Modern Yiddishe mama
BUDAPEST — Rahel Raj calls herself a 21st-century Yiddishe mama.
The daughter of a rabbi and mother of a toddler, she and her family run a pair of popular Budapest bake shops that specialize in Jewish pastries such as flodni, a calorific confection of layered nuts, apple and poppy seeds that is one of the symbols of local Jewish cuisine.
“A modern Yiddishe mama is not someone who sits in a chair and says, ‘Eat!,'” said Raj, a slim 29-year-old with long, dark hair. “I like to dress up, I have a profession, I have a baby — but on Shabbat I serve a four-course Friday-night meal.”
Raj is part of a burgeoning Jewish food scene in Budapest that’s making an impact on restaurant menus in the city and on the way Hungarian Jews eat at home.
In addition to her pastry business, Raj writes a column for a local Jewish magazine and two years ago anchored a 10-part Jewish cooking series on a Hungarian TV food channel. On the show, Raj prepared dishes with several local Jewish cooks to demonstrate how old-style traditions now coexist with new forms of culinary practice, as Jews use food both to connect with their roots and reflect a contemporary Jewish lifestyle.
One of her guests was Andras Singer, whose award-winning Fulemule restaurant goes heavy on cholesterol-laden recipes handed down from his mother and grandmother. They include stuffed goose neck, chopped liver, spiced goose fat and six types of solet — the Hungarian version of cholent, the slow-baked dish of beans and meat traditionally served on Shabbat.
But Raj also featured a young Jewish working mom who prefers to feed her family salads and Israeli favorites such as hummus and pita, which have become popular and easily available in Budapest in recent years thanks in part to an Israeli-run chain of hummus bars downtown.
Another guest was the influential Jewish food writer Eszter Bodrogi, who goes by the pen name Spicy Eszter. Bodrogi, who is in her late 30s, has helped spark new trends in Jewish at-home eating with a popular food blog and lavishly illustrated cookbook, “Spice and Soul.”
Her message is that contemporary kosher (or kosher style) cooking can be elegant, easy, healthy and fun.
“Things are really different today,” Raj said. “We want modern, lighter, quicker versions of the old traditional recipes — using olive oil, for example, instead of goose fat. Or making gefilte fish with salmon, flavored with orange. Or instead of solet, maybe serving a barley risotto with smoked duck.”
Several Jewish-style restaurants that have opened in Budapest in recent years feature this type of lighter fare. Notable among them are Spinoza and Koleves, both located on Dob Street in the old downtown Jewish quarter, the Seventh District.
Neither is kosher, but neither serves pork. Both offer a dish or two that mix dairy and meat.
Both serve versions of classic Hungarian Jewish fare, such as roast goose leg, but they also feature vegetarian choices, as well as Israeli salads and hummus. Spinoza even has bagels.
“It’s lighter food, a combination of Israeli dishes and light Hungarian,” said Tal Lev, the Israeli restaurateur who runs Spinoza. “Things that no one else serves, like whole roast eggplant on a bed of tahini, with pine nuts and feta cheese.”
Jews have lived in Hungary for centuries;, as many as 80,000 Jews are living in Budapest today.
The vast majority, however, are acculturated into the Hungarian mainstream, and over the years a number of typical Jewish dishes have also become embraced as Hungarian standards.
Matzah ball soup and solet turn up on many mainstream restaurant menus. And solet has become so assimilated that it is often served with smoked pork, even at restaurants such as Kadar’s, a legendary eatery in the heart of the Jewish quarter.
With or without pork, even unaffiliated or nonobservant Jews often regard solet as a talisman of Jewish identity.
Every winter since the mid-1990s, for example, Andras Kovacs, a Jewish studies professor at Central European University, and a group of friends have staged a solet competition.
“There’s a jury as well as popular vote,” said Kovacs, 63. “They judge on several criteria — taste, appearance, fidelity to tradition and so on. How do you put in the eggs, sliced or whole? What kind of meat do you use? Black pepper or not? Some even put in tomato!”
Kovacs is not Jewishly observant. But, he said, “I had solet growing up as a child. My aunt was a great solet chef — I use her recipe.”
Travel to Israel has played a significant role in popularizing a lighter style of Jewish eating among Budapest Jews, said Antonia Szenthe, whose family switched to keeping a kosher-style home in the early 1990s.
“Young people in particular come home from Israel very enthusiastic and decide to cook at least kosher style — lots of salad, less meat, and first of all no pork,” said Szenthe, who is in her 50s. “It’s like something that keeps us together — a common taste, a common style.”
Keeping a kosher-style kitchen has been an important part of her family’s Jewish identity, Szenthe said. And over the years, she has learned how to adapt non-kosher Hungarian recipes to kosher style: substituting turkey for pork, for example, and leaving out the sour cream that Hungarians often use in meat dishes.
One thing that was hard to give up, Szenthe said, was szalona, a kind of smoked lard cooked in garlic and covered in paprika.
“But I found out that smoked butter fish tastes almost like smoked szalona,” she said.