ROOT | VERSE

narratives of food, drink, & life

Lángos: Deep-Fried Death Trap

Lángos.

The culinary equivalent of it sounded like a good idea at the time. 

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During our month long stay in Budapest, we ate this dangerous/amazing street food five times. Each time we did, the experience became both progressively better and worse.

There are Serbian, Czech, Polish, and other variations on Lángos but Hungarians are the progenitors of this amazing heart attack food.

Lángos is deep-fried bread essentially, with a yeasty dough that sometimes includes potatoes and sour cream which makes it almost like a mutant latke. The dough (roughly the size of a small pizza) is dropped into a vat of oil, and slathered with garlic sauce, sour cream, and mounds of cheese.

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The way people talk about Lángos in Budapest is similar to the way New Yorkers talk about pizza, which is initially what attracted me to it–that and the carnal grossness of the food itself. For such a simple set of ingredients there was an amazing amount of variation among the Lángos that we tried.

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In search of the perfect specimen, I found three major categories:

-The Death Cracker: with less yeast and no potato, this version was crunchy and oily. We found these at a couple of markets, none of which were recommended to us.

-The Nuclear Lattke: These contained mostly shredded potato, but were topped and prepared just as traditional Lángos is. Not the original, but satisfying nonetheless. This popular variation is sometimes called “Potato Lángos” or krumplis lángos

-The Last Supper: There are some Lángos that are softer..the dough is thicker, almost like a pizza crust. We found our favorite through our friend Kalman, who swore it to be the best, at the market on the Buda side of the city called Feny Utca Market.

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I now believe that in the manner in which cats are said to have nine lives, humans are given around five Lángos before the body revolts. Once the quota is surpassed, the territory is treacherous.  So choose your Lángos wisely, and the experience will be unforgettable.

Eau De Vie: Spirit Of The People

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(photo by @valerian_)

There is a poetry to distilling spirits. I learned this first hand when I spoke with Lance Winters of St. George Distillery for Hearth Magazine a couple of months ago. Distilling a particular fragrance of fruit down to its essence is no small feat, and the process of distillation is in itself a kind of editing–if you cut too much your result is harsh. If you don’t cut enough, there is no definition.

Eau de Vie,  or a fruit-distilled spirit, is fascinating because of how variable, personal, each regional form of can be. Each one says something about the person who made it, and as much about the person who drinks it.

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I am astounded by how pervasive homemade brandies are in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. In Montenegro and elsewhere they call it Raki, in Albania Rakija, in Hungary  Pálinkaand everywhere you go the methods and fruits are slightly different. One woman told me that her 85 year old grandmother insists that her continued good health stems from daily Pálinka shots. A coffee store owner (pictured above) in Belgrade pulled out a homemade bottle of Peach Rakija with our coffee orders one morning and poured us two glasses, insisting that it would settle our stomachs. I was getting a haircut in Buda and the hairdresser described with a gleam in his eye the Apple  Pálinka he distills in the wintertime for himself, and for his health.

I thought many times back to my conversation with Lance as I tried the varieties of Eau de Vie in the Balkans and surrounding countries. Some were viscous and sickly sweet, and others (one honey rakija in particular that I’ll never forget) shared more in common with Gasoline than fruit. But each said something distinct about the person, and the place from which they came.

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(photo by @valerian_)

Towards the end of our stay in Hungary I was fortunate enough to be invited to a screening of a documentary about an Hungarian immigrant who had moved to Colombia. In the absence of pears or peaches he and his wife distilled their own  Pálinka out of mangos. So for them, Pálinka said as much about where they came from, as it did about where they were now.

How many can say that about their drink of choice?

Autumn We’ve Come Prepared: A Slow Borscht For A Long Day

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Just like that, from one day to the next, the sun glistening onto the waves of the Danube were replaced with dark clouds and a fierce wind.

The first couple of days we fortressed ourselves from the cold, polished off liters of beer, and worked furiously around our flat. Though sneaking ourselves bundled toward the stalls of the Great Central Market in search of some deep-fried sin or another was an ever-present danger/possibility, we decided that a break from the langos life was in order. Hungarian cuisine is magnificent but you won’t survive a great many winters unless roots and greens are consumed at some point.

I jumped at the opportunity to begin making stews, and with boiled beets and stock, cabbage, and some assorted vegetables in the fridge, Borscht was an easy front runner.

While the soup means something different to every country (and many micro-regions) of Central Europe and beyond, my favorite versions have always included: beets, cabbage, dill, & thick hunks of rye bread. I’d recommend boiling beets and saving the juices, which with a simple rue, keep the broth light, rich, and earthy–and don’t forget peppers, golden (or yukon) potatoes, and heaving spoonfuls of paprika.

And I don’t care what anybody says, I will cook this soup as long as I can stand to wait around with a house full of its inescapable aroma.

Having recently visited the Szimpla Kert Market as mentioned in my last post, I still had some fabulous caraway cheese to shred over the top in the absence of rye bread, which absolved me from feeling guilty about not leaving the house once.

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A Farmer’s Market In A Ruin Pub

Budapest

Budapest: the Paris of Eastern Europe, a city of remarkable beauty and history.

District VII has an energy that is unparalleled by other parts of the city. The reasoning for this may be complicated by its past, but the sense is undeniable. Walking down the cobbled section of Dohany Utca on a Friday night and you will pass in and out of surges of noise and activity, punctuated only by the occasional residential building. At its center is the Great Synagogue , and the tight conglomerate of alleys and streets that surround it.

The problematic history of District VII (and indeed of Hungary as well) starts with WWII, when according to some calculations 437,000 Hungarian Jews were deported from the city. Many of the buildings in the neighborhood fell into disrepair–remaining unoccupied in some instances for decades. The area continued to be undeveloped through into the 1980’s, when large numbers of Romani moved into the abandoned and vacant residential complexes that border one another back to back, in rows across the neighborhood.

Szimpla

In the last two decades, the very blight that has left District VII beleaguered has now become its greatest asset. Dozens of vacant complexes have been transformed into multi-roomed bars, each with their own character—the courtyards turned into garden pubs. In keeping with the spirit of the change, many feature an eclectic mix of found objects, repurposed junk, and vintage furniture. Easily the most famous Ruin Pub in Budapest is Szimpla.

It is stunning to see a neighborhood blossom, to watch a city embrace its history while at the same time turning a new leaf. As a native San Franciscan, all too often I have felt that my hometown has failed to preserve its own heritage in the fog that comes with the unceasing march of commercial “progress”.

Szimpla Sunday Market

On Sundays Szimpla opens its gates to local farmers, growers, cheesemongers, and many more for a weekly market. On a sunny afternoon in Budapest, you can buy home-bottled preserves, a colorful array of pickled vegetables, or bag of fresh pears and apples from local merchants. Afterward you can sit in the garden with a beer and be thankful that things once thought to be an eyesore can blossom with a beauty all their own. Apples

On our way out one afternoon, we encountered a lovely non-profit group called the Budapest Bike Maffia, a group of riders who accumulate food donations and deliver them to in-need families every Sunday. We ran back in and bought a bag of produce. They took our picture and told us they’d post it on their facebook page. We left with our baskets full, grateful to have been given a tiny snapshot of the neighborhood’s vibrant new scene, and reminded once again of what progress (at it’s best) should look like.

Pears

A Perfect Meal In The Albanian Alps

Gjecai Guest HouseThe cuisine of Northern Albania is a hearty mix of many surrounding cultures. There are elements of Mediterranean, Italian, and Balkan culinary traditions in their dishes.

We had the good fortune of spending a few days in the Theth Valley, near the border of Kosovo and Montenegro, sometimes referred to as the “Albanian Alps”.

At Gjecaj (pronounced JAY-CH-AY) every ingredient is intentional, and arrives fresh from the garden. That warm, fluttery feeling one gets from the most complete and perfect of meals? All the right notes were there when we sat down to eat.

Veal Stew

Lunch, the largest meal of the day, consisted of a veal stew in a tomato and vegetable broth (much like the Balkan variations on Gulyas) with a simple but delicious salad of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, and thick hunks of sheep’s cheese. Byrek, a savory pastry of Turkish origin, is filled with spinach and cheese. A honey filled sweet cake, and a shot of honey Raki rounded out the meal.

Honey Cake & Yogurt

The food at Gjecai was special not just for the simplicity and beauty of the meal, but for the reminder it brought me: every ingredient, no matter how small,  counts.