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.