The reason is, the sight of eggs in my household at that time was so rare, it was almost a delicacy. I would see these eggs just once a year, at Easter, when a basket of eggs, each painted a glistening red, would appear in the centre of the dining table, awaiting the arrival of visitors. From time to time, I would steal one, scurry off to some hidden location, quickly peel it, devour it like there was no tomorrow and discard the shell somewhere it could never be found.
I got away with it every time, which shows what a resourceful little critter I must have been, growing up in abject poverty. And that is why I tell this story: to show that what I ate in 1950s Hungary was governed by what little my parents could afford, critically augmented, of course, by what my mother could create from cheap ingredients. (This, I’m told, is the root of all quality cuisines, including French.)
We had red meat once a week, usually at Sunday lunch, and chicken once a year, typically at Christmas. My yearning for my favourite dish, csirke paprikás (paprika chicken), was year-round torture.
We had no electrical (or gas) appliances, so no refrigerator. Food that could be held fresh overnight was stored in the pantry. That meant buying and eating fresh food every day, cooked over a wood-fired stove. That, of course, also meant eating very healthily and rarely seeing overweight people – a connection I didn’t grasp until long after I arrived in affluent Australia.
The daily staple diet consisted of many different types of tészta (pasta) and vegetable dishes, with some fabulous herbs and spices, all prepared from scratch by my mum. Ready-made, dried pasta was not yet available, so my mum would create it, by mixing together the ingredients to make a dough, kneading it, rolling it, chopping it, boiling it, and – voila! – we had homemade fettuccine. Try finding the time to do that today.
A typical day began with some pastries and a large mug of milk coffee (equivalent to a caffè latte) for breakfast. The packed lunch for school was zsiros kenyér (two large slices of bread spread with lard, topped with sliced onions, salt and paprika) and some fruit. Dinner might be borsóleves (green pea soup with paprika) to start, and mákos tészta (a pasta dish with poppy seeds) as the main. Very inexpensive eating but with some generous flavours.
My favourite of these inexpensive pasta dishes my mum made was krumplis nudli (literally, 'potato noodles’). Similar to gnocchi, but flat, thick and four centimetres long, these pieces of potato-and-flour pasta were cooked and then coated with breadcrumbs that had been fried in lard (but feel free to use oil instead). Yummy!
In Australia, where servings were much larger, krumplis nudli would’ve only passed as a side dish. But for us, back in Hungary, it was a very filling main course. These days, I make this ultimate comfort food quite often, via the speedier route of buying ready-made gnocchi, boiling it and then coating it with the fried breadcrumbs. Different shape, same taste.
A related dish is the delicious and famous szilvás gombóc (plum dumplings) – the same pasta and same breadcrumbs, except shaped into large spherical dumplings with a plum filling. Some good Hungarian restaurants in Australia serve it.
Hungary, of course, has an extensive cold-meat culture: csabai, debreceni and hurka sausages, various salamis, smoked bacon and ham and liver pâté, to name a few. All were accessible in my time. In the absence of a cooked meal, we would feast on this stuff with bread and hot pickled peppers or dill cucumbers. My favourite is the disznósajt (meaning 'pig’s cheese’), a wurst made from cuts of the pig’s head, which is heavy on paprika, pepper and garlic. My father would drizzle it with vinegar and eat it with unbearably hot cherry peppers. I can still see him sitting there with tears flowing down his cheeks, muttering, 'Shit, this is good."
The flavour of Hungarian charcuterie is ingrained in me. I still satisfy my hunger with it several times a week. Occasionally, when I’m tired of the bland foods available in the sandwich shops, I take a stick of csabai and a couple of fresh rolls to work for lunch, and fascinate colleagues who pass my office and peer in inquisitively after detecting the strong, spicy aromas from the hall.
I am used to intriguing people like this – even shocking them; I quite enjoy it, actually. It has been this way since I arrived in Australia [aged 11] in 1957 and took a packed lunch of salami sandwiches, reeking of garlic and coloured red with paprika, to school. The Aussie kids were taken aback by the sight and smell. They waved their hands across their noses and moved away, munching on their corned beef or devon. Now, of course, the most common seasoning in Australian kitchens is – you guessed it – garlic.
Immigration had its attendant shocks, including having to come to terms with culinary flavours that were not much more succulent than air or second-hand chewing gum. In the refugee camps [overseas], where my family spent six months, they fed us a canned meat, which, I am guessing, would be only slightly more flavoursome than dog food.
Once we were in Australia, we had access to much better food, especially produce – as good as any in the world. And I was amazed that the nation’s trophy dish was steak: a slab of meat thrown on the barbecue. My father, who had a natural disdain for anything to which he was not accustomed, dismissed it as tasting like the sole of a shoe.
The biggest shock, however, was fish and chips, for which I have since developed some partiality. Shortly after settling in Australia, we went on a family outing to the movies. We were all dressed in our Sunday best, my father decked out in a suit and tie, and my mother made up like Grace Kelly. Sitting beside us were bands of locals wearing shorts and thongs, consuming warm, oily, aromatic things wrapped in newspaper.
Then there were the prawns. They didn’t exist in Hungary, or at least nobody ate them, and it was in Australia that I first set eyes on them. My mother would squirm and screech at the very sight of these crustaceans with long 'moustaches’ and large eyes. Until the day she died, she would get up and leave the restaurant table if any of us ordered them. However, I got over the shock, and fried prawn cutlets are now among my favourite dishes.
My father neglected to prepare us for prawns – I guess because he, too, had never heard of them before we immigrated. On the flight to Australia in 1957, I asked him what Australian cuisine was like. He replied, 'They’re barbarians, son. They eat lamb."
As an immigrant, or a 'New Australian’ as I was labelled back in the early days, I take pride in the contribution, though limited, that I have made to my adopted country’s culinary culture, or at least to that of my circle of native friends. It comprises two traditional Hungarian dishes, both of which have been more than well received by my Australian dinner guests any time I’ve dished them out. And each of my non-Hungarian partners have indicated that these dishes are to die for.
The first is rakott krumpli (stacked potatoes), a baked dish consisting of layers of sliced potatoes, sliced hard-boiled eggs and sliced csabai (or any smoked pork sausage), 'glued’ together with layers of sour cream. This dish has become so popular since SBS Food Safari invaded my kitchen to document the recipe that the SBS cafe, in Sydney’s Artarmon, is now serving it at least once a week.
The second dish is bableves (bean soup), a hearty, thick gumbo laden with smoky flavours, thanks to the smoked pork that is its key ingredient. Not one Aussie I’ve known, including those who follow Aussie Rules or Rugby League, has ever described it as anything other than heavenly. For this, I will go to my grave a contented man.
As seen in Feast magazine, December 2011, Issue 4.