Sziget Festival blew my socks off this year. I was very impressed. It seems like this massive, weeklong, multicultural party gets bigger and bigger each year. If you’re a music lover (or, more generally, if you don’t hate a good time) and you haven’t been before, go. Take a train, plane, car to Budapest, then the boat or suburban railway from the city to Shipyard Island (Hajógyári). Or crawl there if you have to. But go. Get your tickets cheaper in advance, buy a big bottle of water at the supermarket before arriving and brace yourself for a ridiculous experience.
Stepping shore on the island is like entering a most joyful state of mind. There’s music, plenty of it, playing live constantly on one of 50 stages, thousands of performances in just one week. But there’s also a plethora of other stuff to keep you entertained (and overstimulated) during your stay. Crawling through the endless camp of tents pitched by “Szitizens” staying the whole week, you’ll discover movie showings, dance and theatrical performances, tattoo parlours, beach volley courts, tennis and soccer matches, indoor rowing, rock climbing, bungee jumping and a life-sized foosball court. There’s mud wrestling and some weird thing involving folks dancing in foam. I don’t think I was hallucinating when I saw an American cheerleading squad practicing their pyramid on a grassy football court. At one point we passed by a booth selling a female urination funnel, a device that extends to women the comfort of peeing while standing. At the tip of the island there’s a beach with wonderful views of the sun setting over the Danube. Close-by there’s a zen area padded with mattresses for those seeking peace to practice yoga and tai chi. No shoes allowed. Despite my fear of sounding too much like an acid-tripping hippie, I will say that one really does feel connected to something bigger when on the island. There does seem to be a positive energy flowing from one islander to the next.
One of my favorite aspects of this festival is that the food doesn’t suck. At all. In just one day I saw hundreds of options. I stopped to watch a guy struggling to unlock his jaw to fit inside a monstrous hot dog overflowing with toppings. I saw giant slices of pizza, juicy Turkish döner, Italian pastas and piadinas, Spanish paella, Indian curried stews, Serbian pljeskavica, Mexican burritos and churros… There was also something called a kolbice, a new Hungarian street food involving a cone made of bread stuffed with sausage and sauces. But what made me very happy was to see the Hungarian classics so proudly showcased. Beautiful grilled sausages, goulash, chicken paprikash with noodle dumplings, lángos and kemenece lángos, a huge variety of pickled veggies, stuffed cabbage, things like that. Hungarian cuisine is one that non-Hungarians tend to know very little about and the festival offers a great way for visitors to learn. After all, almost 50% of festival-goers are foreign.
I was pretty excited to walk by a stand selling zsíros kenyér, a “traditional Hungarian specialty”.
“But what is it?” I heard some guy whisper to his signature Hungarian friend.
“It’s bread with fat,” came the sloppy response from my distracted compatriot. Disappointed by how little effort he had invested in this explanation I actually considered stopping both of them and telling the story of this wonderful little snack, everything from its composition to the irony of its appearance at such a popular, international festival as Sziget. But I guess that’s not something people do, so I restrained myself. I also got one for my boyfriend to try.
Zsíros kenyér translates literally to “lard bread.” It’s a slice of fresh bread smeared with a thin layer of high quality pork lard, topped with fresh slices of red onion and sprinkled with Hungarian smoked paprika powder. It’s basically like a slice of buttered bread but with rendered pig fat (which frugal Hungarians keep after a pig slaughter) replacing butter (the fat churned from milk of cows). It’s not gross at all if good quality lard is used. The heat from the onions and paprika balance the fat perfectly, also contributing a simple and satisfying flavor to the sandwich. The Sziget version was, as most other foods I saw, grossly oversized. In fact Business Insider even mistook the thing for pizza. I’d love to explain more of how the zsíros kenyé came to be, but this video does a better job at it:
And here’s a really beautiful clip on how to make it at home:
We also tried the Balkan Burger, whose stand was quite hard to miss. The ginormous burger-shaped balloon hovering above this stand is not a completely inaccurate representation of the monster burgers that this place specializes in. Crumbly beef patties are slapped down onto sizzling iron by a burly, head-banger looking dude and smashed mercilessly down with a metal spatula until the meat sizzles and screams and grills to a crunch. Next cheese is melted on with a metal grill dome set over the patty, so that the slice bubbles and oozes from the steamed trapped inside. The cheesy beef is shoved between two pillowy, doughy halves of burger bun, along with onions, cabbage, tomatoes and cucumbers. Next some tangy and sweet bbq sauce is squeezed on.
At one point I heard some Dutch dudes behind me in line making a great effort to pronounce “sajtburger,” which just means “cheese burger” (as opposed to cheese-less burger). The addition of cheese to their burger seemed to be something very important to them, and understandably so. They played around with the girl at the register, repeating “SHAHYT-burger, SHAHYT-burger” until she eventually grew tired of the game and challenged them to pronounce another Hungarian word: “Megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért.” They had a bit more difficulty with that one. It’s nice to think that these guys added “sajt” to their vocabulary, though, and that one day years from now they might have an anecdote to tell some Hungarian they meet while traveling. And, apparently, “sajtburger” is a relatively common first lesson for many foreigners living in ot traveling to Hungary. It’s even up on urbandictionary….
But I digress… Back to the Balkan burger. True to Sziget food form, the thing is monstrous in size, sightly larger than an adult male hand (fingers and all). The toppings are perfectly fresh and crunchy and the sauce flavorful enough. The beef has a nice, crumbly texture with a crispy char from the grill on the outside. But the amount of bread that it’s encased in is, unfortunately, overwhelming. I have no problem with burgers so thick that they don’t readily fit into my mouth iff (if and only if) that’s because the patty itself is thick and juicy. But when it happens because of puffed up, excessively airy and chewy bread I’m not happy. To even have a chance at tasting the meat inside I had to mutilate the burger, tearing back just enough of the top half of the bun to form a messy bite of open-faced ground beef sandwich, while my boyfriend watched in horror. To be fair, this massive burger was most likely not designed for someone of my size but for a large man with voracious munchies who had drank at least a bucket full of draft brew. So I guess the bread is a good sponge in that case.
Each year the snacks on Sziget get better and better. And each year more and more Hungarian food is showcased. It’s my hope to return one day and find that a cooking demonstration or Hungarian recipe workshop has been added to the endless list of daytime cultural activities…