If your kitchen is small and not well kept; if perhaps you have a hotplate and thin Chinese-market aluminum cookware that burns garlic seconds after setting it on the electric coil; if your Communist-era dishes that you got for free on trash day are all stacked in the sink and not in your orange kitchen cabinets whose shelves are dusted with spilled paprika and flakes of dried basil; if all or any of these circumstances befall you, and you are so moved by hunger after coming home in the early hours with sour beer smell down your sweater, then boots must be pulled on, pea-coat must be unhooked from where it hangs stiff with Budapest soot on the back of a chair, and you must go out into the winter morning hungover, even though it’s Tuesday, and make your way to Rákóczi téri Vásárcsarnok, the brick market hall on Rákóczi Square where the prostitutes used to congregate, and seek out the farthest food stand in the back corner, where you know they will have the cheapest, most filling meal in the neighborhood.
There, for under two dollars you will get a bowl (not unlike your own bowls, porcelain, Soviet-red stripe around the rim) piled high with krumplis tészta – potato pasta – and a halved dill pickle (note that pickles are usually a side you have to order extra, but with krumplis tészta, it’s part of the dish). Nobody should eat krumplis tészta without a taste of dill to go along with the smoky paprika, and the pickle wedges they serve are pleasingly limp and acidic. You go to this stand a lot that winter, and you swear all the weight you put on is not from krumplis tészta, and certainly not from the Aszok brand beer you get to wash it down with (alcohol was recently banned in that market hall due to all the homeless who go there to drink, though the stand owners, a friendly couple, break it out for protekciós emberek – protected people – regulars).
There is no food like krumplis tészta on a cold morning for a guy who has come from a filthy apartment in the worst district in the city, the potato whipped fine and mixed with paprika until its almost like a sauce. The square egg-pasta is always served piping hot, something you are grateful for. The rising steam, gritty black ground pepper and foamy beer; these are the luxuries of your corner of the market where the pigeons roost in the rafters and men crippled from a war or from accidents sit in jerry-rigged bicycles with three wheels like choppers which they propel through the market with using hand cranks. They eat there too, the woman behind the counter bringing out their food on trays and resting it in their laps. They are also protekciós emberek. They also eat krumplis tészta, having churned their bikes through the blackening snow for that reason. Instead of beer they drink tiny bottles of factory-made brandy or walnut flavored alcohol, most of which comes from Transylvania. Despite it being illegal, there’s also home-made brandy sold by an old woman in peasant garb, which is kept beneath a dishrag in a bucket under the wooden table. On the table she offers wiry turnips, anemic beets, and dry carrots that nobody buys. She doesn’t know you are protekciós at the food stall, but hears your foreign accent and sells you brandy anyway, rubbing a drop of it on your wrist so you can smell the quality of the fruit after the alcohol evaporates, “like parfüm,” she says.
Such is your habit that year, but eventually you meet a girl who is also poor, even more-so than you. Her favored hangover food is also krumplis tészta, which she makes herself, as she does not have money to go out. Her krumplis tészta is better than the market’s, and her apartment is bigger than yours, so you stay over nights and let her cook for you. When she emigrates to Germany, you decide you’ve had enough of your downtrodden neighborhood and move from your shabby apartment and stop going to that market hall. You get your life together, make some money and then move to an even better apartment with a renovated kitchen. Your hangover food is now Vietnamese pho or curry from the Thai and Indian joints that are becoming part of the city’s street food identity. You no longer drink beer in the morning.
You return to the Rákóczi Square market years later to find it renovated. All the crippled men on bikes and old ladies with their Hungarian moonshine have disappeared. The area has gentrified, and there is now a Czech beer bar nearby and and a swanky Italian restaurant occupying a space in the hall. A hip coffee shop has opened and you even contemplate taking an apartment overlooking the square for three times what you paid for your old shabby apartment. But you don’t want to move back to that neighborhood. You are into distance running now, and there is no place nearby to do that. When you go to the back of the market you find that your regular food stall has changed hands. Nobody recognizes you. Your days as a protekciós ember are over, and you don’t want to eat krumplis tészta anyway.
“The story of how the potato and pasta dish Gránatos kocka, which is more widely known as grenadírmas (March of the Grenadiers), got its name is highly amusing,” writes Anikó Gergely in Culinaria Hungary. “It appears that at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, the Austrian army was running low on provisions, and the cook found himself with only dried pasta and a few potatoes left, from which he had to prepare a meal. The Hungarians who were serving in the Imperial Army ‘refined’ their portions with ground paprika, which lent color and flavor to the dish. The dish, created from need, has been passed from generation to generation.”
The recipe below was adapted from Culinaria Hungary.
GRÁNATOS KOCKA / KRUMPLIS TÉSZTA (POTATOES AND PASTA)
- 3 ½ tablespoons oil
- 1 Medium onion, finely chopped
- ½ teaspoon sweet paprika
- Salt, to taste
- 600 grams (1 ¼ pounds) potatoes, peeled and diced
- 400 grams (14 ounces) pasta (large square shaped pieces)
- Sauté the onions in the oil. Remove from the heat, and sprinkle on the paprika and salt.
- Add the potatoes, pour over a little water, and cook, stirring frequently. Press the cooked potatoes with a fork, but not too much; they should still be lumpy.
- Cook the pasta and add to the potatoes. Season with salt, if required. Heat the mixture again and serve hot. Serve with pickles.