Vienna Postcard 7: Budapest

Language, Money, Food

By some miraculous linguistic convergence, the Hungarian farewell, Szia, and the American parting, "See ya" are not only homophonic, they are homonymic — they mean the same thing (More or less: Szia can also be used as a greeting, as can Hello. Hungarians say "hello" like Hawaiians say "aloha"). Imagine that the word for — I don’t know, dragster sounds & means the same thing in Korean, but for totally different reasons. It’s something like that.

Our language efforts have been weak so far. I know maybe two or three numbers & do a lot of pointing at the markets. Rebecca’s been better — she’s taking a language class. But, for the most part, we live in a little bubble of English the Hungarian world envelops. A disconcerting feeling, for the most part. How do people live in places for years without learning the language of that place? I think I would go slowly mad.

The Hungarian currency is the Forint. When we were here six years ago, I thought the paper money to be the most beautiful on earth: glorious colors printed on bills whose size increased according to their value – the largest bill was the size of a small beach towel – featuring the sublime visage of some poet or another. Since we’ve returned, the Forint has been represented on smaller bills featuring dyspeptic kings from the heroic Hungarian past. The currency has also been devalued steadily (in anticipation of its absorption into the EURO in another five years?). Right now, 250 Ft = 1 EURO; 200 Ft = $1. Pretty easy in terms of conversion: drop two zeros & divide by two. So, the 10,000 Ft note = $50. But there’s another conversion to consider, which is that for most Hungarians, the standard amount of exchange is 100 Ft (which is issued in a heavy coin). Its moral/financial equivalent, then, is that of $1. What this means, for us, is that everything is pretty cheap, even for the New Europe. Food is a lot cheaper, even clothes are cheaper. In Austria, everything cost more because of the soaring value of the EURO — & the already inflated cost of living. A pair of shoes cost 100 EUROs easy (so, like $125). In Budapest, even at the boutiques we’ve walked by, you hardly ever see a pair of shoes for more than 15,000 Ft, except at the fanciest places. This difference comes home strikingly with the cost of wine: a bottle of Hungarian wine hardly ever costs more than 2000Ft; most are priced around 400Ft. Two bucks! It’s cheaper than the water!

Well, not really. Budapest rests on a burbling thermal ocean. There are dozens of Baths (fürdö — but that last "o" has the slanted umlaut over it; pronounced "fooerderrr") around town, as there are hundreds throughout Hungary. Likewise, there are dozens of varieties of spring water to choose from, in a bewildering array of carbonation options. It’s delicious, needless to say. And very cheap (less than 100Ft for a iter).

Street food: Not as good as Vienna’s. Which is good, because my gut muscles could use a some relaxation. There’s plenty of good food to be had in Hungary — do not be mistaken. But, in general, the street food is neither as good nor as plentifully available. With a couple of important exceptions: the lángos (pronounced "langosh") & Turkish food (Török means Turk in Hungarian). The lángos is something inspired, not for the faint-hearted: a deep-fried (ideally in lard) frisbee of dough covered in sour cream (tejföl, my favorite word, so far, to pronounce; favorite name, just for the record, is Gyöngyi — for reasons I will explain in BPC 3) & cheese, then drizzled with a garlic-salt chrism of some sort. They are amazing. Like a savory elephant ear. You want to eat several as soon as you smell them frying. But one — heed me well, o traveler — is more than enough. The Turkish food is mainly to be gotten in the form of falafel & gyros, & you can find it everywhere. It’s incredibly cheap — which is the first test of all good street food — & always satisfying. Another advantage — for me: the vendors at these places all seem to know English well enough for me to blunder through an order…

One thing you find in abundance in the not-quite-street food category, however, are little cafeterias tucked away on tiny little streets, places only open for lunch where you eat whatever has been prepared that day. The food in these places is awesome, classic stuff: lots of potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, sour cream, sausages, rice, peas, cucumbers, schnitzels. A whole meal for the cost of pocketchange. At these places, you order then sit down at any available seat, with whomever happens to be at the table with you.

A brief note on paprika

The absolutely most clichéd thing to discuss when speaking of Hungarian food is to talk about the paprika (& then the salami). But clichés are borne out of collective truths. And both of these things are utterly amazing. So listen. Paprika — it’s paprika (pronounced "PAprikah") in Hungarian — is the pulver of dried red peppers. The pepper arrived in Hungary maybe four hundred years ago — a handful of seeds in the pockets of a Spanish sailor, but didn’t embed itself into the Hungarian imagination until the 18th & 19th centuries, thanks to the Turks. I would liken the cleaving of this vegetable’s nature to the soul of the Hungarian as nearly equivalent to what happened when the tomato made its way to the Boot (Robert Clark once described the introduction to a Neapolitan cookbook in which it was stated, without irony, that the introduction of the tomato to Italy was as significant to cooking as the French Revolution to social thought). You know, if you go to your local supermarket, you’ll have to shell out quite a lot of money for a small tin of "authentic" Hungarian paprika. Which you’ll sprinkle into a dish from time to time, to give it some "spice" (dusting the top of your humus, let’s say). And if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to get your paprika either "spicy" or "mild."

In the Szupermarket down the street, there is a whole section devoted to paprika (& this isn’t a tourist supermarket). First of all, the stuff is incredibly cheap & you can buy it in huge — compared to U.S. quantities — bags. But more significantly, the stuff is categorized in several different ways, creating multiplied possibilities of the paprika you’re buying, to be used in very specific circumstances. There is the place of origin to consider: some consider the paprika from Szeged to be the best; others that from Kalocza. Then there is the spiciness factor (Hungarian spiciness is considerably higher than what you get in U.S. stores; at its highest value on this scale, it’s pretty close to Cayenne pepper), which goes from édes (sweet) to csípös (piquant). And then, finally, there is the grade to consider: very fine, fine, coarse. Again, all to be put to very specific purposes.

The key to enjoying paprika is to use it properly. Our friend Gyöngyi instructed me its alchemical properties last summer. Many Hungarian dishes rely on a roux to form its base, the matrix out of which the flavors of a dish emerge. Typically, you want to start by frying some onions in lard or butter, until the onions
are translucent, soft & beginning to brown. At this point, you sprinkle the onions with enough flour to cover them. Mixing this all together while keeping the heat on, you want to integrate the fat with the flour until it begins to brown slightly, emitting a slightly nutty odor. And now, here’s the key. Remove the roux from the heat, let it cool just slightly, & then heap the paprika on generously — more than a tablespoon even. Mix this together until you get a saffron-crimson color. Everything should be kind of pebbled. And that’s it: your matrix. Now, you can make anything you’d like. If you were to make Csirke paprikás, you’d have started by browing seasoned chicken parts in the fat, at first, adding the onions after to fry, & then creating your matrix. From there, you’d add a little stock if you had it, but water would do if you didn’t — making sure that the liquid is warm. Add a little at a time, allowing the roux to expand into a sauce. A little more. A little more. And then add all the liquid (enough eventually to cover all the chicken pieces), returning the chicken parts to thicksome stew to braise for an hour or so. You can add some slices of pepper if you want, as well as maybe a sliced tomato. Serve on soft egg noodles or rice. Next to the application of the paprika, the most crucial step is one of the last — to ladle in several tablespoons f thick sour cream into the stew, both thickening it & giving it an irresistible tang, one perfectly married to the flavor of the paprika. Try it. You won’t be disappointed.

(What else?) Trains

Budapest’s public transportation system is divided among light-rail (the HEV trains), the subway (the Metro), streetcars, electric buses & buses (called busz). We’ve been using all aspects of the system so far. A monthly pass costs half the price of a Viennese pass, about $26.00. Unlike Vienna, you need to have a photo for such a pass in Budapest. I brought passport photos with me in order to get mine; the agent behind the window wouldn’t accept it. My hair was long when the photo was taken; she seemed to be gesturing that I was
unrecognizable in this photo. "Luckily," there are instant photo machines strategically located next to the agent windows. Here’s me & my monthly pass. This also gets me into the Budapest Date Rapist Society.

Monthly pass

There are three Metro lines, with coverage that is somewhat less than you get with Chicago’s el, but nothing close to what you get on Vienna’s U-Bahn system. The oldest of these lines, the Yellow, runs from the center of the Pest at Vörösmarty ter underneath the lovely Andrassy ut (one of whose highlights is Miklos Ybl’s State Opera House), underneath Varosliget, or City Park, out to Mexikoi ut, which is at the beginning of the “Green Belt” that engirdles the Pest (This is where the diplomats tend to live). It’s the oldest subway in continental Europe — it seems to run exactly three feet underneath the street, these tiny little yellow trains with worn leather straps to hang onto, & with the wall of the tunnel racing by inches from the window.

Astoria station

The Red Line, by contrast, was commissioned by the Soviets & designed by Hungarian engineers. This line passes underneath the Danube connecting the Pest side of town with the Buda side. To do so, this line must delve deep into the earth — too deep! Riding down the escalator to this antipodal cavern at a station like Astoria or Moskva ter takes minutes. Minutes! You cannot see the bottom of the station from its top, because the interior curvature of the earth comes into effect. To step on that escalator makes the palms to sweat, the chestal region to constrict. Too deep, I panic. The Soviets were like Tolkien’s dwarves — they have ventured too deep into the earth.

Like Vienna’s, Budapest’s public transportation system works on the honor system. I mentioned that in all the months I’ve lived in Vienna, I’ve been "controlled" less than five times. I’ve pretty much been controlled every other day I’ve used the Budapest system. Must be less honor here in Hungary.

And one last thought from the lovely Weiner Leo u.

Borozö means winery. But, in the words of our friend Márton, "Not like you’d find in Austria. Here it’s the place where you can get drunk the quickest & the cheapest.

The Rat Hole?

The Borozö on our street has a sign with a pugnacious looking rat on it. Pretty sure it means "The Rat Hole." As far as I can tell, it is never closed. Even on Sundays, early in the morning, there are guys stumbling out of here into the day. When I noted to Márton that the drunks occasionally try to get into the courtyard of our building to sleep it off, he nodded, saying, "Yes. That’s a very Eastern European thing to do."

Peter O'Leary (© 2004)