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!