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Of Paprika and Men

Every year, one week before Christmas, Studio Brussel (the absolute best Belgian radio station), organizes “The Warmest Week”. It’s a marathon of good deeds where anyone can participate and do something nice (and ideally profitable), to collect and donate money for a good cause. Together with my co-workers, we cook. Every Friday, from September until December, someone else is cooking for everyone and at the end of the fifteen weeks, we donate the money to a local NGO. It’s nice that we can help. But it’s even nicer that we can eat such delicious food! So when it was my turn to cook, I immediately thought: Hungarian Goulash. Easy to make in large quantities, you can even freeze it if you have leftovers. But I wasn’t going to make any type of goulash. I was shooting for the most authentic one that I would get directly from the source, my good friend Szabi, born and raised in Hungary, descendant of a sea captain who grows his own extra hot csípős paprika in his countryside garden.

So when I asked Szabi for an authentic Hungarian goulash recipe, he sent me step by step instructions via messenger. I saved it, followed every small detail of it and cooked it for 30 people. It was a success. The only small problem was that it was never a goulash in the first place. It was a marhapörkölt (or beef stew, in case you cannot read the most difficult language on Earth, i.e. Hungarian). Ready to fight my ignorance and blind spots about Hungarian cuisine, I decided to talk to my friend about Hungarian food and possibly all the myths surrounding paprika. What I found out, was less about paprika and more about Lenin chocolates, chili con carne, Portuguese seafood and how you raise children who love to eat raw vegetables as snacks.

I know Szabi for so many years that it takes a lot of mental effort to imagine him during the student years, without children, without worries and without the extra sympathy weight, as he calls those extra kilos men put during their wife’s pregnancy. When he talks about the chili con carne recipe he used to make with friends in their shared apartment after a late night party, I kind of relate to that experience and I can already see the atmosphere surrounding that student kitchen where the taste and the quality of the chili always depended on how drunk you were after the party. But what comes to mind without any effort when I think about Szabi, his home and his family, is the taste of the best omelette I ever ate. I remember this April day in Budapest a few years ago, the sun shining, the smell of spring in the air, all of us longing for a long and quiet walk in the park. It was really a perfect day. But it was perfect mostly in our heads. Because mornings with small babies have the super power to instantly wipe any magic idea or perfect image you might have in your head. Always hectic, thinking two or three steps ahead, running around to fit one more sleeve and one more sock until you feel already sweaty and have to change your shirt before you even left the house.

But then as we were setting the table to have breakfast together, I could already smell and hear the omelette frying in the pan, the onions, the tomatoes, the herbs, the spices…

When you eat that omelette with some homemade chilli paste and fresh ramsons (medvehagyma), you feel that you can move mountains and overcome any challenge that day. You could even change those baby socks one more time.

The perfect walk in the park. Friends, laughing and cotton candy.
Budapest, April 2015

Probably the best omelette in the world.

From Hungary, With Love…

Growing up in Hungary in the 80s, was nothing like growing up in Romania in the 80s. The economy under the Kádár regime was more liberal, and the trade with the West was actually encouraged, so food had a totally different meaning for the ordinary Hungarian people. You could find almost everything in stores, compared to neighbour Romania, where queuing up in front of grocery stores without knowing what you would get, was becoming a national sport. One thing that easily comes back from those days, is the taste of the dairy products. So much better than what you can find today on the market. The buttermilk (író or aludttej) and the yoghurt were still produced locally or made at home, but you could find it in the grocery shop at the corner. Those were the times when you left a pot of milk outside on the kitchen counter, and after a couple of days it was turning into buttermilk. All in all, life was not too bad back in the 80s, but there were still two big dilemmas that little Szabi could not overcome. First, if people were getting Santa chocolates for Christmas and bunny chocolates for Easter, why wasn’t he getting Lenin chocolates on the 7th of November? (Apparently, his pre-school teacher was not able to give him the answer he was looking for). And second, why did he always have to finish everything from the plate, especially when there was cabbage and Frankfurter sausage drifting in his bowl of soup?

Growing up in the 80s, meant living in an old apartment in Budapest, together with a brother, the parents and the grandmother. There was running water in the house, but the boiler was only working in the bathroom. So if you wanted hot water in the kitchen for cooking or washing, you had to warm the water on the stove (tell that to your kid today and she will think you’re coming from Neanderthal). His father was a sea captain, travelling the world and bringing home all sorts of goodies that you couldn’t find in Budapest back then: exotic spices like curry, curcuma or vanilla and plenty of Milka, Kinder or Toblerone chocolates. He liked to experiment with different ingredients and cuisines and every time he was in a new place, he liked to eat out in local restaurants and ask for recipes that he would cook back home.

“But when he was on the sea, he always got along very well with the Polish cooks. Because their food tasted a little bit like home.”

When you see Szabi’s father, an imposing but gentle presence, with white beard and serious look, you immediately think back to all those amazing sea adventure stories in the Jules Verne books from childhood. Plus, he makes the most amazing delicacies out of his home grown hot peppers, including jam (which I was promised to get, I have recorded proof, but still waiting). The only small issue is that when he cooks them, nobody can enter the house because of the unbreathable hot spicy air. And beware if you use that same pot to make your chicken broth next time. Hooooooot!

But while his dad was always the experimentalist, the everyday cooking was still in his mom’s hands. His mother was the regular cook, making soups, stews and many of the traditional recipes that Szabi still makes today for his own family. (There’s something about pot dishes and family meals that brings an idyllic image of comfort in my mind). She was also the one inventing all sorts of tricks to convince him to eat everything from his plate, like the times when she was serving him tomato pepper stew (lecsó) on a toast of bread. Moms must be for sure the most creative human beings on Earth…

It All Starts With Beer…

Szabi is someone who started experimenting very early on. Also with food. He remembers how grateful he felt for the care and love his parents showed him, so he really wanted to give back. One Sunday morning, when he was seven or so, he decided to do something exceptional and surprise his parents with a breakfast in bed. He prepared the plate with care, he arranged the sandwiches and drinks on a nice tray and entered the bedroom. His parents started to laugh: “Why are you bringing us beer for breakfast?” His answer could easily serve as motivational poster: “Why not?” He actually started a new foodie trend that would soon become serious competition to champagne breakfast.

Szabi performing an experiment.

Another time, he took the initiative to prepare a full family meal on a Sunday, so he went to his mom and courageously asked her for a lot of money: 500 forint (around 2 euros). He made beer fried chicken schnitzels and rice pilaf, with probably slightly more ingredients than what he could buy for 500 forint (but I’m not going to tell him). He doesn’t remember how it tasted, but he seems pretty convinced they liked it. (What else could they say now?).

He also liked to experiment with fine dining and the atmosphere around the table. He saw in the movies that lighting a candle while you eat dinner, is a must for creating a romantic and pleasant atmosphere. So after a couple of days being home alone and collecting a pile of unwashed dishes in the sink and on the table, he nicely made himself dinner, lid a candle next to his plate, and just pushed the entire mess a few centimetres away, to not disturb the atmosphere. His parents must have been really proud to find such a romantic boy at the dinner table that night. Today, keeping the kitchen clean is still a challenge, but he is working on it and made a lot of progress, especially since the kids came (and since Miha keeps on reminding him about it). The ultimate challenge will be to keep everything clean while he makes the next beef stew together with his son. Good luck with that Szabi!

…and Ends Up With a Hangover

Like many people I know, including myself, Szabi started to cook when he left home, during his student years. It was not because all of a sudden he had discovered a new passion in life. It just happened to be cheaper, in times when the choice of restaurants and the size of the pocket, were both equally small. Plus, having your room close to the shared kitchen, always gives you a strategic advantage over your roommates. You can reach the kitchen knives faster, when needed. As a student, he was of course very busy studying and never had time to party. So most evenings ended up with very late night study sessions, in one of their apartments. Street food was not that common ten years ago, so most of the times, they arrived home extremely hungry after so much studying (and no partying at all). The food they usually made, was chilli con carne, with canned beans and other vegetables on hand, which combined with the level of hangover (from all that studying), resulted in a different quality of the chilli con carne, every time. I didn’t ask what type of meat they were actually using in the recipe, because that would just be too much to remember at this point.

When Szabi remembers the summer job he did in Lisbon, working in a youth hostel, it makes me think about L’Auberge Espagnole, a French movie where a bunch of international students end up in a foreign country, learning to know and understand each other through the language of love and friendship. In this case, the language of food was completing the holy trinity.

“Gathering around a pot of risotto with seafood, I was completely amazed how such simple food can taste so delicious when you use fresh, local ingredients.”

Grilling sardines on an open fire in the garden and realizing that sardines are not just small canned fish, but actual fish you can put on a grill. Combining simple grilled meat or fish, with green salad and some seasoning. No paprika, no lecsó, besides maybe for some cooked onion on the Bacalhau à Brás.

Sometimes, they were gathering for an international dinner table, where each of them was cooking something traditional from home. Szabi’s specialty was usually veal stew, made in tokány style. Hungarian cuisine is pretty easy, he explained to me. There are two main types of stews: tokány, where the main spice is pepper and pörkölt, where you use paprika. There is no exact rule for using hot or sweet paprika in a dish, it’s really a matter of taste. Maybe the only rule is that you should not give hot paprika or hot chilli paste to a small baby, as there is a risk of causing addiction and she might end up preferring Erös Pista over the milk. It’s as simple as that!

Home Is Where Food Is Shared Around the Table

Eating habits did not change too much after having kids because both Szabi and Miha were used to work from home and cook during the day. It’s a privilege to be able to eat slow food and not being in a rush to eat during the busy week. The downside is of course, having more temptations and eating more. Not to mention procrastination, as those dirty dishes are always the perfect excuse to get away from the computer. And then that pie waiting to be baked. And those vegetables that need to be washed. And cooked. It’s not easy to work from home when you’re a hobby cook.

The only thing that slightly changed was the attention to the quality of ingredients. Luckily, the market is not too far away so they try to go there every Saturday and buy fresh vegetables, meat and dairy from the local farmers. It’s so nice to still see local affordable markets which are accessible to everybody and not only to the middle and upper class foodies who find it trendy to buy organic products from the farmers’ market.

“I usually go alone to the market, because especially in the winter, by the time you dress up the kids, the best product has been already sold out”.

When we talk about good quality product, we immediately think about home grown, garden vegetables. Like the onions and garlic that our moms grow and bring to us every time they visit. We are debating whether this might be an Eastern European tradition as we heard too many times sceptical people saying: “Come on, bringing onions from one thousand kilometres away? We also have onions here, you know?” Yeah, we know, but it’s NOT the same. “We have a culture of sharing and helping others out, which maybe comes from times when there wasn’t any food and people were surviving because of people’s kindness and generosity”. What could be a better sign of affection and love than sending a full menu of traditional cooked meals one thousand kilometres by train?

Eating rituals are important and the first family meal of the day where they all get the chance to sit at the table, is the breakfast. Always early and always with eggs and raw fresh vegetables. His older son is a passionate carrot eater and he believes it’s because as a baby, they got him first used to vegetables, and only later with fruits and sweet foods. Lunch is the most consistent meal, usually with soup and stews that they often cook in the weekend when there’s more time. He likes to cook the pot dishes in a clay pot, in the oven, because the longer it cooks at the lowest possible temperature, the more tender the meat gets and the flavours from all the vegetables and aromatic herbs better mingle together. You also don’t need to add to much fat, the meat will leave enough fat to give the whole dish a delicious and savoury taste.

Some Food for the Thought

One of the big questions for the future of cooking is whether our children will be still cooking meals at home twenty years from now. Can we as parents influence this in any way? Even today, when people can afford eating out more and buy ready meals anywhere, we see a decrease in the time spent cooking at home. Cooking is outsourced and left to the professionals who can recreate any traditional cuisine in the world, for every weekday. Monday Indian, Tuesday Chinese, Wednesday Italian and in the weekend maybe some Hungarian Goulash. Who can master such diverse skills in the home kitchen? The ready meals are cheap, but what is the full price we pay? We eat randomly, we eat alone, and we eat more, since food comes fast, without effort. In the restaurant, our children need constant entertainment and get distracted by indoor playgrounds and smartphones. We check our social media feed while waiting for the food to come. Our conversation skills around the table become worse and worse. Sharing the food with others is not the same when you eat out or you take away.

“The most important for me is not the actual cooking, but giving what I cook to someone else, as a sign of love, appreciation and caring. It’s just a nice thing to do”.

Will our kids like to cook like we do? Will they talk to a real person at the dinner table or rather with an app or a robot who takes your order, serves you the food and entertains you while you eat? We have no clue what the future holds, so we go back to our present Goulash discussion. Szabi explains that Goulash comes from gulya, which means herd of cattle and ’gulyás’ means cowboy. I tell him how proud I was of myself for cooking his Goulash recipe for my colleagues. “Nice, he says. But did you also try the marhapörkölt I sent you via messenger?”

Székely Szabolcs is 36 and lives in Budapest with his wife and two boys. He is a writer, publishing poetry and currently working as a story editor for a TV series. He also started studying psychology a few years ago. Claiming himself anxious and unbearably hectic, his true plan for the future is to slow down and be present.

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