March 31, 2011
Culinary Tourism

Always Hungary

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A love/hate relationship with my native cuisine . . . .

Strange, but after deciding to abandon the Toronto Star after 23 years, I started reflecting on my past rather than my future.

I had rarely written about Hungarian food. I grew up on the stuff, and was bored with it. Hungarian cuisine is stuck in a stodgy past; it doesn’t seem to be evolving. When I think of Hungarian food, I think of grease and paprika. Sure, I sometimes enjoy it, but in small doses. Trouble is, Hungarians don’t believe in small doses.

Just before I left the newspaper, I felt compelled to write about this love/hate relationship with the cuisine of my native land. Hungarian expatriates in Toronto responded in volume. Some enjoyed the honesty and the publicity. Others bristled over any criticism of food they felt was comforting and delicious.

It’s been a year since I left the Star. But with spelling errors edited (not by me) into the published copy, plus the natural space restrictions of newspaper pages, this story felt like unfinished business. So here’s the full memoir.

You mustn’t go hungry in Hungary. In fact, you mustn’t even entertain the possibility of going hungry.

Which is how three bags of pogácsa wound up accompanying my family on a mere 1-1/2-hour trip from Budapest to Lake Balaton. Pogácsa are rich, hearty biscuits — insurance against hunger. We didn’t eat a single one, although at a gas station pit stop, my mother chased us around the parking lot with an open bag.

This took place three summers ago, during a rare visit to my country of birth. The pogácsa toured with us on road trips for a week. Some were still hanging around when we set off for the airport. We declined to take them on the flight home to Canada, although they were aggressively and lovingly pressed into our hands, along with a smoked pork hock.

I like to call this the tale of the wandering pogácsa.

       Pogacsa with bacon (left) and cheese. Photo Credits: Susan Sampson

When my cousin Agnes visited us recently, she brought back memories of the pogácsa — and of eating the Hungarian way. Our eating habits struck her as spartan and adventurous. She marvelled at the reasonable portions, and the variety, from pad thai to burnt offerings off the barbecue.

On Hungary’s home and restaurant menus, the usual favourites are served in rotation, either fried or bathed in grease and paprika (a combination loosely translated by my mother as “gravy”).  Hefty portions and enthusiastic consumption make up for the limited repertoire.

That culinary tradition was imported into Toronto’s “Goulash Archipelago,” where I spent my formative years. In its glory days, from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, Hungarian restaurants and delis crowded this strip of Bloor St. between Walmer Rd. and Markham St. in the Annex.

Customers would flock to eateries like the Korona, Continental, Tarogato and the garish Hungarian Castle. In the dark Blue Cellar Room, impoverished students downed massive quantities of egg noodles with cottage cheese, bacon bits and drippings, at bargain basement prices. Meanwhile, carnivorous couples with cash could order a festive wooden platter and get change from a $20. This tower of schnitzel, bacon, sausage, chicken livers and often a pork chop, all fried up, came with rice and potatoes, plus pickled beets or cuke salad. The platter for one served two, of course.

     Cheap, hearty noodles with cottage cheese and bacon.

My parents owned the Sport restaurant. I would occasionally sling the gypsy steaks (fried pork chops with fried onions) or the pork hocks with cabbage. But I refused to wear the weird boots all the middle-aged waitresses swore by – even when they became a punk footwear fad for about a minute in the mid-’70s. The boots came in red or blue canvas, with open heels and toes, and white trim and laces top to bottom.

Hungarian guys would sit at the Sport all day, their endless talk fuelled by endless cups of “presso.” They would snack on pogásca, lángos (fried bread) or palacsinta (stuffed crêpes) before packing in a full dinner.

Further east, celebrities regularly appeared at the Coffee Mill in Yorkville, oft cited as the home of Toronto’s first oh-so-European patio. In the beatnik days after the place opened in 1963, the clientele would argue politics over artery-clogging pastries and heart-jolting espresso before tucking into sausages and drippy potato salad.

Hungary today is still a nation of big eaters. Back in the homeland, Hungarians proudly proclaim their obsession on tourist-kiosk T-shirts that glorify “the Hungarian triathlon: eating, drinking, fucking.” Funny, but no laughing matter when you look at health statistics: the rate of heart disease in Hungary is 2.5 times the European average.

Even haute restaurants such as Gundel serve big plates. Any famous visitor, right up to the Queen of England and Pope John Paul II, will eventually end up at this historic, gustatory shrine in Budapest. Almost blinded by the shiny opulence of its interior, I opted for a simpler patio table. At lunch, I was surprised by an “appetizer” of four cholesterol-packed lobes of foie gras, which I consumed to the tune of sporadic hoots, roars, squawks and screeches from the zoo next door. It was a big job, followed by two more courses.

Hungarians even eat when they are wet. And they are often wet in this nation of pools and spas. Whether they are being knocked down like bowling pins at the Gellert wave pool or lying in languor in one of the Szécsenyi thermal baths, Budapest locals emerge often from the water for pastries and coffee, or even a big bowl of beefy goulash soup.

Meanwhile, Lake Balaton beach huts sell palacsinta and lángos. These are best declined, lest one sink like a stone in the warm, shallow waters. Palacsinta and lángos are considered snacks, but actually make a meal.

     Basic langos (fried bread), with garlic to rub on it.
      Palacsinta filled with lemony, sweet cottage cheese.

Lángos is best plain — freshly dripping with hot oil, rubbed with a cut garlic clove and sprinkled with salt. Eaters, however, are apt to mound it high with sour cream. In Budapest’s central market building, you’ll find lángos with 30 kinds of toppings – even one with ketchup.

You’ll also find 20 kinds of palacsinta. These crêpes are traditionally filled with jam or sweetened cottage cheese, but a combo of chestnut, whipped cream and chocolate sauce is hard to resist. Hortobágy palacsinta are over the top – they’re stuffed with chicken paprikás (chicken stew in sour cream gravy).

     My chicken paprikas smothered in sour cream gravy.

You can eat like this in Toronto today, but you’ll need a GPS to manoeuvre around the Hungarian restaurant diaspora. I feel compelled to phone ahead. There’s a saying nowadays that Hungarian restaurants never open, they just close.

George Telch, publisher of the Hungarian-English cultural magazine Kalejdoszkop/Kaleidoscope, tells me there are about 50,000 Hungarian speakers in Toronto, and another 10,000 in the GTA. The vast majority arrived as refugees after the failed 1956 revolution, huddling together for comfort in the Annex and Kensington neighbourhoods. Once they learned the lingo and raised the next generation, they dispersed.

“Hungarians have disappeared into the woodwork,” Telch says. “They have scattered into the English society. They easily adjusted to a western life. There’s no Hungarian ghetto, so to speak.”

He says there are tiny pockets around the Hungarian Canadian Cultural Centre on St. Clair Ave. east of Dufferin St., in the Bathurst-Lawrence neighbourhood (home to rival restos Europe and Paprika), and near Sheppard and Bayview Aves.

As for the Goulash Archipelago, the 45-year-old Country Style Hungarian Restaurant is the lone survivor. Katalin Bors, former waitress and now the third owner, has no plans to move. One simple reason: She owns the building.

Bors tells me she is not a fan of change and neither are her customers, more English now than Hungarian. “Everything is the same,” she says. “People like it.”

She did get rid of the creamed vegetables with “meatballs” (actually burger-sized fried pork patties) but otherwise the menu has changed little — except for the prices, of course. Most of the entrees are $16.95 and a small wooden plate is $35.95.

The Country Style has been often slagged on Chowhound, but waitressing here, at 13, was my second job, so a recent visit was flavoured with tasty nostalgia. The tables are covered with red-checkered cloths. Paprika shakers are laid alongside the salt and pepper sets. The menu is a litany of familiar, rib-sticking, greasy home cooking.

My order of delectable chicken livers — enough for two or even three people — came accompanied by slippery nokedli (dumplings) drizzled with paprikás sauce, three slices of warm rye bread, and cucumber salad. The single cabbage roll “appetizer” was a meal in itself.

      A pile of my homemade breaded, fried mushrooms.

Meanwhile, neighbouring diners attacked a mound of fried, breaded mushrooms and a wiener schnitzel that covered the dinner plate. That meal concluded with plump palacsinta, one filled with lemony cottage cheese, the other with poppyseeds.

The soups do come in regular and large sizes, but otherwise, the waitress reacts with a terse “No, no!” when asked whether one could request half-portions. Enter the doggie bag.

In Hungary, you can ask for half-portions at restaurants, but that’s a secret I wish I had been savvy to when I took my family there.

The cafés (like Gerbaud’s pastry shrine) were filled with delights, but the restaurants (even Gundel) were uninspiring. Luckily, we were well fed in private homes. Many a home cook is deemed wondrous, and Hungarians are genial and attentive, to make sure no one skimps.

One relative was a butcher. Several days in a row, he pulled a liver from a foie gras goose for us. Hungary is a foie gras mecca. Strangely, his family preferred the liver’s thick jacket of fat, fried into cracklings, over the liver itself. It was left up to me to slice, sear and serve the foie gras with crusty rolls and apple preserves. Yum! I knew I was going native in terms of fat consumption when I started smearing leftover goose drippings from the pan onto a roll for breakfast.

During a visit to my cousin Judit’s suburban home in Budapest, four generations closed the gap at a picnic table in her backyard. Her little house was at one end of the long lot, a vegetable garden and grape bower at the other.

     Traditional beef goulash tinted with paprika.

Judit is famed for her pogácsa. In her tiny, hot kitchen, she pulled a baking sheet full of the cheesy two-biters out of the oven. Meanwhile, outdoors, the man of the house stirred goulash in a bogrács, an iron pot hung by a chain over a fire. I wanted one! The pot was crammed with beef and potatoes in a shiny broth stained rust red with paprika. But we could barely eat any. We had stuffed ourselves with Judit’s pogácsa. It only took a few.

No wonder Hungarians swear they need pálinka (liqueur) in the morning “for digestion.” The ghastly, herbal Unicum is a popular choice for people who wish to build an iron stomach.

Don’t get me wrong. Hungarians urged us to “Eat! Eat! It’s good!” and so we did — just not in the standard huge portions. “I can’t eat that much,” I told my cousin Agnes one time as she pushed more food toward me at her dinner table. “It doesn’t matter, just eat,” she replied, then burst out laughing at the absurdity of her own comment.

When Agnes arrived in Toronto, she brought with her enough paprika to launch a restaurant, and herb and spice blends for all the traditional Hungarian goulashes and heavy, hearty soups. I didn’t have the heart to confess I rarely make them. She was bound to find out as she dined at my multicultural table.

Agnes stayed for a month. One weekend, we set off in a pack for Niagara Falls. It’s barely an hour away, not a long ride that requires sustenance. But as we piled into the car, my mother chirped: “Don’t worry, I have the bag of pogácsa.”

Okay. Have pogácsa, will travel.


Hungarian Eateries in the GTA

Bacsi Restaurant, 1992 Yonge St. (north of Davisville Ave.), 416-440-1220.
The Coffee Mill Restaurant, 99 Yorkville Ave. (west of Bay St.), 416-920-2108. Moved from original location in Lothian Mews.
Cosy Hungarian Dining Room, 2448-½ Kingston Rd. (west of Midland Ave.), 416-261-2415. Dinner only.
Country Style Hungarian Restaurant, 450 Bloor St. W. (east of Bathurst St.), 416-536-5966. Cash only.
Courtyard Restaurant and Bistro, 121 Yorkville Ave. (west of Bay St.), 416-513-9688. Hungarian favourites tossed into international mix.
Europe Bar and Restaurant Hungarian Kitchen, 3030 Bathurst St. (south of Lawrence Ave.), 647-436-9739.
Hungary Thai Bar & Eatery, 196 Augusta Ave. (Kensington Market), 416-595-6405. Mixed menu. Run by a Hungarian and Thai couple.
Mr. Hungarian Restaurant, 144 Main St. N., Markham, 905-201-9902.
Paprika Hungarian Restaurant, 3450 Bathurst St. (north of Lawrence Ave.), 416-789-3478.
Rhapsody, 10152 Yonge St., Richmond Hill, 905-884-0305. Hungarian and continental cuisine.
Schnitzel Bistro, 10220 Yonge St., Richmond Hill, 905-737-7200.

Hungarian Food Shops in the GTA

Balaton Meat, 96 Corstate Ave., Vaughan, 905-761-1010. Meat plant with retail store.
Blue Danube Sausage House, 24 Chauncey Ave. (north of Queensway, west of Islington Ave.), 416-234-9911. Deli and butcher shop, pastries, groceries, frozen takeout dishes.
European Sausage House, 145 Norfinch Dr., Unit 6,7 & 8 (near Finch Ave. and Hwy. 400), 416-663-8323. Deli and groceries.
Mezes Macko/Hungarian Honey Bear, 249 Sheppard Ave. E. (near Bayview Ave.), 416-733-0022. Deli and groceries.