I’m going to Budapest for the holidays this year and I’m pretty excited about a handful of things. The villamos trolley-cars will be decorated with strings of sparkling Christmas lights. Wine mulled with winter spices will be available at any time on virtually any street corner. The sun will set well before Széchenyi bathhouse closes and steam from the heated pools of mineral water will rise magically up into the cold winter air, heating me from the neck down as I sip a frosty bottle of beer. And I will cook with my grandmother those dishes she solemnly refuses to make during the summertime, the season that most often finds me in Hungary. Porcelain bowls of jiggly aspic will sit out on the terrace; the cold, collagen-laden broth setting around mounds of pigs’ feet and snout. Yeasty, doughy rolls of beigli filled with sweetened poppy seeds and walnuts will be forced upon me by my grandfather. He will insist I eat four because I’m too thin. There’s really no point in arguing. As I look forward to my trip I look back on photos I took in my grandmother’s kitchen this past summer. I haven’t had time to post them or add words. Maybe I was just waiting for the right time to do so.
My father’s parents’ apartment in Oktogon Square is a place of memories, one of the only stable childhood nooks I have remaining in this world since my maternal grandparents passed away two long years ago. Everyone has moved. Everyone keeps moving. Perhaps I’ve moved the most. But nothing changes at this place, with its carpets and sofas and high ceilings. As I put myself back there I can picture my grandmother ushering me into the foyer out of the cold hallway, demanding that I squeeze my size 7 feet into her size 4 sandals in order to avoid felfázni, a type of cold you get from standing on cold marble, one only Hungarian grandmothers seem to believe in. She darts over the black and white checkered tiles of her kitchen like a life-sized chess-piece as my grandfather entertains the family in the living room with welcome shots of this and that. There’s Baileys, coffee liquor, pálinka, Unicum. There’s also table wine from his little winery in Eger. There’s no non-alcoholic alternative, usually.
When my uncle’s family comes over for Sunday lunch we set the long table in the dining room. But when it’s just me with my dad or with my two older brothers we stay in the kitchen at a small table next to the pantry. Sometimes I go there just to chill with my grandmother and these hours are spent exclusively in the kitchen. I sit on a small stool and drink Fanta orange or sour cherry syrup with soda and I catch her up on the highlights of my life. I tell her stories of lands far away. I also watch her closely, a human sponge, and shower her with questions that never seem to distract her. I’m not yet in the stage of my life where I cook for myself or for loved ones but I feel that that future is creeping up on me. And when it gets here I’m sure as hell not going to be experimenting with Thai green curries or spicy fish tacos. I’ll be making (or attempting to make) her soups, her “cooked” salads, her one pot wonders that first inspired me to write.
One of those is padlizsánkrém, an eggplant spread that my grandmother has been making for as long as I can remember. It’s served at dinner, which in Hungary means a spread of cold cuts and cheese, chopped vegetables and bread. The recipe comes from Transylvania, a region of Western Romania that used to be Hungary and where a Hungarian majority still resides. My grandmother moved to Budapest from there when she was a young girl and has not been back since. But she still remembers the traditions. The cuisine of this region is slightly different from that of Hungary “Proper” in that there appears more Romani and Eastern influences, including the use of eggplant and roasted peppers. The Transylvanian name for the dish is vineta, which my grandmother doesn’t use anymore. As with all of her recipes, there’s a particular way of making the spread that you only really learn when sitting in the room and hawking her every move. When explaining a recipe over phone or Skype she leaves stuff out and this leads to miserable failure in any attempt to reproduce the dish. When called out on it she laughs it off, apologizes and blames her forgetfulness on age. But my brother and I see through her tricks. We recognize the ego of a chef who knows she’s good and the monopoly she holds over the foods that makes our hearts melt. Maybe it’s a nudge to get us to visit her more when she gets bored. Or maybe it’s a lesson: to learn well, take time.
Whatever the motive, her plan works. My brother and I find ourselves in her kitchen often, eyeing her process step by step and noting down those tiniest of details that make a world of difference. With padlizsánkrém it starts with smoke. No oven, no grill but an iron mesh lain above the flames of a gas-burning stove. It’s the only way, really. The hot mesh burns the skin of the vegetable, turning it from dark purple to black. As the skin burns the smoke travels through the flesh, which soaks the latter up completely. She turns the eggplants over only when the meat below the blistered skin starts bubbling forth excess water, dripping brown-black sludge onto her clean, white stovetop. The interior turns buttery soft as it cooks in the smoky heat.
When the eggplants look their “ugliest” she whips them swiftly off the grill and sinks them into a bowl of cold water just long enough for them to cool down. She then lifts one out of its bath and, holding onto its “cap,” she patiently pulls off the bits of black skin clinging to the meat. As she does, she makes sure not tear the delicate thing. After the eggplant is de-skinned it should not go back into water at any point, as water can soak into it, diluting it and washing off the smoky liquid on the surface.
When I pull closer and point the camera at the vegetable, a dangling and dripping sack of eggplant meat and seeds, she giggles shyly. “Olyan csúnyácska,” she laments. “It’s such an ugly little thing.” I laugh in agreement but reassure her that I know it’s what’s inside that matters. I know it has to look tired and off-colored and- yes – a little ugly at this stage to result in something wonderful later on.
She transfers the plump, brown masses of smoked eggplant to a wooden cutting board and with a wooden plank she chops off the rough caps and stems. She then moves the wood through the vegetable, gently mashing the latter into a soft, wet pulp. She does this until the eggplant has reached a smooth consistency, with only the soft seeds disturbing its texture. It is absolutely essential to use wood both under and over the eggplant since metal tends to oxidize the veggie and turn it an ugly dark brown. Grandmother takes this particular padlizsánkrém rule very seriously. Even the serving spoons in the finished bowl are wooden or plastic. It’s an unpardonable mistake to spread the mash using a metal knife.
The eggplant is then transferred to a plastic bowl, where it gets a dash of salt and absolutely no other seasoning. In this my grandmother’s padlizsánkrém differs from the garlic-laden baba ghanoush and those versions of vineta with chopped white onion. She prefers to allow the flavors of the smoked, caramelized eggplant, very substantial on its own, to speak for themselves. Salt just brings them to the forefront.
The final step and the most difficult one is to convert the wet pulp into an aioli-type emulsion by gradually streaming in sunflower oil and whipping the oil + pulp together until the former becomes evenly incorporated. Every time I’ve tried to make padlizsánkrém I’ve failed at this very stage. I don’t have the rhythm, the stamina or the guns my grandma has. And I certainly lack practice. I always end up with oil and eggplant coming together for only a few fleeting moments before falling completely apart again, separating into two defined layers in the bowl. The trick is to whip them into a physical state where they become something totally different than a sum of parts. The oil holds together tiny units of eggplant and those air bubbles that result from continuous whipping. The result is a glossy, foamy, velveteen spread with a color much lighter than pre-oil eggplant mash.
It’s served for dinner after refrigerating for a few hours and is accompanied by fresh veggies; usually cucumbers and tomatoes (both liberally salted), sweet peppers and spring onion. There’s also typically a meat platter hovering not too far with dry-cured and paprika-seasoned sausages (spicy and not spicy), salamis, some trappista cheese, ham, mortadella and bologna. And there’s a basket of sliced bread to spread stuff on, always white and always un-toasted with a chewy crust and pillow-soft interior. There are also sometimes round buns called zsemle or half-moon shaped kifli, but these are more commonly elements of a breakfast spread. Another dinnertime favorite is körözött (Liptauer cheese) made with tangy quark cheese, paprika, caraway seed and chopped onion. But when padlizsánkrém is on the menu it dominates the table.
I layer it on thick. So does my dad. It is both of our favorites. Smoked eggplant has a very unique flavor, a special sort of sweetness and a lingering bitterness on the palate. Although the texture is very light and the temperature cold, the flavor is heavy. It is what the Chinese would refer to as a “hot food”. It’s something you need to cool down after, which is where the tomatoes and crisp cucumbers come in. Their bright acidity and freshness complement the smoky, toasted flavors of the eggplant. An awesome pairing.
My grandmother’s padlizsánkrém is a dish that has represented comfort and family throughout my life. As I write this article I’m sitting on a SwissAir flight back to Barcelona from Istanbul, where I spent three days hunting down the local good stuff: the döner, the kokoreç, the lahmacun, the börek. I happened to know that Hungarian and Turkish share the word for “eggplant,” one of the many linguistic borrowings (often culinary) that came from 150 years of Ottoman rule over Hungary. So padlizsán is patlıcan in Turkish, a fact I proudly shared with pretty much every hotel valet, kebab vendor and taxi driver in the city. And the vegetable is prevalent and beloved in Turkey. It comes smoked, grilled, baked, served with tomatoes or in a garlic and yogurt sauce. As I browse through photos of my grandmother preparing padlizsánkrém I recognize something Turkish about the dish and about the process of making it, too. It’s different from those Hungarian dishes touched by Austrian influence – the sour cream soothed veggie stews, the casseroles, the egg noodles. It’s different also from the core of traditional Hungarian cuisine – the cauldron goulash and fish stews, the pörkölt’s and paprikás’s that derived from them. It’s more Southern and more ethnic, as if made by tanner hands.
It’s a unique link between two cultures with much shared history, a culinary history lesson and a delicious dinnertime staple at my grandma’s house. I’ll probably never get it right or at least I’m missing practice. In 60 or so years maybe…