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Where Cholent is Chic

In today’s Budapest, traditional Jewish foods crop up on the menus of even the trendiest restaurants.

One of the views for which Budapest is known—Hungary’s Parliament along the Danube embankment.

By Jayne Cohen

Before they get to the tortes and pastries, tourists in Budapest eager for a taste of the traditional follow the seductive scents of paprika and garlic to goulash, paprikash and, often, something spelled “sólet” on menus.

Sound it out Hungarian-style—SHOW-let—and it’s obvious that this dish is cholent, the long-simmering Sabbath stew of Ashkenazi Jews. There is cholent at the recently kosher Carmel Pince, and also at Jewish-owned but nonkosher restaurants such as Kádár and Rosenstein. At Fülemüle, owner András Singer offers six versions, including one with goose foie gras and grilled onions, and the “fully loaded” King David, a rich mélange of goose leg, stuffed goose neck, and the hickory-smoked meats he learned to make in Montreal. But there is cholent at non-Jewish restaurants as well, such as Polo Pub Sörözö. And at many restaurants, cholent may be prepared with pig knuckle, spareribs, or other porky parts instead of goose.

How did this iconic dish—long associated with Orthodox, old-fashioned, “you-have-to-be-Jewish-to-love-it” cooking—find a place in the Budapest culinary repertoire? The answer lies between “Judapest”—a term used derisively over a century ago by Vienna’s anti-Semitic mayor to refer to the Jewish-inflected capital of Hungary —and JudaPest.org, a contemporary on- and offline community of the city’s young, hip Jews. It’s the story of the vibrant and very diverse community of Budapest Jews today.

Fülemüle Sólet (Cholent)     

The smell of András Singer’s cholent simmering throughout the day is intoxicating. Though cholent is traditionally served as a Shabbat lunch, this hearty dish makes a wonderful dinner on a chilly evening any day of the week. You can vary the meats according to preference and availability, but be sure to use two kinds—and one of those must be smoked (for example, smoked turkey legs, combined with plain brisket).

About 2 cups dried beans (your favorite kind)
1 large onion, chopped
4 tablespoons goose, duck or chicken schmaltz (fat)*
1½ pounds smoked beef brisket
2 goose or duck legs or 1–2 turkey legs
6 eggs in their shells, washed
1 cup pearl barley, washed
Freshly ground pepper
About 1 tablespoon (or to taste) finely chopped garlic
2 teaspoons (or to taste) best-quality mild Hungarian paprika

Pick over the beans and rinse them well. Soak overnight in enough cold water to cover them by 2 inches, or use the quick soak method: put beans in a large saucepan and add cold water to cover by a few inches. Bring to a boil and simmer for 2 minutes, then remove from heat and let stand, covered, for 1 hour. Drain.

Preheat the oven to 275ºF. In a very large flameproof casserole, sauté the onions in 2 tablespoons of the schmaltz until softened. Stir about half of the drained beans into the onions. Add the brisket, poultry legs, eggs in their shell, and the barley. Cover with remaining half of beans. Season everything with salt and pepper to taste, garlic, paprika, and remaining 2 tablespoons of schmaltz. Add enough water to cover everything and cover the casserole tightly.

Place in the oven and cook for 6–7 hours until the beans are very tender. (Check the cholent after it has cooked for 4–5 hours and, if needed, add some hot water to the casserole.) When the cholent has finished cooking, turn off the heat, but leave the cholent in the oven for an additional 2–3 hours.

To serve, shell the eggs and quarter them. Slice the brisket and remove the poultry meat from the bones. Check seasoning and add a little salt if needed. Arrange some eggs, sliced meats, beans and barley on each plate. Yield: About 6 servings

*You can substitute oil if desired, but poultry fat will add lots of flavor

The city that was to become “Zion on the Danube” (as Budapest-born author Kati Marton has described it) was a backwater comprising three distinct little towns—Buda, Pest, and Obuda—until the Hapsburgs established it as a separate, but co-equal capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867. During the city’s Golden Age that followed, Budapest, glittering, elegant, and cosmopolitan, became the most driven, fastest-growing city in Europe, boasting the first underground subway on the Continent and the largest Parliament after the Palace of Westminster, along with a theatre and café society scene as sophisticated as that in Paris.


No one benefited more than Hungary’s newly emancipated Jews, who flocked to the capital. Ambitious and energized by optimism, they came for the new progressive education system that rivaled the best in Europe, and for the extraordinary opportunities suddenly available to entrepreneurs and bankers, artists and professionals, mathematicians and scientists. By 1910, the Jewish population of Budapest reached 200,000, or about 23 percent of the total citizenry. But these figures tell only a partial story because the influence of the Jews far exceeded their numbers.

Potato Langos     

 Adapted from Ágnes Peresztegi
Agnes serves these delicious garlicky fried treats as an alternative to latkes on Chanukah.

¾ pound potatoes, scrubbed but unpeeled
About 3 cups flour
1 tablespoon oil, plus additional for frying
1 scant cup warm milk (about 100–110ºF)
1 package active dry yeast (about 2¼ teaspoons)
½ teaspoon sugar
For serving: garlic, coarse salt, sour cream, grated cheese

Cook the potatoes in salted water until fork-tender. Drain, peel and mash until very smooth. Let cool. In a large bowl, combine the cooled mashed potatoes, flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and the oil, and mix well. Make a well in the center of the mixture, and in it pour the milk. Sprinkle the milk with the yeast and the sugar and allow to dissolve and proof, undisturbed, for 5–10 minutes.

Slowly work the yeast mixture into the potato-flour dough. Knead by hand or with a dough hook until smooth and elastic. If dough is sticky, add a little more flour; the dough should be soft and light.

Transfer the dough to a bowl that has been lightly dusted with flour. Cover with a clean dish towel and let rise in a warm place until tripled in bulk, about 1 hour. Roll out the dough about 1/2-inch thick and cut into fist-sized pieces. Let rest 15 minutes. Lightly prick each piece a few times with the tip of a knife.

Heat about 1/2-inch oil in a heavy, deep-sided skillet. Carefully add the langos (cook in batches without crowding the pan) and cover the skillet. Fry over medium heat until the bottoms are golden-brown, then turn and fry uncovered until the second side is browned. Drain well on paper towels and rub each with a cut clove of garlic or sprinkle lightly with pressed garlic. Top with coarse salt. Serve immediately, with sour cream and/or grated cheese, as desired. Yield: 10–15 servings, depending on appetites and what else is served at the meal.

There was little hyperbole in Hungarian (and non-Jewish) poet Endre Ady’s description of Budapest as “built by the Jews for the rest of us.” Not only did Jewish capital fuel the economy, but the vast majority of developers and architects were Jews, who, in turn, were enthusiastically and readily hired by wealthy Jewish clients to build private villas as well as commercial and public institutions. Together they forged the distinctively idiosyncratic Hungarian Art Nouveau style that is still the most impressive face of Budapest today, employing opulent gold, sinuous lines, colorful folkloric motifs and mosaics.

Jews were made members of the nobility, and in 1912 Budapest elected a Jewish mayor. And Jews assimilated faster—and more thoroughly—than anywhere else in Europe.

Rakott Palacsinta (Crepe Stacks)                

For Chanukah, Ágnes Peresztegi enlists her sons to layer light crepes with the fillings traditionally used in the tiered Hungarian-Jewish pastry, flodni, to make these easy, sumptuous crepe stacks. For even easier serving, have guests spread individual crepes with their choice of fillings. You can also serve the crepes with your own favorite full-flavored jam.

For the palacsinta (crepes):
1 cup milk
3 large eggs
1¼ cups flour
1 teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup club soda
butter for frying (although regular butter is fine, clarified butter works especially well here; instead of preparing my own, I buy Indian ghee, available at many specialty stores and well-stocked supermarkets with kosher certification)

For the fillings:
Filling 1—Lekvar (prune jam; usually available in the baking department of well-stocked supermarkets)
Filling 2—9 ounces ground walnuts combined with 5 tablespoons light honey
Filling 3—9 ounces ground poppy seeds, 3 tablespoons sugar, 2 tablespoons sweet kosher red wine, 1 apple (peeled, cored, and grated), and 4 to 5 tablespoons light honey
Confectioners’ sugar (optional)

In a blender, mix milk, eggs, flour, sugar and salt until smooth. Transfer batter to a bowl and let rest at room temperature for 1–2 hours.

Set out the three fillings at your work area so you (or even better, a helper or two) can assemble everything quickly. To make the poppy seed filling, combine poppy seeds, sugar, wine, apple, and honey in a saucepan. Simmer, stirring, until liquid is evaporated and mixture is thickened.

Before frying crepes, add the club soda to the batter and stir well. Heat a lightly buttered 8-inch crepe pan or skillet until sizzling. Pour about 1/4 cup of batter into the hot pan and immediately tilt the pan from side to side to distribute the batter evenly over the bottom. Cook over moderate heat until bubbles appear on the surface. Flip the crepe carefully and cook the second side for 5–10 seconds more, until brown dots appear on the bottom. Transfer to a platter and keep warm. Continue making crepes until the batter is used up, brushing the pan with additional butter as necessary. Remember to stir the batter occasionally. Pile the cooked crepes on the platter, separating each with wax paper.

To assemble a crepe stack, place a crepe on a serving plate and spread it with the lekvar filling. Top with a second crepe, and spread that with the walnut filling. Top with a third crepe and spread that with the poppy seed–apple filling. Finish with a final crepe and a sprinkle of confectioners’ sugar, if desired. For best flavor, serve as quickly as possible.
Yield: About 6–8 servings

It is estimated that as many as one-third of Jewish males had intermarried prior to World War II. But while many Magyarized their names and gave up Jewish rituals and traditions, Jewish culture—the arts, humor, and especially, cuisine—still exerted a vigorous pull.

Intermarried Jews introduced non-Jewish spouses and extended family members to favorite Jewish foods. In addition, well-to-do Jews taught their cooks and maids how to prepare their traditional recipes.

Sautéed Cabbage With Noodles                

Ágnes Peresztegi’s homey pasta makes a delicious accompaniment to roast duck or chicken or a braised brisket but is also satisfying as an easy main dish.

2 pounds green cabbage, trimmed, cored, and shredded
Kosher salt
About 6 tablespoons oil (poultry fat can also be used)
1 large onion, chopped (optional)
Granulated sugar
1 pound egg pasta, preferably 1- or 2-inch squares (break packaged noodles into rough squares)
Freshly ground pepper and/or confectioners’ sugar

Put the cabbage in a colander and sprinkle liberally with salt. Let stand for 30 minutes, then squeeze out as much liquid as possible from the cabbage. Heat 4 tablespoons oil in a large, heavy skillet. Add the onion, if desired, and sauté until softened. Add the cabbage and sauté, stirring frequently. When cabbage is nearly tender, add a little sugar (1–2 teaspoons, or to taste), and continue cooking until completely tender and lightly browned.

Meanwhile, cook the noodles in boiling salted water until tender. Drain and toss to coat with 1–2 tablespoons oil. Stir in the sautéed cabbage and combine well. Taste for salt.

Before serving, sprinkle with fresh pepper or dust lightly with confectioners’ sugar or season with both. Yield: 6–8 servings as a side dish; 4 servings as a main course.

In time, these dishes found their way into the Hungarian culinary mainstream. According to Carolyn Bánfalvi, author of Food Wine Budapest and frequent contributor to Chew.hu, an English-language blog about food and wine in Hungary, “Sólet is very appealing to Hungarians. It has ingredients that they love: smoked meat, beans, and paprika.” And by the nineteenth century, paprika was so thoroughly identified with Magyar cooking that it was considered Hungary’s national spice.

If you come down with sniffles in Budapest today, you can order a lusty goose soup with matzoh balls (prepared from moistened whole matzoh) at any number of restaurants, sometimes served with a side order of paprika paste.

According to Bob Cohen, a Hungarian-American musician and writer (blogging at Dumneazu: Ethnomusicological Eating East of Everywhere) who has made Budapest his home since 1988, “a lot of foods have entered into Hungarian cuisine to the extent that Hungarians don’t identify them as Jewish at all. Matzoh is widely available because it is used as goose stuffing. Challah—kalacs—is eaten usually on the weekend … probably because it was available on Fridays.”

Jews eager to assimilate learned the Magyar tongue quickly and helped to popularize it among the many other minority languages, to become Hungary’s national language. And just as Jewish foods entered the gastronomy, Yiddish words entered the vocabulary. Cohen points out words like haver (friend) and mazli (luck). Adds Eszter Bodrogi, a Jewish food writer who blogs at Füszer És Lélek: Zsidó Konyha (Spice and Spirit: Jewish Kitchen), “kóser [kosher] is also used as slang meaning good quality and clean business.”

The death knell for Budapest’s golden age sounded years before Hitler, when right-wing fascist Miklós Horthy declared himself regent of Hungary in 1920 and enacted the first anti-Semitic legislation. However, despite his alliance with the Axis powers, Horthy rebuffed Hitler, and initially Hungary’s Jews were spared systematic deportations and extermination. But in March 1944, Adolf Eichmann took over, his killing machine aided by the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross Party, and by the time the Russians liberated Budapest in January 1945, only half of its Jews—about 100,000—had survived.

The glorious past—and its imprint on the cuisine, language, and magical architecture—could have been where the remarkable Jewish narrative of this city ended, as in other places. It might have been a ghost tale, as in Córdoba, where the museum synagogue and reconstructed Ladino recipes on restaurant menus conjure up a vanished people brutally expelled over 500 years ago. Or it could have been an absurdist story, as in Warsaw, once nearly one-third Jewish, where matzoh now is sold as a health food to Poles.

But while many once-celebrated Jewish centers have withered or even disappeared entirely, Jewish Budapest is thriving today, not just reclaiming its past, but creating a future. Much of the new vitality comes from the city’s young Jews, and the excitement and energy they generate is palpable.

After World War II, a majority of Budapest’s Jews chose to remain. While Judaism was discouraged, “goulash communism,” as the West dubbed the subsequent Hungarian government, was somewhat more liberal than in other Soviet-bloc countries: Hungary had kosher meat, a matzoh factory, and the only approved rabbinical seminary. Still, many Jews were afraid to practice their religion, and others had forgotten how.

When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, there was a renaissance in Jewish life, as Jews rediscovered and redefined what it meant to be a Jew in Budapest.

For some, Jewish identity meant a return to the faith. There has been rapid growth in synagogue attendance among all denominations. Dynamic rabbis educate not just the youth but assimilated older generations as well. Ágnes Peresztegi, a lawyer active in Holocaust-looted art recovery claims, mentions the Haggadah her Orthodox synagogue created because “many members didn’t know how to make a Seder.” And often it is the children who teach their parents, bringing home the learning—and the excitement—they experience in Jewish day schools, youth groups and summer camps.

Bodrogi, who is 35, says her parents “never kept their traditions, but after a while we started to feel a growing need for Shabbat. Fortunately, we were socialized at an early age when we could say we are Jews with no fear. Our parents were the first generation after the war, and they were raised to keep it a secret. But the current 20- to 40-year-old Jews just started looking for their identity, and I think the way to Jewish existence leads through gastronomy as well.”

Two years ago, she began to write a culinary blog and included her family’s recipes. “I was a bit afraid to post the first Jewish recipe, but it was a huge success.” Soon her recipes were published in a cookbook, and despite Hungary’s economic crisis, it sold out in twelve weeks. A second edition will be out soon, and plans for translations are in the works. The blog, written in Hungarian, attracts both Jewish and non-Jewish readers.

András Singer opened Fülemüle in 2001 “to offer the taste of my mother’s and grandmother’s kitchen. I’ll never forget the Saturdays when my mother opened the oven and I felt the smell of the fresh cholent.”

But that year, he says, “the voices of anti-Semitism became stronger and the conservative government did not react. Seder and Easter fell on the same day. I put an advertisement in the newspapers: ‘Happy Easter from the Fülemüle! We have a nice Easter menu: goose soup with matzoh balls, cholent.’ The message was a direct hit,” and the restaurant was crowded with customers. “We called it ‘the Cholent Club.’ ”

Today Jewish and non-Jewish guests—politicians, artists, journalists, even members of right wing parties—come for appetizers like goose cracklings (griebenes) and a fragrant paprika-garlic goose schmaltz spread, entrees such as crispy roast duck with cabbage noodles, and a sumptuous fried matzoh with chocolate sauce for dessert.

The heart of the new Jewish narrative is centered in the old Jewish neighborhood in the Seventh District. Here is the magnificent restored Dohány Synagogue (second largest in the world; only Manhattan’s Temple Emanu-El is bigger), and in the garden, the Tree of Life, a metal willow tree whose leaves, engraved with names of victims who perished in the Holocaust, weep in mournful memory. Funding for these projects was spearheaded by Hungarian-American Jews Tony Curtis and Estée Lauder.

But beyond the historic sites in the area, there is new, vibrant Jewish life here where Jewish arts and culture are explored in bars and cafes owned by Jewish hipsters. Many of these attract both Jewish and non-Jewish customers. Cohen explains, “Being Jewish allows one to experience being ‘the Other’ in a way other Hungarians … can or do not. And being ‘the Other’ is always cool—until you find yourself in a social situation where it’s not.”

The six-year-old Café Spinoza features not only theatre and music but lectures and exhibitions on Jewish themes. New owner Tal Lev says he plans to start “a traditional Spinoza Tisch [spiritual party] every Friday night, with a klezmer band and kiddush.”

Ádam Schönberger, part-owner of the three-year-old Sirály Café, is also the force behind Marom, the youth movement of Masorti [Conservative] Judaism in Budapest. Marom presents seminars and cultural events such as “Jewstock,” a counterpoint to the Jewish Summer Festival sponsored by the establishment Hungarian Jewish Community. In an interview published in The Wall Street Journal in 2008, Schönberger explained that Jewstock “isn’t people singing in Yiddish. This is a new period in Jewish culture. And I think that this is extremely important in Hungary, because so many young people think that anything that has to do with Jewish culture is not cool.” Last year the Chanukah festival that Marom held at the Siraly was an eight-day extravaganza including Jewish food, several iterations of cutting-edge and living traditional music (including Bob Cohen’s band, Di Naye Kapelye), and soul-searching discussions on such topics as Jewish identity conflicts.

The question of who is a Jew has particular resonance in Budapest, where estimates of the number of Jews range from 60,000 to 100,000—and all the way up to 200,000, depending on who’s counting and what they are counting. After years of intermarriage and assimilation, many people eager to explore their Jewishness now resent being questioned about their roots and their religious affiliations.

Bruno Bitter emphasizes the importance of inclusiveness and the diversity of the city’s Jews in the Web site he founded, JudaPest.org, where an alternative, progressive Jewish experience is expressed in a smart, irreverent voice. Above all, Bitter sees Budapest’s Jews as an “increasingly future-oriented community,” one that defines itself not by its prewar heritage or by the Holocaust. “We have … become a lot stronger. We really don’t need any paternalistic nurturing from Israel or the U.S.”

And they are here to stay. As Bob Cohen puts it, despite the divide in Hungarian cultural life “between ‘urban’ [cosmopolitan, Jewish, intellectual, international] and the ‘nepi’ [folkish, rural, Christian] ... part of Budapest Jewish identity is that we feel at home in this city—something the self-defined nepi right wing can never admit to. Like a New York Jew, we pride ourselves on knowing where the best pastry is, where the best Chinese food is, where the best wine can be bought.”

More Jewish Recipes from Budapest

By Jayne Cohen

Spicy Eszter’s Hungarian Garlicky Latkes    

Spicy Eszter (Fuszeres Eszter) is Eszter Bodrogi’s nom de plume at her food blog and at Judapest.org, where she is the editor of gastronomy. In her delectable latkes, garlic replaces the onion commonly used in other Ashkenazi  potato latkes.

1 1/2 pounds russet (baking) potatoes
5 to 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 large egg, beaten to blend
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Oil for frying
Accompaniment: sour cream

Grate the potatoes in a food processor or by hand using a box grater. Press out as much moisture as possible from the potatoes. Combine the potatoes, garlic, egg, flour, baking powder, salt, and pepper in a large bowl.

Heat about 1/4-inch oil in a large, heavy skillet until hot but not smoking. Using a 1/4-cup measure, drop the batter into the pan and flatten slightly with a spatula. Cook in batches without crowding the pan.

Fry until golden and crisp on the bottom. Turn carefully and cook second side. Transfer latkes as they are done to paper towels to drain. Serve hot, accompanied by sour cream. Yield: about 4 servings

Spicy Eszter’s Shoemaker’s Meatballs

Named for Eszter Bodrogi’s great-grandfather, a master shoemaker, this recipe is packed with flavor, but comes together very quickly. Eszter says her family often enjoys these meatballs on Shabbat, “if we are bored of sholet [cholent].” For finest flavor, be sure to use fresh, good-quality Hungarian paprika.

For the meatballs:
1 pound ground meat
1 egg, beaten to blend
4 tablespoons breadcrumbs
1 onion, chopped fine
2 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1 tablespoon best-quality Hungarian paprika
1 teaspoon marjoram
salt and freshly ground pepper

For the sauce:
2 large onions, diced
2 peppers, seeded and diced
2 tomatoes, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons best-quality Hungarian paprika
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 bunch parsley, chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Make the meatballs: in a large bowl, combine the meat, egg, breadcrumbs, onion, garlic, paprika, marjoram, salt and pepper to taste, and mix well. Form into small balls, about the size of a walnut.

Start the sauce: combine the onions, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, paprika, bay leaves, cumin, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste in a saucepan and bring to a simmer.

Add the meatballs and cover the pot. Simmer for 20-25 minutes, until the meatballs are cooked through. Yield: about 4 servings


Jayne Cohen’s latest book, Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover’s Classics and Improvisations, was published by John Wiley in March 2008.
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