Food

Hungary Roma restaurant eases prejudice through food

Head chef Malvin Nemeth, or Aunt Malvin: “A full stomach opens the heart.” — Reuters picHead chef Malvin Nemeth, or Aunt Malvin: “A full stomach opens the heart.” — Reuters picBUDAPEST, April 24 — If you thought the reproductive parts of swine couldn’t come near the menu of a chic restaurant, think again.

For one recently opened eatery in the Hungarian capital the fallopian tube, for centuries only eaten by the country’s Roma minority, is a delicacy indeed.

The restaurant, tucked away in a slowly gentrifying inner area of Budapest in a crumbling hundred-plus-year-old building, goes by the name Romani Platni, meaning Roma Stove in the Romani language.

Part home restaurant, part social experiment, it is meant to open Roma kitchens to Hungarians, and open Hungarians to better understanding the ways of the Roma, who have been misunderstood and discriminated against for generations.

Project leader Sandor Orsos turns on the music and breaks down the stereotypes. — Reuters picProject leader Sandor Orsos turns on the music and breaks down the stereotypes. — Reuters picStrange intestines work wonders to challenge ingrained perceptions, says Sandor Orsos, 36, who leads the project.

“We have tried very hard to avoid stereotypes and cook like my grandmother used to,” he said while preparing dinner for 16 recently. “You think people run screaming from the oviducts (fallopian tubes). But one group a while back came specifically for that dish.”

So they got it. Ordered from a trusted butcher and stripped clean, the tubes were cooked with garlic, then chopped up into thumb-length bits, and fried with bacon until curly.

“It’s as nutritious as pork gets, and it tastes exquisite,” Orsos said. “Its consistency resembles chicken; I’m not much of a pork eater, but I like this dish a lot.”

Food is as good a way as any to cultural understanding.” — Project leader Sandor Orsos

Food is as good a way as any to cultural understanding, and while people will travel to exotic countries and go out of their way to learn about little-known cuisines, they have next to zero knowledge about their own neighbours, says Orsos.

Romani Platni was meant to ease that on a local basis. It opened in February with a small grant from the Open Society Institute, a handful of volunteers from a social aid group, and a half dozen local Romani women to cook.

Orsos started a blog, invited a select group of friends and known foodies for a first lunch, and put the word out in the media. He said he would throw dinners every time the place, a converted youth centre with a small kitchen and a few tables and bookshelves, was booked full.

The idea took off faster than anyone had expected, least of all the organisers.

Romani Platni’s weekly dinners are booked full a month in advance, and the dinners have been so successful that Orsos has begun to entertain the idea of keeping it open every day.

Stuffed cabbage, pork cuts

Pork ribs come hot out of the oven. — Reuters picPork ribs come hot out of the oven. — Reuters pic“People are very happy with these dishes,” said head chef Malvin Nemeth, or Aunt Malvin, a 60-year-old petite Roma woman with a wrinkly smile and a voice raspy from decades of chain smoking. “We have had stuffed cabbage before; pork chops with tomato and peppers, and potato hanuska (potato and dumplings).”

Hanuska was on the menu now, too, and Aunt Malvin returned to soak the grated potato-and-flour nuggets in goose fat and fried onions: a full stomach opens the heart, she says.

“My neighbours used to always come and ask me, Aunt Malvin, what are you frying?” she said. “I’d give them samples, and we were friendly. We were good neighbours... These (guests), they don’t know Gypsy cuisine, but they are (also) curious about it.”

On the Saturday menu was a steamed salad served with smoked pork; the Hanuska served with garlic pork chops (Ganca), and pasta fried in butter and served with vanilla breadcrumbs and honey glazed peaches.

“Roma food is very simple and clean,” Orsos said. “Organic is a big hit these days, and it’s on our menu for sure. For the Roma it has always been a regular thing: going out to the woods, picking something wild, and frying it up to eat with bread.”

“Simple, nutritious, not too spicy. Spices are expensive and the Roma have always been too poor to use them.”

As the guests file in, Orsos puts on Roma music from his smart phone, and the place is suddenly filled with cheer, warmth and a quiet curiosity.

“I have been waiting for an initiative like this for a long time,” said Nora Szabolcsi, a 33-year-old finance expert.

“I convinced my friends that it’s great, there’s something other than music that the Roma can be proud of. Plus I like pork chops. The steamed salad could be dicey, but we’ll see.”

Halfway into the meal she gave a smiling thumbs up, and the other guests, some of whom brought their own wine, gradually eased up too. The chatter grew louder. Someone took a snapshot of her pork chops.

“We leave them alone for most of the meal,” Orsos said. “Then the guests come and often chat with the women who cooked the food. They ask for recipes, and compliment them on the dishes, and then they go home. It’s rarely a long affair.”

It’s not much, he added. But it’s a start. — ReutersGuests at the Romani Platni: There’s something other than music that the Roma can be proud of. — Reuters picGuests at the Romani Platni: There’s something other than music that the Roma can be proud of. — Reuters pic

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