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Communal Bread

On a walk around the village one evening, Annick points out a banner to me: pains et foyesses, au feu de bois. The community oven is being reopened, for a day. Another day, another way to cook bread.

Event at the four banal, or communal oven.

In the past, community ovens, called bakehouses, were common in this part of the world. Every day, the wood – burning oven was heated, and everyone in the community brought their bread dough. The tradition has roots in feudal times, when the local lord still owned all the machinery for grinding flour and baking the dough. He would tax the peasants per loaf, or even outlaw personal ovens as a way to gain income. Even after the ovens became communal property, they remained a sort of social place, where neighbors gathered and did daily business.

(Interestingly, I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a bakehouse in North America, not even in the oldest parts of the east coast. I was quick to hypothesize that a lack of a feudal system prevented its spread, but a little research led to a different conclusion. French settlers in Canada had supposedly tried to imitate European bakehouses, but found that the distances from home to bakehouse were too far and too cold, killing the yeast in the bread before it could be baked.)

Most French households today have an oven, and the bakehouse usually remains shut. But a few times a year, a community association opens up the doors, warms up the oven, and bakes bread there again. I was lucky enough to arrive just in time.

The communal oven, after the bread had finished cooking. The walls were blackened with the ash of years of baking, and the stones retained their heat even hours after the fire was out.

The day of the bread baking, Annick, Thierry, and I arrive in the early afternoon. Unfortunately, the bread has already finished baking, and the oven has been cleared out. But a kind Frenchman opens up the doors and explains everything to me anyway. The oven has been heating up since the day before, and the bread went in early in the morning. The oven cooks pretty evenly, big as it is, though they did thoroughly char one of the first batches. The gentleman indulges all my questions, as I reverently touch the walls of the still-warm oven.

Outside, taking refuge under a tent from the drizzling rain, people drink soda and wine and chat. Looking at the pile of breads, Thierry tells me to choose. I struggle; they all look so beautiful. Afterward, I stand and talk with some locals, answering questions of what I’m doing in this little village and where I come from. In turn, I ask them about life here, and what their homes are like. Drinks are passed around and tongues loosen up. We leave, eventually, smiling and carrying our bread back home.

Though it may not be in use everyday, this bakehouse remains a gathering place. It’s good to see some traditions still alive and well, if only a few times a year. I, for one, felt very lucky to be able to see a communal oven being used again. And, at the very least, I didn’t have to pay some snooty French feudal lord to do it.

There was a literal pile of bread being sold. How beautiful!

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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!”

Questions of Cuisine

I love the chaos of a meal with Thai people when everyone is hungry. Every person has their own bowl of rice, and the numerous main dishes are placed in the center of the group. There are no heaping portions piled on plates, like at an American table. Rather, everyone is helping themselves, choosing from a variety of small dishes. Spoonfuls of different foods are added to your bowl, bit by bit, creating perfect combinations of rice and fresh vegetables and sauces. When people are hungry, there are hands everywhere, grabbing spoons and dishes as talk flies back and forth.

According to Pom, a balanced Thai meal (on top of rice, of course) has three components- protein, nutrition, and flavor. For example, the perfect bite may be fried fish, some bitter but highly nutritious greens, and a spoonful of a sweet type of nam phrik (meaning a chili based sauce, pounded in mortar and pestle). These are three different dishes, and you need to arrange it all on top of the rice before taking a delicious, balanced bite. Some dishes have the protein and flavor together, like a chicken curry, and the nutrition will be raw vegetables like cucumber or eggplant (aubergine) eaten on the side.

In a way, Thai cuisine is very personalized. With a multitude of dishes and a serve-yourself mentality, each person is creating combinations on their plate that match their palate. You select what you eat and how much. As a newcomer to this dining system, I watch the others at the table, noting what dishes they pair together and trying my own favorites.

One evening, Pom, U, and I visit their nearby family’s house for a dinner party. Over a verifiable feast of curries, lettuce rolls, and different grilled fish, I chat with Pom’s aunt and uncle, who spent much of their lives in Britain and America. The aunt told me that one of the only things that continued to surprise her, when they lived in Florida, was how large the portion sizes were. Meals in American restaurants were one large dish, with perhaps one also large side dish, and it was impossible to finish.

I laughed as they explained it to the rest of the surprised family, because their impressions are accurate- American portions are large, and we make fewer different dishes for the average meal. Now that I’ve been introduced to the Thai style of eating, the idea of returning to a plate of diner meat and potatoes seems horribly boring, and unhealthy. I’ve found that I love these balanced Thai meals, and the diversity in their food.

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An example of a Thai meal, shared with a few friends. Notice the different curries in the large bowls, the protein dishes, the small bowls of dip for flavor, and the large bowls of raw green vegetables

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A jar full of green curry paste, a combination of pounded chili peppers, galangal, lemongrass, bergamot rind, shallots, garlic, and shrimp paste. This is what gives flavor to green curry, and though it is a long process, the product is incredible.

As I cooked with Pom, we continually returned to questions of “national cuisine” and everyday, complex realities. Pom was quick to question my questions about “Thai food”. What can be said about Thai food, when regional differences abound?

Questions of national cuisine are never clear cut, as tempting as it is to generalize. For every ingredient that Pom uses, she cites a difference in some other part of the country. She’s using oyster sauce in this recipe, but where her husband is from in the northeast, they use a fermented fish sauce. Her mother makes curry this way but her father’s side defines curry and nam phrik differently. And let’s not even get started on the diversity of rice, because that’s where the strongest opinions come out.

Some now-renowned “Thai” dishes trace their roots elsewhere- a popular bright yellow dessert made from egg yolks and sugar syrup was actually introduced by Portuguese traders in the 15th century. Those soups that require chopsticks instead of the usual Thai fork and spoon are actually influences from the large Chinese expat community. But who cares, when these eaten on the street in Bangkok every day?

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U and I shred coconut to make fresh coconut milk. I am sitting on a stool that has a sharp blade on the edge of it, you scrape the coconut on the edge and the shavings fall below. Nothing is more delicious than fresh coconut cream!

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Another picture of a meal- this one includes Thai fried chicken (marinade is fish sauce and honey) and mussels. Notice the many small dips and, again, the bowl of raw vegetables.

As often as I ask questions about Thai food, I field questions about American food. And while it is tempting to simplify foreign cuisine into bite size categories, when you try to represent your own county’s cuisine, you realize how complex the question can be for every country.

When asked about American cuisine, what do I say? Do I talk about how I eat, my attitudes, in my position in society? What about how a typical small town Midwesterner eats, versus an urban west coast citizen? How can I express the amazing diversity in my country? And how does the average American eat?

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Pom stuffs a local bitter gourd with a pork paste. We boil the pieces, then eat them over rice. The bitter gourd is balanced with a sweet sauce on the side.

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One of my favorite dishes that Pom made- it is a sweet pork, tofu, and duck egg soup (this picture before the hard-boiled duck eggs are added). The flavors include cinnamon, anise, coconut sugar, and garlic.

 

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All of these vegetables were grown in Pom and U’s vegetable garden. We eat them with every meal.

 

Questions that aim to define and categorize cuisine often miss that cuisine is a living part of culture. Food is always evolving. Cuisine may evolve even faster than many other parts of culture, like music or art, because it is a daily reality, a necessary act. When people need to eat every day to survive, innovations and adjustments in cuisine can spread quickly. There is no way to trace clear lines across cuisines when there is so much exchange.

So how to talk about a cuisine, if it is always changing? It is an interesting exercise, to learn about the subtleties and the distinctions that can lead to the broad generalizations. I obviously love learning and writing about food. Yet, the more I learn, the more I see how complex the questions are. At a certain point, the labels of authentic or traditional start to lose meaning in the idiosyncrasies, and the joy is taken out of the real reason that we love to share our food. While I will continue to explore different cuisines, I am careful not to take anything too seriously, and to enjoy the exploration instead.

So what is Thai cuisine? I’ll tell you after I finish eating.

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While U is peeling a pomelo, a fruit similar to a grapefruit, Pom cuts it and puts it on him like a hat. I’m happy to stay with people who don’t take food too seriously.