Budapest: The City of Coffee, Fröccs and Paprikash
“Normally they have rooster testicles, but I think they’re out of them today.”
We were staring at the wide array of meats behind the glass, busily snapping photos of everything from beef lungs to goose liver, knowing perfectly well that meat photos aren’t necessarily the most appetizing of food porn. With several floors of fresh produce and more meat than you can handle, the Great Market Hall, the largest indoor market in Budapest, has plenty of it, and Carolyn Banfalvi, owner of Taste Hungary, a Budapest-based company that offers food, wine and market tours, was taking us on a quick run through to make sure we knew all about fried fat and the importance of duck meat.
When you want to explore food culture, the market is often a good place to start. It is here that I learned that in Hungary, bacon is a big deal, the Hungarian countryside is full of fruits from apricots to blackberries and because wild mushroom picking is a popular pastime, there’s a “mushroom office” in many markets, where you can take your mushrooms to get checked, just to make sure you’re not eating anything poisonous.
Food is a central component of my plans anytime I travel, so it was no surprise that I was attempting to take in an entire food culture in five days.
“What is a classic Hungarian dish that we should eat?” I asked our apartment host Krisztina, a fashionable and savvy young Hungarian that was intent on giving us a long list of “underground” places to explore.
“Well, there is of course goulash, but it’s so heavy and not a summer dish, so please don’t eat it,” she responded.
“We will certainly not,” I responded. Always take the advice of a local.
Which is exactly how I ended up at a taco bar drinking fröccs.
A few nights earlier, Krisztina and her boyfriend Vandy had taken us out to explore the local ruin bar scene. What started as people taking over abandoned buildings, mostly in the Jewish quarter, and setting up makeshift bars, has turned into quite the scene, the kind of place where you’ll pick out a few tourists, but mostly you’re surrounded by hip Hungarians that ride single speeds and talk film and art. For the most part, they’re in courtyards, with packed seating and a mixture of low lighting and funky fixtures. My kind of place.
“So what do we order?” I asked.
“Fröccs,” said Vandy.
I quickly scribbled it down in my notebook, attempting to correctly pronounce it about five times first. Note: Hungarian is hard. Fröccs is a popular drink combining wine and soda water, mixed with varying proportions depending on how much you’re feeling like drinking, and for summer it’s perfect.
“Egészségedre!” Vandy and Krisztina pronounced, holding up their glasses.
More pronunciation repetition and scribbling in the notebook; it’s important to know how to say “cheers” in multiple languages after all.
Goulash may not have been on the list of recommendations but at least now I was well aware of how the cool urban crowd was spending their evenings. Budapest has a convivial culture, sitting in open courtyards in the summer and hunkering down in cozy basement bars in the winter. On Kazinczy street there is a handful of them, and you could spend an entire evening going from courtyard to courtyard, checking out the garden decor at Szimpla to sitting in a hammock chair at Köleves Kert. The winding cobblestone street is filled with bikes, parked up for the evening and entrances decorated with hanging lights.
“It’s two different worlds,” said Vandy, referring to the difference that the season and weather has on drinking habits, as he poured us a shot of Unicum. “You can’t leave Budapest without trying this!”
He was referring the the classic Hungarian herbal bitters, that is such a part of Hungarian culture that I later saw sample shots of at the airport at 8 in the morning. Just for the record, 8 is too early for herbal bitters. But at midnight in a ruin bar, it’s the perfect night cap. Just as tacos are the perfect street food.
Given my personal taco obsession, it came as no surprise that I would somehow end up eating them, even in the middle of Central Europe, but the beauty of globalization is that even in Hungary you can eat chicken paprikash for lunch and tacos for dinner. Sometimes exploring a food culture reminds you of how small the world has become. But because the Hungarians are good at preparing meat – when I asked Carolyn if there were any vegetarians in Hungary she said, “well, just a few” – the tacos were excellent.
Bacon, tacos, herbal bitters, the popularity of pickles and the large amount of hip people on single speed bicycles… Budapest was almost starting to feel like Portland. With more Hungarian of course, and less vegans. Add to that the extensive culture of cafes and the city is one continuous experience of eating, drinking and talking with people.
As a Hungarian proverb goes, “Good coffee should be black like the devil, hot like hell and sweet like a kiss.” And that’s exactly what you get in the multitude of kávéház that line the city streets. A double espresso and a classic Hungarian pastry will do good things at any time of day.