I don’t really understand anything that Zsuzsa is saying – though, to be fair, she doesn’t understand me either. Her English is little better than my Hungarian, which is essentially non-existent. What little conversation we are capable of having without an interpreter can be condensed to “Yes, my darling!” or “No, my darling!” And you’d be surprised at how much of what we want to say to the other falls within one of these two responses.
Zsuzsa is a typical Hungarian anya, or mom. She’s short, bossy, meticulous, and likes things in her house to be a certain way. The mother of two grown men who have long since departed her home, she takes great pride in looking after them when they return – tapping into deep reserves of love and energy to make the kinds of meals that keep them coming home for more.
A two-hour train ride north of Budapest, Miskolc is the third largest city in Hungary – though its layout, people, and atmosphere have more in common with the rural villages of the countryside than the boisterous character of its capital city. Understated and under-visited, Miskolc is home to the scenic lake views of Lillafüred, the medieval charm of Diosgyor Castle and the breathtaking beauty of the Bükk National Forest. It’s also been Zsuzsa’s home for more than 40 years.
The most valuable lessons I’ve learned about other cultures have been in the kitchens of their most authentic inhabitants, and Hungary is no exception. Even with an oven dating back to the Communist era, and a gas stove that needs to be persuaded to light every time, Zsuzsa is capable of divining some of the most delectable Hungarian specialties you’d find anywhere.
Believe me, I’ve looked.
Just a short walk from her home is a famous Hungarian restaurant that serves an exquisite roast duck confit with sweet red cabbage, sour cherries, and garlic mashed potatoes…but Zsuzsa’s is better. I’ve had sweet, tangy tomato soup with stuffed cabbage rolls of pork and rice at the food market in Budapest…but Zsuzsa’s is better. I’ve had crispy, buttery lángos served with garlic, sour cream and paprika stew at the Christmas markets…but Zsuzsa’s is better.
As a rule of thumb – Zsuzsa’s is always better.
It’s cold now, so she is making us one of Hungary’s most famous dishes – halászlé, or fisherman’s soup served with crispy fried catfish. It’s a time- and labor-intensive process, so she starts early. Luckily, the next-door neighbor, Auntie Marika, has brought over a fresh catch for us to clean. That’s how people are around here – always lending a hand. We prepare it, putting the flesh aside and reserving the head and the bones for the fish broth that we’ll make from scratch with onions, garlic, tomato, and lots of paprika.
After adding salt, Zsuzsa covers the pot and surveys the kitchen. The house begins to slowly fill with the smells of comfort food simmering on the stove, filling us with a warmth that’s in sharp contrast to the sub-zero temperatures outside. It’s so cold, in fact, that she uses the front porch as makeshift cold storage for leftovers, when she runs out of room in the freezer.
This first step takes a while, and then the bones are sieved out and the pot is put back on the heat to make a rich, dense broth before the fish is added back in.
While we wait, we prepare the catfish, which has been marinating most of the afternoon. Each piece is rolled in flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs – a process that seems mundane but with which we take the utmost care, because if we don’t, Zsuzsa will notice. We’re in her home. These are her rules. All the food must be prepared in exactly the right way.
It reminds me of my own upbringing in the Southern part of the United States – how, historically, people who possessed so little were capable of making sumptuous meals out of the foods more well-off families tended to overlook. The off-cuts of cows and pigs, that were discarded by wealthier patrons, were given to black shoppers instead – and with enough time and seasoning, became the very foods that I crave now, even after more than a decade of living abroad. Fried catfish seems to me like an anomaly that shouldn’t exist beyond the swamplands of Florida and Louisiana, but smelling the salty aroma as it bubbles and pops away in the frying pan on Zsuzsa’s stove sends me straight back home.
Her son, Ben, is beside himself with excitement, rambling away about the innovative ways in which his mother prepares food. Cold, sweet soups out of freshly picked cherries in the backyard during summertime; her cheese palascinta (savory pancakes) slathered in paprika sauce and sour cream. Ben is a chef based in Berlin, and he’s seen many people attempt to recreate Hungarian cuisine with limited success. His critiques are always the same: “They’re trying too hard.”
Passed down from mother to daughter or, in Ben’s case, from mother to son, Hungarian cooking isn’t about fancy tricks or rare ingredients – it’s about investing time and love into feeding your loved ones. That’s one reason why native Hungarians rarely eat out at restaurants; the beauty of Hungarian food is much like the beauty of Hungarian culture itself – simplicity, kindness, and, most important of all, family. With these three ingredients, every meal becomes something special, regardless of what’s served on the dinner plate.
This might be an everyday experience for her sons, but for a humble intruder such as myself, finally sitting down to enjoy the meal that’s been cooking all day is the highlight of my visit.
And even though I’m not from this place, and don’t speak this language, this soup tastes – and feels – like home.
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