Month: May 2015

A Spicy, Fatty, Delicious Visit

When my mother and I met up in Budapest, Hungary, the first thing we did was walk to a nearby cafe. We hadn’t seen each other in seven months, since I had started traveling, and we were excited to catch up. We sat across from each other in a beautiful courtyard cafe, chatting about my mom’s long flight from Chicago and our plans for the next two weeks. The afternoon flew by as we slowly ordered coffee, then food, and finally finished with some Hungarian wines. Our server never hurried us out of our seat or rushed us; plenty of people here spend an afternoon at the local cafe.

There is no better beginning to a Europe trip than a slow afternoon in a leafy cafe.  Europe’s “cafe culture”, comparable to the cafe scene in Vietnam, encourages relaxation and long conversations. The late 19th century was a golden age for Budapest and its many cafes. However, the city suffered the destruction of the world wars, which was followed by four decades of communism. Cafes, like many civil society institutions, suffered under communist leaders. Cafes are places where dissent can breed, so many were closed down or replaced with stand up, quick espresso counters.

But today, thankfully, slow cafe culture is thriving again in Budapest. Cafes line every street, full of friends and partners gossiping around empty espresso cups. Cafes flourish here in the gentler, warmer months, and cafe owners even try to lengthen the season by offering blankets and heat lamps. Cafes are a place for people watching and relationship building, a place to fuel the average European’s espresso addiction. Cafes are where couples meet, where ideas are born, and where a country’s real business is done. And for my mother and me, these cafes were a place for many enjoyable hours of catching up.

My mother and I, reunited, sharing a delicious meal in a Hungarian cafe upon her arrival. She looks more happy than jetlagged!

A view of Pest, from the other side of the river Danube. The cityscape is lovely, even on a cloudy day.

Budapest is actually made up of two cities. Hilly and quiet Buda lies in the west, and commercial Pest in the east; the Danube river separates them. The city is located on top of some thermal springs, which fill the many hot baths (“Pest” comes from the Slavic word meaning “oven”). This old capital of part of the Austro-Hungarian empire is full of different architectural styles, though most date after 1838 (the year of an incredibly destructive flood).

Hungarians pride themselves on being unique among the surrounding Slavic countries. Hungarians are descendents of a migrant Asian people, the Magyar. Their language shows their lineage, being distinctly different from its neighbors and notoriously difficult to learn. Hungary is also a melting pot in central Europe, historically influenced by neighboring Slavs, Aryans, Turks, and many others. All of these factors combine to form a uniquely Hungarian culture, and of course, Hungarian cuisine.

Though I do love the meat, potatoes, and bread based diet that sustains much of eastern and central Europe, I was excited to visit Hungary for the one thing I’ve been missing: spice. Thailand had stoked my love for spicy food (though it is quite doubtful that I’ll ever be able to eat “Thai spicy”). And since I had started traveling in Europe, I had missed spice- the kind of spice that encourages crying regularly during meals, or gulping down the nearest liquid to calm down the fire on my tongue.

But in Hungary, I found spice, because paprika is everywhere. When Hungarians say paprika, they can refer to two things: the red or green peppers, or the powder made from them. In addition, there are two main types of paprika, sweet and hot. The sweet variety are used during cooking, to add flavor and a beautiful red color to a dish. Particularly in the tourist places, the hot paprika is served on the side, powdered, pickled, chopped, or otherwise. Each person can adjust the individual heat of a dish. Paprika- pickled, roasted, stuffed, stewed, chopped, or used for color- can be found in most Hungarian dishes.

Walking around the (albeit, touristic) Central Market Hall in Budapest, I scan for peppers. I spot peppers dried, fresh, pickled, powered, and nicely packaged for tourists to take home. There are peppers in key chain form, printed on bags, and made into plush toys. Paprika is a national symbol, and Hungarians are certainly proud of it. And I could not be more excited: I have found spice, finally, in Hungary.

A sampling of paprika, served on the side of our meal. There is dried, pureed, and chopped pepper.

A view of a market hall, where locals do their shopping on the bottom floor, and tourists browse souvenirs on the second floor.

A market stall where my mother and I bought fresh strawberries. I couldn’t help but notice the garlands of peppers!

Dishes never seem to stay within borders, and as I travel around eastern and central Europe, I continue to discover many linking threads. However, as with most things in Hungary, the cuisine is slightly different from its neighbors.

For example, goulash (gulyás in Hungarian) can be found in many different counties in central Europe. However, whereas in places like the Czech Republic the goulash is a thick stew (that usually leaves me wanting to roll out of the restaurant), in Hungary it is a thin broth soup. The meat, potatoes, and other vegetables are spiced but fresh, making it a delicious meal on a cool day.

Another uniquely Hungarian dish, one I have yet to see anywhere else, is meggy leves, or cold fruit soup. While this cream based, rich soup would be considered a dessert by most, it is actually eaten before the meal (when my mother and I ordered it, we thought that there must have been a mistake, until we were informed that it was normal). This soup is usually made with sour cherries, and it is unbelievably rich and delicious.

We also try the delicious nokedli, boiled egg noodles, which strongly resemble German spätzle. It is frequently served with káposzta, similar to sauerkraut. However, these dishes are usually spiced with hot paprika, making them truly Hungarian.

My mother and I share a cold fruit soup, made from sour cherries. In the middle is dry chocolate cake, making this pre-main course soup almost a meal in itself!

Hungarians are wine lovers. They have grown grapes since the Roman era, and in the years up to WWII, Hungarian wine had an excellent reputation. However, under communism and collectivization, the vineyards suffered, and the quality of wine declined.

Today, Hungarian wine is popular again, domestically. The industry has not yet grown enough to be widely exported, so my mother and I took the opportunity to try a new Hungarian wine with most meals. As two wine lovers, we agreed: we never had a bad glass. I’m sure that Hungary’s reputation will only grow as the industry recovers and the vineyards return to their former glory.

But as my mother and I found out after our first traditional meal in a Hungarian restaurant, Hungarians don’t just drink wine. At the end of our meal, the server brought us small glasses of pálinka. Pálinka is a powerful schnapps made from different fruits, similar to liquors found in Romania and Bulgaria. Another strong bitter liquor, unicum, is a bitter liquor made from dozens of different herbs, aged in oak casks. As digestifs, these liqueurs are a great cap to the meal, guaranteed to make you leave the restaurant in a good mood.

One of my other favorite fermented things was the sheer amount of good, spicy pickles. The lady that makes these can be seen in the background of this photo. She didn’t speak any English, but tried to explain things to us anyway- look at those big blue bins, they are full of pickling vegetables!

I tried my first Hungarian food in Warsaw, Poland, weeks before I visited Hungary. I had spent the night trying new beers at the Warsaw Beer Festival, chatting with friends and walking around the stadium. Late in the night, my friends and I checked out the food trucks, hungry for something to soak up the beer in our stomachs

I spotted lángos, a Hungarian specialty. It is a simple dough that is deep fried,  usually rubbed with garlic and covered with sour cream and cheese. Predictably, all this fat, dairy, and bread was delicious. After an introduction like that, I was very excited to visit Hungary.

Once there, between the cafes, two strong liquors, Hungarian wine, and spicy but delicious cuisine, Hungary charmed my mother and me. Like someone warned me in Romania, “the best Hungarian food will make you fat, but very happy!”

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Pierogis are Stuffed with Messages

When you travel to a different country as a foreigner, how do you learn about its people, its history, and its values? For most of my travel, I have worked on farms owned by locals. I was able to explore questions about countries by talking to local people, seeing the way that they lived, and learning from them. I was able to sit at their table and share a meal with them.

However, I am currently taking a hiatus from working on farms, and instead simply being a tourist in the cities that I’ve always wanted to visit. I am staying in hostels, meeting other travelers, going on walking tours and visiting museums. But, as I’ve tried to explore these countries as a tourist, I have found it more difficult to witness the everyday life of local people. Tourist districts may include walkable streets and English menus, but the opportunities for meeting people from the area are more limited. The question for me is, how do I learn about a country, if I’ve never sat down for a meal with a family from that country?

Well, obviously, I still start with food.

One of the largest markets in Wroclaw. Here, there were still a few small family style eateries for cheap, delicious Polish lunches.

I have always believed that some of the most important messages that we say are sent through food. Whether it’s the (albeit disputed) origin of the phrase “to give the cold shoulder”, or the warm welcome of a hot plate waiting for you at home after a journey, we use food as a form of communication. There is information, history, and meaning carried in food.

So when I arrive in a new city or country on this trip, I look to the food to learn. In Poland, especially, I used networks like couch surfing and food tours to learn about the local cuisine. Here are a few of the messages that I saw in Polish food.

Pierogis

The most iconic Polish food, fried or boiled dumplings with various fillings, can say a lot. Their preparation is very time intensive, from the effort to roll the dough to the careful stuffing each one. The most basic pierogis contain just potatoes and flavorings, and others can contain any mix of meats and cheeses. There are succulent pierogis stuffed with sweet cheese and fruits, and I have even seen pierogis stuffed with smaller pierogis (that was a tourist trap). There are types of pierogis appropriate for weddings, and different ones for funerals. And truly, no one makes them better than a grandmother. Whatever the occasion, a hearty pierogi sends a comforting message.

The best pierogis in Krakow! Made by, of course, a Polish grandmother.

Pierogis and goulas, the perfect lunch!

Vodka, pickles, and fish

There is a saying in Poland, “fish like to swim”. Though this phrase may sound obvious, it has a subtler meaning: herring, a popular bar snack, is best eaten with a shot of vodka. That fish likes to swim in vodka. And according to some Polish people, there are other foods that like to swim in vodka: pickles. That’s right, after a delicious vodka shot, many people like to bite into a juicy pickle.

While these combinations may sound strange to American university students used to other chasers to vodka, there is reason behind this tradition. Both herring and pickles are supposed to keep away hangovers, and allow you to drink more without becoming sick.

However, to all my other weak-blooded American friends, no matter how many pickles you may eat, I urge you to never try to keep up with an Eastern European when it comes to drinking liquor.

Vodka and pickles. While I may never search out this combination again, it was certainly interesting to try.

Raw beef tartar, with a raw egg on top. While this dish may not be native to Poland, they usually add a distinct ingredient: pickles!

Soup

My favorite Polish food, beyond any doubt, is barszcz, a beetroot soup. Its acid taste traditionally comes from leaving it to naturally sour, but today it is sometimes replicated with lemon juice or vinegar. The white barszcz (biaty), is soured with fermented wheat flour, and the amaying zurek contains sour rye flour. All of these soups, if made traditionally, contain healthy bacteria for your stomach. These sour elements come from the days when many things were pickled and fermented to save them.

The ultimate hearty soup, bigos, or hunter’s stew, comes from that tradition. This soup is made with many different meats, saurkraut, and fresh cabbage and mushrooms. The mixture can be stewed for hours, or days, without going bad, and it keeps for a long time. It is the symbol of the hearty countryside food.

Today, in Poland and elsewhere, there are many migrant workers. Young people leave the country and migrate to the city. However, just like in Bulgaria and Romania, these young people still visit home often. When they travel back to the city, they are identifiable because they usually lug large jars of bigos back with them. Bigos does not go bad easily and it is a healthy meal, so it is ideal to take back home from the coutnryside. Today, in Polish, these migrant workers are now being referred to as “jars”.

A tiny taster of bigos on a food tour, which I ate again later in the day (and in my excitement, failed to photograph).

Apples

A bowl of apples may not seem like a revolutionary act, but for Poland in 2014, consuming apples turned into a political statement. When Poland expressed support for the Ukranian people against Russia’s actions in 2014, following some of the EU’s sanctions, Russia responded with a ban on Polish fruit imports. This left Poland with a 700,000 tonne surplus of apples, which were historically shipped to Russia’s enormous market.

In response, some celebrities and activists in Poland tried to start a campaign: eat Polish apples to annoy Putin. Celebrities photographed themselves with apples, restaurants tried to buy what they could and give them away with meals, and cidear consumption tripled. While this may not have been enough to fully aid the struggling orchardists, it certainly brought attention to the issue. There has never been a more delicious political message.

While I don’t have any pictures of Polish apples, this hot Polish donut had apple filling. Was this donut political?

In Poland, I visited many museums and read many histories. These are important and valuable teachers. However, I also learned about the country from sharing everyday meals, or in asking about the history of a dish. Messages are sent in many different mediums. There is rich information stored in the things that we do everyday too, like eat food.

And, most importantly, this kind of learning is delicious.

One of the best meals I had in Poland was a sausage out of a blue van on the street, in Krakow. These two men show up every night at 8pm to roast sausages and serve them with bread. It is rumored that these sausages, along with a few fancy restaurants, are the only foods to have a Michelin star in Krakow.

The sausage king- a real teacher!

Cooked with Love

Many Slavic cultures share a common saying- you display hospitality by welcoming someone “with bread and salt”. The saying has a practical history; bread and salt have alway been the precious and daily necessities. These valuable items were presented in abundance to newlyweds, or special guests, to show welcome.

Though there were no literal bread and salt waiting for me in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, I felt as if I was being welcomed with all the warmth the city had to offer. The weather was perfect, the days were full yet relaxed, and even in my short stay I managed to meet the most wonderful people. Plovdiv is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe, with grand public spaces and walking streets. The old ruins of a Roman amphitheater have been integrated into the city, functioning as a public park and concert space. The “old town” section of the city, with uneven and beautiful cobblestone streets, is still full of old-style houses. Plovdiv has also been designated the European Capital of Culture for 2019, which has provided investment for its cultural and architectural heritage.

While I am in Plovdiv, delightful fate intervenes, and a couchsurfing friend recognizes me in a bar. Her and her friends kindly welcome me to the city, and once again, I am struggling to leave. It seems that every place I go, I meet people who convince me to stay longer than I originally planned!

The old Roman amphitheater, which today functions as an outdoor concert hall. There were no events while I was in Plovdiv, but I hope to come back someday and party in an old amphitheater.

A high view of the main walking street in Plovdiv, taken from a friend’s fifth story apartment.

On one tour in Plovdiv, I speak to a Bulgarian woman who currently lives in Germany, back to visit her parents for Easter. When I ask her what she misses about Bulgaria, she is quick to reply. “I miss the food, the fruits, the yogurt. I feel like I can taste the sunshine in the food here, and I can’t find that anywhere else.”

I heard expat Bulgarians echo this sentiment all over Europe- there is something special in the food here. While there are plenty of cheap, basic eateries, local grocery stores still stock amazing local Bulgarian fruits, breads, and dairy products. It’s a chicken or the egg situation: Bulgarians are used to high quality ingredients, and so they demand high quality ingredients.

Young Bulgarians, who are growing more and more urban, are still tied to their families in the countryside. Young people may leave their village to study or work in the city, but they know that the best food is still back in the village. I travel to Sofia, the capital, after Plovdiv. My couchsurfing host, who has lived in Sofia for almost a decade, tells me that every time he travels home to visit his grandmother, he comes back home with jars of homemade yogurt. And if too much time passes between visits, his grandmother tells him to go to the bus station, because she has sent jars of yogurt on the bus.

These connections to the countryside are keeping people healthy, and reminding them what good food tastes like. I saw similar threads, connecting rural families and urban working professionals, in Romania. Even though young people may move from the village, they want to eat the same quality food. This changes their palates, their taste buds. They know what good food tastes like.

Sharing an amazingly diverse Bulgarian cheese plate with some friends. Wine would have been a better choice, but the hot afternoon had made everyone crave a cold beer.

Though I was in Sofia for only a few days before my departing flight, I manage to find time to take a “food tour”, Balkan Bites. We visit many local restaurants, sampling small dishes and soups. Though I love Bulgarian food, it can be difficult to categorize. In the Balkans, an area of constant conquests, trade, and influences among shifting borders, it is difficult to describe a clear history for any one dish. We try foods that can also be found in Turkey, or Italy, but with a Bulgarian twist. Again, I am reminded that food, ever-evolving, cannot be parceled into neat historical lineages or national borders.

But in Bulgarian cuisine, more important than the food’s origin, or the name, I find that I appreciate the love in the preparation. I could taste the sunshine, and the pride, in the best food that I ate in Bulgaria. As the food tour guide related, her grandmother always told her, “If the food isn’t cooked with love, it will become stuck in the throat. So you must cook with love.”

Banitsa (Баница), a filo dough pastry with layers of eggs and cheese. Absolutely delicious, when warm. After a long 12 hour train ride, this is the bread that welcomed me to Bulgaria!

Easter Eggs and Easter Churches

Spending a holiday in another country is an opportunity to gain incredible insight into a culture, but it can also leave you feeling a bit homesick. This month, as the Catholic Easter came and went, I couldn’t help but think of home, what I would be eating for Easter dinner, and whether they even sold Peeps in Europe. (A special thank you to Mrs. Courtney, who so thoughtfully continued her tradition of providing me with too many gifts on Easter).

Because of numerous delays and schedule errors, I spent the actual Catholic holiday of Easter on an unexpectedly long train trip from rural Romania to Veliko Tarnovo, the old capital city of Bulgaria. When I finally arrived, I was greeted by the old city streets, built into the steep walls of a valley, and magnificent views that suddenly appeared between the old stone houses. The city is stunningly beautiful.

Locals joke that when giving directions in Veliko Tarnovo, indications like “left” and “right” are replaced with “up” and “down”. The city is divided and re-divided by a meandering river, and the nearby mountains have miles of great hiking paths. I spent my first days hiking in these mountains, learning about history from some wonderful walking tours, and exploring the abandoned socialist legacy (The notorious Buzludzha monument is located nearby, which was a blizzarding, surreal experience).

Veliko Tarnovo is, historically, a religious city, and it is not possible to walk more than five minutes in any direction without running into a church. Many of these churches are hundreds of years old, having survived conquests or having been reconstructed. Most Bulgarians are Orthodox Christians, following a church calendar that differs slightly from the Catholic one. It turns out that Orthodox Easter in Bulgaria is celebrated one week later than the Catholic Easter. This is one of the benefits of traveling, even if you are a bit homesick: sometimes you are able to celebrate a holiday twice.

I spent one afternoon hiking to a nearby monastary. The view from the forest ended up being more beautiful than the monastary itself, in my opinion, but I spent some time quietly sitting in the bell tower before heading back home

The Patriarchal Cathedral, slowly eroded over the centuries, was rebuilt in its original architecture, but repainted in a modernist style, in the 1980s. I have never seen such modernist religious art in a church.

A few Bulgarian couchsurfing friends invite me to share the Easter holiday with them, and so, the Saturday night before the Easter Sunday, we head to the midnight mass and special blessing. We are visiting the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God, the most famous church in Veliko Tarnovo, located at the center of the medieval Tsaravets Fortress. This popular church is built at a high point in the city. Holding unlit candles, my friends and I join the streams of people climbing up the hill. Deep church music floats down from above, helping me feel warm in the cold night air.

We arrive at the crest of the hill, standing just below the church, to listen to the service. I don’t understand the Bulgarian, but the music evokes emotion anyway, and the energy in the air is palpable. I watch the crowd, in a trance, and the priests. My friend Plamena points out the head priest, the mayor, and all the other notables attending the service. Looking down the winding path, I can see hundreds of people lined up to listen.

A bit after midnight, the church bells begin to ring across the city. With a chorus of “Christ is Risen”, everyone readies the small candles that they have brought. The priest enters the crowd with his candle, and the crowd surges toward him. The flame is passed from person to person, until everyone is holding their own candle.

I light a candle of my own, protecting its flame as we start to make our way back home. Most Bulgarians will keep the candle lit to take home to their family altar. Though I have no altar back at my hostel, I protect my candle as I walk down the hillside. Looking over my shoulder, I realize how beautiful our procession is. A line of pilgrims stretches back behind me, slowly winding down the mountain, each person’s face lit by a candle’s flame.

The view back, looking toward the cathedral, with everyone holding their lit candle after the service.

Me, holding my lit candle after the service.

The next morning, I wake up early, despite having stayed up for the midnight service. It’s a holiday. There is food to be eaten!

Bulgarians have many, many traditions around food on Easter, but there are two absolutely necessary components: dyed eggs, and kozunak, a braided bread. Though I was staying in a hostel as a tourist, the kind Bulgarians would never keep the foreigners out of the biggest celebration of the year. The hostel staff dyed eggs for breakfast, and another Bulgarian guest shared her homemade kozunak with me. Together, the combination made a wonderful breakfast.

At a Bulgarian family table, before you crack open the shell of your hard boiled egg, you “fight” with your neighbor, seeing whose egg will crack the other’s. This continues on until there is a clear winner, the one with the strongest egg. I was told that the winning egg is kept until the next Easter, for good luck. Though my egg broke during the first round, I didn’t mind. It meant that I got to eat it.

Dyed Easter Eggs at the hostel. Delicious breakfast!

With my days in Bulgaria ticking down, I realized that it was best to leave Veliko Tarnovo on Easter. I took a short afternoon bus to Plovdiv, another major city in Bulgaria. When I arrived in Plovdiv, just as in Veliko Tarnovo, the streets were full with celebrating families and happy couples. The sun was shining, making a beautiful spring day, and everyone was outside.

After walking around the downtown, I spent the evening in a new hostel, chatting with the staff and their friends. As the evening went on, more and more people joined us, and practically no one arrived empty handed. Every Bulgarian brought a sweet, some kozunak or biscuits or cookies, until the table had a pile larger than we could eat.

I smiled to myself, because I am reminded how all over the world, we all seem to celebrate holidays the same way: with an excess of food, and good people to laugh with.

And how lucky I am to find these things where I go!

After the midnight service at the cathedral finished, there was a beautiful fireworks show. The lights lit up the castle and everyone cheered as we held our candles. These are holidays to remember!