Thursday, March 19, 2015

Central Market Hall, Budapest

I like to have a goal when I wander around a new city, and I like it even more when food is the goal.

The first time I went into Budapest (with a nervous Dia who was hoping she wouldn't have to translate anything for me in the train stations) it was very early in the morning, because I went when Dia left for school, before 6:30am. As a result, I was hours too early for travel agencies to be open - I'd gone in to find out about that bus to Serbia - and so I decided that my first stop would be at the Nagycsarnok, or "Great Hall," also called the Központi Vásárcsarnok, "Central Market Hall." It's at the southern end of central Budapest, and for almost hundred and twenty years (the market was built in 1897) people have been buying and selling fresh and preserved foods there. Some of the stalls are definitely focused on the tourist trade, with embroidered bags of paprika and aprons printed with recipes for gulyásleves. But while there were lots of tourists there, two-thirds of the people seemed to be locals.

There weren't many people when I got there, but it was just past 7:30am and not even all of the stalls were open at that hour. I took the opportunity to scope out the market, noting things that I wanted to return to buy, wishing for the umpteenth time that I'd learned some Hungarian before coming here, and looking for a place to get a bite to eat and some coffee.
The only place I saw that morning was a coffee stand, and I didn't want to drink coffee without eating something. There is a restaurant on the upper floor, however, called Fakanál. I think it's open for breakfast, but it didn't look open, so I went on my way. But when I went back for my second visit to Budapest, I had lunch there, and enjoyed some authentic gypsy music, along with all the other tourists. The upper floor, or rather the second-story walkway around the perimeter, is all about the tourists.

I was dubious about the authenticity of the music when the first piece they played was something like "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" (it wasn't that, but I don't remember what it was). As soon as I heard the first bars, I started laughing and shaking my head, and the violinist looked over at me and grinned as if he knew what I was thinking. The other songs were more appropriate to the venue, though I was the only one who clapped after each piece. On the other hand, when I walked by the restaurant a few days ago there was a large crowd clapping and shouting as the fiddle wailed, so maybe it was just a quiet group the day I was there.

The older man was using mallets to play what I thought was an open piano (à la John Cage) but it turned out to be a cimbalom, a traditional Hungarian instrument that, around the time the Central Market Hall was built, had just come into prominence on the formal concert stage, far from its folk-music roots.

The souvenirs and knick-knacks in the stalls that line both sides of the upper walkway might have gotten more of my attention if there hadn't been so many people around on that second midafternoon visit. It was nearly impossible to stop long enough to look at things, with people pressing up behind to get past, or to look at the same things. And I don't really need another apron. Some of the embroidery was very nice, but I don't honestly know whether it was local (or from Hungary at least) or mass-produced in China, as I didn't stop to look at any tags. Some of the finer work - the more expensive cross-stitched patterns in blue and black and red - was probably handmade here, but I've never really known what to do with a table runner, no matter how pretty. A limited budget and an even more limited space in my bags means that even if I am tempted by something, I generally don't buy it. Unless it's edible, of course.

As it was February (and then March, on my second visit) there was a fairly limited selection of local produce, but someone is growing tomatoes and cucumbers and peppers in greenhouses somewhere in Hungary. Potatoes, radishes (both black and white), kohlrabi, and carrots are in season and easily found at the shops here in the village, and there was a good supply at the Budapest market as well. The hall is divided into sections: the front and center area has baked goods, dairy products, meats (both cured and fresh), and tourist-focused stalls with paprika and wine and other Hungarian specialties; along the sides are stalls where you'll find fruits and vegetables.

There were several stalls dedicated to all things paprika. Tins and bags of dried paprika in several strengths from mild to hot, decorated containers to keep your paprika in and tiny spoons to get it out again (though here in the Baranyi kitchen it's generally added by the heaping tablespoon, and more than one), and tubes of the puréed pepper paste called "Red Gold" here in Hungary. There's one in the refrigerator here, but I only used it once, as it's about 18% salt.

Because I have a large bag of farmer's market paprika to fit into my suitcase for Mom, I didn't get any of the decorated tins, though I may regret that if they stop me at the Serbian border and question the presence of a sack of unmarked mysterious red powder. Maybe I'll ask Noémi to make me up an official-looking label for the bag.
The shining piles of speckled dried beans were so lovely that I made a mental note to buy some on my way back, and so I did, a whole kilo of them. Noémi cooked them for a salad with sweet onion and vinegar, and they were delicious - a cranberry bean sort of shelling bean, but I don't know the exact variety. Or varieties, rather. I'd love to find a source for them back in the United States. If they weren't so heavy, and if I didn't know that there's no way in hell I could get them past customs, I would have bought some beans to take back and grow myself. Or, since it's probable that I won't end up in a place with a garden, to give to Mom and John and to Helen and Bruce to grow in their gardens. I'll remember the taste of those beans for a long time.

With only one reusable grocery bag on me, and a long train and bus ride back home, I didn't buy as much as I wanted to. There were dozens of different types of dried salami, and tins of Hungarian goose liver paté, and jars full of pork rinds next to big slabs of unrendered pork fat. The dairy-focused stalls had a lot of yoghurt and fresh cheese, but not a wide range of aged or hard cheeses. The bakery stalls were stacking up warm rolls and hot savory pastries, and I was getting hungry. When I reached the back of the hall, I saw an escalator going down to a lower level, and coming up the escalator were tantalizing smells of vinegar and spices ... that's where the pickles are! One of the first words I learned in Hungarian was savanyúság, and I had to see what types they sold here.

Every type you might imagine, in fact. When I returned to the market that afternoon I bought some pickled cucumbers stuffed with pickled cabbage, and a double handful of what looked like cornichons but turned out to be sweetish instead of sour. I was tempted by the pickled cauliflower and fascinated by all of the different varieties of pickled pepper, some stuffed with cabbage and some left whole - there were more than several pecks at least, and that was just at the first stall. I liked the funny jars at the Smiley Pickle Shop, with their carefully-packed mix of pickles and a happy face made out of a yellow pickled pepper with peppercorn eyes and a red-pepper grin. They pack other jars with a little cutout from something like white radish or kohlrabi, and of course I bought the one with the chicken. That jar is still in the refrigerator, but I need to bring it out on Saturday and eat some of the pickles, and perhaps pack a few for the bus trip. It's going to be a long 12 hours from Budapest to Niš.

The fish sellers are on the lower level along with the pickle shops, and that's where you go to get game meat as well, deer and rabbit and duck. Upstairs on the main floor it's all pork and chicken, and beef I assume, but as that's a word I haven't learned I can't tell you whether it was there or not. I also can't tell you what types of fish were for sale, and I'm reluctant to get any clarification from Noémi as to the actual names of these fish, because I like thinking that there's a fish named "heck" and another called "pouty face" (which isn't far off; fej means "head"). But in the true spirit of journalblogging, I have given it a go, and found that "heck" is actually hekk, or hake; and "pouty" should be ponty, because that's a bin full of carp heads. I still like the first version better.

A quick calculation on the price of the tins of caviar almost led me to buy one, as it's about $45 for 120g (as compared to several hundred dollars). On the other hand, this company appears to have gone out of business in 2005, so this might be 10-year-old caviar; unlike cheese, I doubt that caviar ages well. I did see some more recent-looking tins elsewhere, but never got around to buying them, and now it's too late - no time for another trip in to Budapest. Eating caviar out of a tin while sitting in the sunshine on the banks of the Danube is now on my long list of things to do next time I am in Europe. And I do hope there's a next time, or I'll be the one with the pouty face.


  1. Thorough report on the central market hall! For my taste the market is fascinating mainly by its architecture. I am missing somehow this level on the produce and food sold. I have the impression that the Hungarian cuisine has more to offer then what you can find there.
    And, is it really true that you cannot eat dairy products?
    By the way, here is my take on the Budapest central market hall:

    1. It is very true - I make cheese, I love cheese, but I don't eat cheese.