Friday, November 20, 2009

Week #12 Hungarian

Sometimes you start out to write one thing, and something entirely different presents itself. This entry is about Hungarian food, but it's also a remembrance of a fixture on the food scene here in Burbank for 40 years. Otto Huber died a few weeks ago. So beloved was this Hungarian immigrant and deli owner that the kids from the high school down the street dedicated a Facebook page to him.

I first visited Otto's Hungarian Import Store and Deli when I was in culinary school and making goulash, a staple of Hungarian cuisine. I needed paprika for the job and figured that since I was making a Hungarian dish, I might as well go to a Hungarian store to buy a more authentic paprika than what they carry at the chain grocery. When I was growing up, I thought paprika was just something you sprinkled on the devilled eggs to give them a little color. But when I went to Otto's, I discovered a world of paprika that's actually used for flavoring foods in varying degrees of sweet and hot.

That's when I met Otto, a chatty, gregarious man who kept his store open six days a week, except for August, when he locked up the business and went home to Hungary for an entire month to collect hugs from several hundred extended family members. I'm sorry I was never in the shop on one of those occasions when he whipped out his accordion to serenade his clientele with Hungarian folk tunes. (I'm linking the Burbank Leader article about his passing, because it includes a wonderful photo of him brandishing that accordion.)

My stash of Otto's sweet paprika is about the largest container in my cabinet of spices. When the goulash & paprikás turn out THAT good, you want an ample supply of the key ingredient on hand.
The last time I saw Otto was not in his deli but at the post office. He cut quite a figure--a 77-year-old in his usual attire of white shorts, white shirt and white butcher's apron, with the little paper hat perched on his head. He was a local celebrity, and everyone in line and behind the counter was tickled to see him. And he was tickled right back.

The door of Otto's is still closed, some six weeks since his death. It will eventually open under the care of his son, Tom. No doubt it will still sell more paprika than you ever imagined you'd see in one place, along with csalamade, those yummy Hungarian pickled white bell peppers, and spaetzle makers and chestnut purée presses and all the rest. I believe the good memories Otto created there will linger in the minds of his patrons and his son, who will carry on in his spirit and continue providing imported goods for homesick Hungarians and fantastic sandwiches for the next generation of high school kids on break between classes.

This is the spirit of goodwill I experienced last week in the expression of the owner of Duna Csárda (which means Danube Tavern), who wrapped up a couple of brioches and pressed them into our hands before we left his restaurant, along with a copy of the Hungarian language newspaper he publishes.

Duna Csárda on Melrose, a couple of blocks from Paramount Studios, demonstrated what I'm discovering with just about every country whose cuisine we've sampled so far: that Hungary has a wealth of foods in common with those of other countries. In this case France, Germany, Turkey and Austria--in fact, they don't call it Austro-Hungarian for nothing. The borders and names might change, but people cling to their favorite foods even as they absorb new ones. I don't think anyone ever completely forsakes one cuisine for another. But I digress...

We began with a Duna cocktail, a mixture of champagne and tokaji, a sweet wine the Magyars hold near and dear to their hearts. The dryness of the champagne and the sweetness of the tokaji balanced out to provide a refreshing aperitif and prepare our tums for the meal ahead.

Crescent roll called "kifli," a non-crescent-shaped roll & my tokaji cocktail; and check out those durable Soviet-era salt & pepper shakers! First shakers I've ever wanted to swipe from a restaurant (don't worry--I didn't.)
Our bread included kifli, what we know as crescent rolls--and what the French took and made with puffed pastry, to great effect. (Austria has the "kipfel," which dates back to the 13th century.) The breads were rather basic, and that's just fine. Some breads are stars all on their own, while others are good supporting players. These breads were the latter.

The appetizer plate included korozott & a couple of Hungarian sausages
 Korozott (in the middle) is a mousse made by whipping together sheep's cheese, creamy butter and sweet paprika. We shmeared it on that supporting player bread. Hungary has a great sausage-making tradition, and we sampled two types. The one in the foreground reminded me of a blood sausage filled with rice. The texture was smooth and the flavor mild. The one at the top of the photo was spicier and made me really happy--as spice tends to do. An assortment of fresh vegetables and some Swiss cheese rounded out the plate, the veggies ensuring that we didn't succumb to the richness of the sausages, korozott and cheese.

My Night Owl Soup, a.k.a.  Korhely Leves
I yearn to visit Eastern Europe and explore its rich history and culture, but I have a feeling the languages there will give me serious problems. If I remember "korhely leves" though, I should stay well fed. The menu calls it Night Owl Soup. I love this name, which conjures images of huddling over a hot bowl in a small café, the gales of a harsh Hungarian winter night blowing outside. It's a hearty sauerkraut and dill soup with onions, chunks of smoked veal and a dollop of sour cream. I could have been satisfied with a bowl of this soup and a piece of that "supporting player bread."

 Veal Gulyás with homemade potato dumplings
Himself had the veal gulyás, a delicately flavored stew. Those dumplings look just like scrambled eggs, but one bite lets you know they're potato based. Gulyás and paprikas are probably what people think of first when Hungarian food is mentioned. These two dishes are quite similar--both are basically meat braises seasoned with paprika, but paprikás has either sweet or sour cream stirred into it at the end. The veal also had a good deal of fat in it. Hungarians aren't as squeamish about fat as Americans are--it's part of the animal, and it goes into the mix. Period.

Dobos Torte
The pride of the Hungarian dessert case is the Dobos torte, created by a famous Hungarian chef in the 19th century. It is made of five thin layers of sponge cake separated by layers of chocolate buttercream, with a sheet of caramelized sugar on top. It's easy to view such desserts and think the pastry chef was just messing about to see what he could concoct, but this dessert was quite practically constructed. Chef Jozsef Dobos wanted to create a cake that wouldn't dry out as quickly as other desserts of the day tended to. So he developed a specific cake batter and buttercream for the job, both of which held moisture better than the batters and cooked pastry creams in use at the time, and topped the cake with caramel to seal in more of the moisture. I haven't had this cake since I learned to make it in culinary school, so it was a nice reunion. It also reminds me of why I don't make things like this very often--too rich and too much for the two of us to have in our house! This is a dessert to make only if you can share it.

Our host gave us a couple of brioche to take home, egg washed and shiny and filled with currants. They made a good breakfast the next morning with cheese and honey.

Something about this meal makes me want to dust off my passport and head to Hungary--more so than any of my meals in this blogging project so far have made me want to set out to their corresponding countries. Perhaps I feel a truer sense of the culture after my experiences at both Otto's and Duna Csárda. Perhaps it was being reacquainted with some of the country's dishes that I'd learned to make and more or less forgotten about in the meantime. I'm not sure, but it's something I continue thinking about. Every experience in this 52 cuisines exercise so far has struck different parts of my sensibilities in different ways.

I'm finding value in this blogging exercise that reaches far beyond the food itself.

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