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Drinking the World Every Afternoon

Searching for the Hungary I Loved in the Budapest of Today

Mar.31.17

Searching for the Hungary I Loved in the Budapest of Today

by Ryan Andrej Lough

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Pálinka in Magyarország

Budapest. Late March, early evening. I return to the circus of the U.S. tomorrow. I spent most of the day on an industrial island of post-Soviet ruin, soaking up the rays on the sandy shores of the Danube. It’s been unseasonably warm, but that’s become common in our epoch. The warm sun pairs well with cold beer when you’re trying to slow time. As the sun began to dip, a sense of natural progression leads to a bar.

I’m in the city’s 13th kerület, or district, recounting the last week here over a tall, cool Pésci and a side of meggy pálinka, a sour cherry brandy. We’re at a dingy basement haunt I know well, Dongó. The two libations combined are still under 800 Hungarian forint at this joint. That’s less than five bucks for a half-liter of beer and a shot; an upside to Budapest that always brings a little joy.

Except for the prices, this basement haunt has changed considerably since I last visited, in August 2015. For many years, Dongó had been a haven: for the city’s literary types, socialist thinkers, musicians of the more classical ilk, and all those who sought refuge from a confusing world over a few fairly cold beers. Now, however, that intellectual and quasi-socialist spirit seems to have left. In 2017, the outspoken nationalist and nativist-leaning conversations of Dongó’s clientele fill the air, and there is a slight sense of unease. Throughout my last week in Hungary, I’ve noticed this shift, most pronounced within the confines of drinking and eating establishments, which, in my opinion, is where you find the beating heart of most societies.

I lived in Budapest for several months in 2015 while working on a film. I fell in love with the city, and the country, for all that it was, and is: a territory that has been consistently reshaped, physically and culturally, by several different empires and influences over the span of millennia. I tried to obtain a residency permit to stay. It was a 90-day process, but two weeks before it was finalized and I could call Budapest home, my visa processing was suspended indefinitely. Not because of my status, but because in August 2015, the flow of incoming refugees was seen as a crisis by the Hungarian government, and so anyone attempting to enter Hungary was denied official entry unless the person was of Hungarian origin. I was forced to leave immediately, as I had overstayed my time in the Schengen Area in order to complete the residency permit process.

I had the good fortune of having a country to return to at that time. Many others—the refugees that were attempting to enter the country, many from Syria—did not have this good fortune. As I was departing Budapest during the thick of the migrant influx in Europe, I witnessed the physical quarantine of refugees and migrants that the government had been rounding up. These humans, these families, were left to bake in the heat without water on the hot August asphalt near the central train station. This was the first time I really took notice of the current Hungarian administration’s policies.

Hungary has long been a battleground between eastern and western ideologies, and in many ways it still is. The monumental ruins, structures, and façades of empires past, grayed and cracked from time, give a sense of where Budapest, Pécs, and the other great Hungarian cities once stood within the world’s societal pecking order. Soviet monuments litter the country, in villages and urban centers, reminding many of the transitional and turbulent occupation during the Cold War. Despite the tumult, the Hungarian spirit persists. It’s a tough, resilient core, coated by a sour, humorously pessimistic shell, motivated by a need to retain a sense of cultural identity in a land that always seems to be shrinking. This uniquely Hungarian persona is charming, and it’s hard not to fall in love with an underdog. However, the party in power, Fidesz, and the current (and only) rival party, the ultra far-right Jobbik, have shamelessly used this need for a cohesive cultural identity while exploiting chinks in the social armor, and have ruled for the last several years with autocratic policies under the guise of making Hungary great again.

I asked several Hungarian citizens what they thought of the current political climate, both young, progressive intellectuals, and the more nationalist, nativist types that prefer a conservative approach. Many people from across the spectrum told me that they are worried about the influx of Muslim migrants because they don’t share Hungary’s western cultural values, specifically gender equality and gay rights. Others stated that unless Hungary focuses on helping Hungarians, the country’s economic and cultural influence will be perpetually stymied by outside influence and manipulation. But many other responses to my inquiries were barely responses at all: nothing to offer, or no interest in the details. How has an intellectual center of Europe become so willingly disassociated and ambivalent to their government’s actions? Even as the Hungarian government is setting up border prisons and rounding up “illegals” in a Gestapo-like manner, many citizens seem unaware or uninterested. As I prodded deeper, it became clear that a disproportionate percentage of Hungarians are unaware of what their government is doing.

Throughout the week, I traveled out of the city to neighboring towns. From the window of trains, as the concrete turned to foliage, I noticed a society crumbling into economic despair, a market slowly crumbling since the fall of Communism. I saw ramshackle villages and rusted out and abandoned industrial zones. Nationalism was fervent in these areas. Roma people are ghettoized as outsiders on the fringes of the cities and towns, and the “native citizens” commonly fly the flag of the old Hungarian Empire as a show of support for Hungarian Unity. Some municipal signage in these villages outside of city centers is written in the old runic Magyar language, legible only to Hungarians who proudly and actively support far-right nationalist traditions. One thing was clear to me in these towns: this rural population either does not know of or is not concerned by the allegations of autocracy being lobbied at the current government, or the criticism levelled at the nation’s reactionary response to the refugee crisis.

Over the last few years, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government and his political party, Fidesz, has absorbed or gained control of all Hungarian media. And the Hungarian media reports only propaganda that benefits the Fidesz government. There is no Hungarian coverage on the border camps, the immigrant beatings, the human rights atrocities, or the other authoritarian actions committed and enacted by the government. Several publications from around the globe cover these stories, when they can gain access or find a trusted lead, but that is becoming rare in a time where the Orbán government and its allies have strangled the media with an iron fist. These stories covered by large, reputable publications can be found as front-page news throughout the world, but not in Hungary. While I’ve been in Hungary, as the news of the border camps and the inhumane treatment and reports of tortuous methods employed by the guards within these camps are leaking out, I couldn’t find any information without searching five or six pages deep in Google search, and that only when using carefully selected key words. When using a Hungarian internet connection, typing “current news in Hungary” or something similar into any search engine produces only saccharin, weightless, feel-good blurbs and Hungarian national unity puff-pieces. There is absolutely no coverage from external sources if the stories casts any question about the policies of the current administration. Orbán, for a time, has succeeded in controlling the media and creating an uninformed and confused society.

There is a rising political and cultural counterbalance. Another political party, Momentum, has sprung up in Hungary in recent months. Momentum is a grassroots political party, started in a dingy basement by young activists weary of the authoritarian practices that have dominated the Hungarian parliament since the Soviet era. Their policies and agenda are an obvious rebuke to the Orbán regime, and they have gained a considerable following in the last few months throughout the country. Given the tight control of the media by Fidesz, Momentum spreads their information through social media: Facebook, Twitter, and smaller alternative news sites like the Budapest Beacon. For many in Budapest, and the whole of Hungary, Momentum brings hope. The wariness that most Hungarians carry as a badge of honor, however, doesn’t allow this hope to rapidly foment into rabid fervor. Instead, it’s a slow build. Something to keep an eye on. Additionally, assistance-related and fact-based sites, like Migszol, have begun popping up in Hungary in recent months, attempting to bring attention to the authoritarian practices of the Orbán regime, and providing information to a population that may be unaware of what’s happening behind the scenes, a common occurrence in areas outside large urban centers.

Things change, obviously, and we’re all a part of that change. This basement tavern isn’t as interesting to me as it once was. Maybe I was a bit foolish to expect that this place would’ve retained the same charm and character after nearly two years away. I’m going to head over to the outer neighborhood of the 8th kerület, known for its large population of Roma people, lower-income creative types, and young thinkers, and an exceptional café known as Csiga. My former neighborhood. It’s a dear friend’s birthday tonight, and we’re due to have a few more drinks in good company before I leave this confusing, pessimistic, wondrous, and beautiful city again. But certainly not for the last time.

Forget Peanuts and Cracker Jack, Try Chicken and Cheese

Aug.18.17

Forget Peanuts and Cracker Jack, Try Chicken and Cheese

by Emily Ziemski

This week, we’re running a series on our favorite stadium eats from around the world.

Empanadas in the Dominican Republic

Merengue blasts from the loudspeakers dotted around the outskirts of the field while fans scream unabashedly at their favorite—and least favorite—players. Baseball in the Dominican Republic has a few unique elements. One is that all baseball fields feature natural grass—infield and outfield—never turf. Another is the food.

Some go for “La Bandera Dominicana”: a well-balanced meal of rice, red kidney beans, and stewed chicken, which literally translates to “the Dominican flag.” The beans, rice, and chicken are supposed to correspond to the red, white, and blue of the flag. (Some liberties are taken with the color of the chicken.) Others spectators forgo balancing this full plate and opt for a smaller, but no less tasty snack.

The ideal stadium snack shouldn’t just taste good—it should also be practical; easy to eat and also easy to hold. Like the empanada, a love letter to flaky, deep-fried pastry. In Santo Domingo, it’s foolish to show up to a baseball game without grabbing an empanada first. There’s nothing better than biting into a warm pastelito and savoring the small drop of grease that migrates from the paper bag onto your hand.

This one is pollo queso; chicken and cheese. Forget peanuts and cracker jack, this is a classic baseball pairing. And don’t forget to wash it down with El Presidente, the beloved local pilsner.

Photo by: Daniela Batya

A Salty, Meaty Snack for Watching Others Exert Themselves in Pursuit of Soccer Glory

Aug.17.17

A Salty, Meaty Snack for Watching Others Exert Themselves in Pursuit of Soccer Glory

by Emily Ziemski

This week, we’re running a series on our favorite stadium eats from around the world.

Pork Gyros in the Bahamas

There’s a lot of running happening on this beach, but it definitely isn’t Baywatch. Hundreds are gathered on blisteringly hot metal benches to watch one of the most impressive athletic feats of all—running barefoot on scorching sand in pursuit of soccer glory.

Witnessing all of this calorie-burning can work up an appetite, so it’s important to have a protein-heavy snack on hand. Enter the gyro—a salty, meaty, hearty nosh. A gyro isn’t necessarily the first thing you think of for suitable beach food, and it probably won’t help anyone feel beach-body ready. But it’s satisfying, which is of course much more important.

Beach soccer is only in its ninth recognized national federation year, but gyros have been a stadium food staple here since the late 1880s. Greek food became a mainstay of the Archipelago when immigrants came to the Bahamas to kick-start the sponge harvesting industry. By the early 1900s, the Greek settlers began opening their own restaurants.

The thin slices of perfectly cooked pork slide from the rotisserie like butter, and are placed in a soft, warm, charred pita along with tzatziki. Every bite is a perfect blend of charred meat and cool, creamy sauce. With the gentle breeze, it’s wise to tote a snack that’s easy to eat, and will be safe from wind and sand—such as the gyro, which comes neatly wrapped.

Photo by: Otishka Ferguson

The World Champion of Noodle Cups

Aug.16.17

The World Champion of Noodle Cups

by Emily Ziemski

This week, we’re running a series on our favorite stadium eats from around the world.

Jajang in Korea

Sporting matches come with a whole lot of nerves and stress. Perched at the edges of their seats, millions of viewers anxiously watch their teams vie for glory. That, on top of the stress drinking, probably leads to a lot of upset stomachs. But Daejeon Stadium in South Korea has the perfect food to combat those nerves.

Noodle cups aren’t anything novel. The Jajang noodle cup, upon first glance, looks like any other noodle product, wrapped in cellophane. The unassuming brown package advertises what looks to be a monochrome beef stew. But it delivers so much more.

Jajang is named after the savory black sauce used in a Chinese-Korean fusion dish called jajangmyeon. Jajangmyeon is made mostly of noodles and pork chunks. The Jajang noodle cup pulls from the jajangmyeon sauce, which is roast beans and caramel. It also has what the package promises to be “large” beef-flavored flakes.

As a connoisseur of cheap noodle packs, a.k.a. a grad student, I can confidently say this might just be the winner among stadium eats, clocking in at roughly USD$1.13 per pack. And it’s a far cry from the average chicken-flavored packets.

Setting itself apart from the rest by using a liquid base, instead of the usual packet of powder, the result is something that feels a little more homemade and a little less college dorm-made. The thick, wheat noodles cling to the sauce, creating the perfect bite every time. This hearty, saucy, slurpy treat is perfect for an evening game, when the sun has set and some of the heat has gone out of its residual glow.

These packets sell out like hotcakes in grocery stores, so the best place to snag one of these may actually be a soccer match.

Photo by: Issa Del Sol

So Much More Than Corn-on-the-Cob

Aug.15.17

So Much More Than Corn-on-the-Cob

by Emily Ziemski

This week, we’re running a series on our favorite stadium eats from around the world.

Esquites in Mexico

The number one sport in Mexico is association soccer—no surprise. There’s a deep love for fútbal in Mexico. During important matches, the country grinds to a halt as people crowd into stadiums to watch the games. The country is one of only six to qualify for every FIFA World Cup consecutively since 1994.

But, the real star inside these arenas is elote, or Mexican street corn.

Esquites, the portable version of elote, may be one of the most satisfying things that can be purchased in a cup. Roughly translated as “little corn cup” there’s nothing little about the pleasure that comes with a spoonful of Mexican street corn.

Corn is a staple in traditional Mexican cooking, but esquites is what to eat when cheering on your favorite team. Some esquites are boiled, the buttery-yellow kernels submerged in hot water until tender, but the best kind are roasted in a seasoned pan over an open flame until the kernels blister and char, usually accompanied by onions. Traditional esquites must use mature corn—not fresh or dried.

The warm corn is then coated in mayo and cotija cheese. A little gooey, a little melty, the dish is then topped off with a burst of lime juice and chili powder. Occasionally, fresh pequin chilis are used, but it’s simpler to use the powder for churning out mass amounts in stadiums.

Each mouthful is a burst of sunshine with bright citrus and warm, creamy mayo, with a little bit of a kick. The perfect thing to keep your mouth occupied when you’re not screaming at the referees.

Photo by: Enid Ayala

Nothing Says “Play Ball!” Like Hot Noodles

Aug.14.17

Nothing Says “Play Ball!” Like Hot Noodles

by Emily Ziemski

This week, we’re running a series on our favorite stadium eats from around the world.

Udon in Japan

The crack of a bat; the slurp of noodles. These are the sounds that fill baseball stadiums across Japan. Forget portable snacks; for baseball fans that flood the 12 NPB—Nippon Professional Baseball—stadiums throughout Japan, it’s all about one thing: a steaming bowl of udon.

Throughout the open arena, spectators balance brightly colored umbrellas and tiny bowls garnished with aonori—seaweed powder—and katsuobushi—fish flakes. Chants rise up over the bleachers and are thrown across the divide as fans root for their chosen team.

Others choose classic fare like gyoza, edamame, and bento boxes. And though you can get hamburgers and hot dogs, nothing says “Play Ball!” here like digging into a pot of hot noodles.

The stadium food may be a far cry from peanuts and hot dogs, but it still hits on the ideal trinity of summer junk food: chewy, salty, and umami. Udon, a classic Japanese street food, involves thick, buckwheat flour noodles, nori (seaweed), and crunchy vegetables like green onions that bring color to the beige tangle of noodles. Occasionally, a generous mayonnaise drizzle makes an appearance.

Some hybridized versions include stuffing the noodles into hot dog buns, and some even chop up hot dogs into the noodles as a meaty garnish. Perhaps the only downside to this savory dish is that tossing the coated noodles in outrage over a bad call or an opposing team’s run would involve quite the cleanup. Save your edamame shells for your unsportsmanlike conduct.

At Japan’s oldest ballpark, Meiji Jingu Stadium, you can bring your own food and drinks inside—but isn’t part of the whole sports experience paying exorbitant prices for refreshments? In true sports stadium fashion, a small, generic beer is still going to cost you an arm and a leg—roughly $10 USD.

Photo by: Kagawa YMG

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