Food & Fitness After 50: Cultural Connections Through Cuisine

My ancestry results came with some surprises. I’m 78% of Eastern European and Russian descent (no surprise) and 13% Eastern Jewish ancestry, which was a surprise. So, when I got the chance to spend time in Budapest, Hungary, I was excited to explore the cuisine that has deep ties to my ancestry.

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The Hungarian Parliament

The conference, FoodFluence, is an intimate gathering of food and nutrition influencers for 4 days of content, connections, and culture.  The conference includes a local, cultural speaker and Andres Jokuti, a Hungarian writer and authority of Budapest food culture, told us that Hungarian cuisine is truly a melting pot of cultures as well as a product of climate and location. As land-locked country with long, cold winters, hearty dishes of beef, pork, and poultry are staple proteins with the addition of grains, root vegetables, and beans. And, of course, we can’t forget paprika…spicy, sweet, or smoky, it is the lifeblood spice of Hungarian cuisine. The traditional Hungarian Goulash (a soup, not a stew, in Hungary) is a classic example. Hungarian cuisine is heavily influenced by Turkish, Italian, Austrian, Saxon, and Russian cultures, as well as the large Jewish population that once was a vibrant part of Hungarian life. It was the Hungarian Jewish cuisine that was of great interest to me.

Our first meal was at Kőleves Vendéglő in what remains of the Jewish ghetto. The starter was matzoh ball soup made with goose broth. I associate matzoh ball soup with chicken stock, but in Hungary goose is a common fowl and makes for a very rich and flavorful broth. At another famous Budapest restaurant, Rosenstein, I had matzoh ball soup with beef broth….both were delicious!

 

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Cholent with Goose and Tongue

The most memorable meal we had was prepared as a private dinner by Miklaus, an older gentleman who runs a cooking school in his apartment, but this night prepared a traditional Jewish meal and served it to us in his daughter’s restaurant, M, a small dinner-only restaurant in the Jewish ghetto. Matzoh ball soup with goose broth and goose neck, roasted chicken with Brussels sprouts, and a classic, totally and completely Jewish dish, cholent. You could say that cholent is the original slow cooker meal long before the advent of crock pots. Since observant Jews did no work on the Sabbath, including cooking, a dish of meat, beans, grains, vegetables, and often egg, was made as a stew on Friday before the lighting of the Shabbat candles. The dish was put in a slow oven to cook overnight. In Budapest, Jewish families would take their cholent to the local bakery and use the baking ovens to slow cook their dishes overnight and retrieve them in time for the Sabbath dinner. Every family had their own recipe and it reflected the local ingredients and time-honored family traditions. Miklaus’ cholent was made with barley, beans, goose, and beef tongue. I remember the first time I had tongue served by my mother-in-law; stewing the meat for a long time makes it tender but for most of us it isn’t very appealing. But, using every bit of the animal made eating very sustainable for families with limited means. We finished the meal with a less traditional dessert, by Miklaus’ daughter, a pastry whiz. A decadent molten chocolate cake with salted caramel ice cream was the best sweet I’ve ever eaten!

IMG_3404We also enjoyed Hungarian wines, with 22 wine regions, an empty glass is not an option. I wish Hungarian wines were imported to the states but I not many leave the region.

Another traditional Jewish dish is a dessert called Flodni. The most famous is made by Rachel Raj, a Hungarian celebrity with a warm, vibrant personality, sometimes called the Rachel Ray of Hungary. But, after meeting her, I think Rachel Ray is the Rachel Raj of the U.S. The pastry is made with layers of poppy seeds, apple, walnuts, and plum jam between thin layers of flaky pastry, from a secret family recipe. Rachel made Flodni for all the participants at FoodFluence and it was greatly appreciated.

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I enjoyed meeting Rachel Raj 

I mentioned beef-broth matzoh ball soup at Rosenstein, and I also tried Hungarian stuffed cabbage made with goose instead of ground beef and served on a bed of sauerkraut. Loads of cabbage and very rich and different from the Ukrainian stuffed cabbage that was a staple during my childhood. IMG_3485 2

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The immersion into Jewish culture and cuisine was made all the more meaningful because during our visit it was the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration and extermination camp of Auschwitz. During a private tour of the largest synagogue in Europe, we learned that in May of 1944, toward the end of the war, more than 424, 000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz in just 8 weeks-time. In total, more than 565,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered in the holocaust. It was a sober reminder that we must all stay vigilant and replace hatred of those different from ourselves with love and acceptance.

If you are reading this post you know I usually write about the nutrition and health value of food, but the cultural meaning of food is just as important. The bottom line is that food is more than nutrients or the ability to lower cholesterol or fight inflammation. Food is love. I am grateful for the experience of eating the meals prepared with love by the warm and welcoming Hungarian people.