinatown and Washington Heights, there is little on the island to attract me beyond its museums. Gone are the bookstores, CD shops, weird musical instrument stores, replaced by Starbucks and office space and hot yoga studios. If you are looking for New York ethnic neighborhoods where you can find a decent meal for ten bucks, you have to head out to the boroughs or the suburbs. 

Pete and a lomo saltado the size of a Chevy station wagon. He finished it. 
So we did. We went to Paterson, New Jersey, with folklorist and klezmer cimbalom player Pete Rushevsky, who had never been to the fabled Silk city. Paterson is roughly fifteen minutes drive from my folk's home, and yet nobody I grew up with ever visited the place, and it maintains an air of mystery and menace among New Jerseyites roughly equivalent to the way Italians view northern Albania. 

Albania or the Passaic River? 
Paterson is the uncut urban gem of the New York area. It is one of my favorite places, also: Nobody visits there. It boasts the America's first industrialized city, complete with a waterfall in the middle of downtown, the second biggest east of the Mississippi behind Niagara Falls. The Falls impressed Alexander Hamilton so much he encouraged the growth of heavy Industry, eventually making Paterson the "Silk City" a center of the silk and textile trade which attracted the first Turkish and Syrian merchants to settle in the USA, and now South Paterson has the largest Turkish and Arab community in the New York area, and America's second largest Muslim community percentagewise. We visited the amazing Fatal Bakery - now a mega supermarket of Middle Eastern foods, and had some killer kunefe at a bakery on the corner of Crook's ave.

Kunefe: if baklava and cheesecake had a baby. 
Downtown Paterson is home to Little Lima, a large Peruvian community with the largest community of Quechua languge speakers in the USA. We had lunch at the Market Street Lena y Carbon to satisfy Fumie's need for a rotisserie chicken and fried rice, two things Peruvians have pefected to a science. Peruvian food is the ultimate Creole mix. Home to one of Latin America's larger Chinese emmigrant populations, Chinese food has become fully integrated into Peruvian cuisine, with the classic dish being "chaufa" fried rice (from Cantonese chow fan) The general term for Peruvian Chinese food is "Chifa" and you can find specialized Chifa joints all over the Paterson area, alongside regular Peruvian eateries all of which will serve chaufa fried rice, at the least.
Chaufa Mixto at Lena Y Carbon
While New Jersey has a lot of great ethnic food, Chinese food is not one of them. I have been dragged out to some of the most miserable Chinese restaurants in New Jersey (Tenafly? Englewood? Fort Lee? Teaneck? Just ask me and I will name names!) where my safe go-to is to order fried rice. I love fried rice. It is a simple, almost canonical Cantonese dish that comprised about 75% of the things I ate for lunch before I moved to Europe decades ago. Over the last few years, however, I have seen so many strange concoctions posing as "fried rice" that I have lost count. Weird tumeric yellow grainy stuff with kale bits, bowls of wet rice floating on salad, leftover rice doused with miso... all horrible art projects on the theme of fried rice by cooks with no idea of what fried rice is or should be. 

Pollo braso con chaufa
So when Fumie's order of chicken and fried rice chaufa arrived I almost fainted: it has literally been years since I saw a proper plate of fried rice in New Jersey. I ordered the mixed meat chaufa, and it arrived as a monstrously huge portion of perfect fried rice loaded with beef and chicken. My surprise is not so much that the Peruvian style of chaufa is so amazingly good... it is just fried rice, after all, but I am surprised at how amazingly bad the fried rice from the average NJ Chinese take-out has become. 

Lomo Salatado: Beef Lo Mein on Steroids
The portions at Lena y Carbon were huge... Pete finished off his Lomo Saltado with tallarin noodles - basically a beef lo mein on steroids - in a few seconds but we had to ask for boxes to take home the leftovers of our orders. We had also ordered a parihuela, a fish and seafood soup originating from the seaport of Callao that came stuffed with shrimp, fish fillets, mussels, and even a couple of crabs for good measure. This made the Tokyo half of our marriage very, very happy, but it was enough to serve a small family so it went home with us as well. Now we are obsessed with finding more Peruvian food before we return to Budapest, where it can safely be said, no Peruvian food can be found.