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Hungarian Transitions

(post, Jon Clark)


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First a little geography: Hungary is located in central Europe and is surrounded by 7 different countries, one of which being Austria which was the seat of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Austria and Hungary also have something else in common: the Mangalica pig, which I’ll talk about later. Hungary acts a little bit like a bridge between eastern Europe and western Europe. A lot of the cultural ties lean to the west, and many Hungarians consider their country to be either western or central European. References to the east are often not well received. The country is completely landlocked, but boasts one of the biggest lakes and network of thermal water sources in Europe.

The culture is as diverse and complicated as its history. Without going into too much detail, the wake of the Treaty of Trianon is still felt in daily life here. I could also add that the losses of every major conflict since the Battle of Mohács in 1526 have resulted in an interesting sort of pessimism, but I digress. The point being that the country of Hungary, while being 98% Hungarian, boasts cultural areas well outside its current borders. One of the most famous regions is Transylvania (in Hungarian, "Erdély") in Romania. The Transylvanian region alone, which I had the pleasure of touring the northern half of last fall, was not even historically considered exclusively Hungarian but very diverse and the birthplace of many staunch food traditions within the current political borders. 

Even inside the current borders there are many different areas of Hungary that hold different traditions, recipes, and variations because of locale. For example Szeged is situated on the river Tisza, which provides fish and ideal weather conditions for processing pork. Over 100 years ago the Pick company began processing pigs into salami, sausages, and lard. Of course their new state-of-the-art facilities don’t depend on the outside humidity and temperature, but they have remained in their original city providing Hungarians and the world quality pork since 1869.  Fish from the Tisza played an integral role in the creation of Szeged's famous fish soup. Different regions grow more fruit or special crops, others depend on mountains or the Great Hungarian Plain for their food and shelter. Every nook and cranny of this country, whether it be city, town, or village, hides little secrets waiting to be discovered by the curious.

After moving here and getting my kitchen, I quickly set out to learn as much food vocabulary as possible, which put me face to face with the culture and the language. Many times this approach has left me very confused, though ultimately (after a bit of head scratching) it has been every enlightening. One such case was translating kömény: it means "caraway," but it also means "cumin." After looking it up in English to Hungarian AND Hungarian to English dictionaries, I was left stumped because the English would say "cumin," but then I’d look up the Hungarian and find "caraway." Through a bit of research I found this particular translation problem to not belong to just Hungary but northern European countries. The reason for this is as follows: caraway grows very well in the north in countries, such as Germany, who use the spice, while cumin grows better and is used in southern countries, like Spain or northern Africa and the Middle East. When the spices crossed paths on trade routes cooks in either region took the seed to look so similar to the one they had been using the two had become culturally confused. Despite the screaming differences in the flavor and size, the shape of the whole seeds won out and either region ended up with a very loose system calling the new spice an exotic variety of the old.

With these translation hurdles overcome, I've been free to roam the country and Hungarian cultural strongholds outside the borders for new food finds. One such example was when I was lucky enough to attend the Mangalica Festival in Budapest where I toured the assemblage of different vendors and soaked in the smells and tastes of different cuts of Mangalica meat like szalonna and kolbász, as well as cooked foods like stuffed cabbage. That was a great experience.

Living in Hungary has also given me the opportunity to experiment with ingredients that I normally wouldn’t use in Portland. Just today I bought a half-kilo of Mangalica zsir (lard) for 390 HUF: that’s comes out to $1.75 at today’s exchange rate. But before anyone gets too jealous, remember that I’m living on a Hungarian teacher’s salary. I consider prices like these as part of my comprehensive compensation package for teaching here. I’ve been experimenting with anything and everything pickled: from the usual pickles and onions to baby watermelons.  I recently started using semolina to make a Hungarian version of cream of wheat (in Hungarian, "tejbegríz") and I have very much enjoyed using the most beautiful market eggs with the darkest yolks I’ve ever seen to make anything from fresh mayonnaise to omelets. 

I’ve experienced my share of culture shock as well. There is no corn syrup and few other corn products. There are no Uwajimaya or Fubonn markets - Oh! How I pine for herbs like cilantro, soups like pho, or dishes like curry! I’ve experienced a surprising lack of cheese in grocery stores, which I’ve learned can be solved by going to dairy farmers.  For a while all I could find was trappista sajt ("trapper’s cheese"), which is the most common variety found in Hungarian stores.  I personally find it disgusting and tasteless. As you can imagine, I was very happy to find a Dutch cheese store in Szeged that sold Gouda, Swiss, brie, cheddar, and Parmesan cheeses! 

I only eat out about once a month.  Right now it’s too expensive for more frequent restaurant exploration, though if/when I have more money I’d love to conduct more research. There is an absolutely wonderful restaurant in Kalocsa, though. The town is about 120 kilometers west from Szeged, not far from the Danube River.  If you ever find yourself in the area, this place is near the bus station at the intersection of the main street of town. It’s called Vincenzo Étterem, after the chef who is the most delightful host and who will spend the entire evening (sometimes until well after the restaurant is closed) chatting  with you in a seamless mosaic of German, Hungarian, and English while simultaneously changing out his vast record collection (anything from jazz to traditional Hungarian) AND pouring shots of Pálinka. Pálinka, by the way, is the national drink. It's an eau de vie, usually made from fruit such as peaches, apples, apricots, plums or pears, but can also be made from spices such as caraway or from pomace.

It’s certainly been an adventure so far, and there's so much more to come. I’m always working on new recipes and seeking out the newest foods. In the meantime, I’ll continue to shop at the farmer’s markets and the local butchers and see what I can dig up. Jó étvágyat!