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.