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Appreciating Budapest’s Jewish History: Stone Soup and Celebration

One of the great, unexpected pleasures for me of getting to know Budapest has been dipping my toe into Jewish culture.

The Dohány utca Synagogue is only the most obvious example of Jewish culture in Budapest. Photo by Jorn Pilon/Shutterstock.com

It’s possible to experience Jewish culture in Budapest without trying too hard. You may not visit the magnificent Dohány utca Synagogue, the largest in Europe, or take a walking tour of the old Jewish quarter in the city center. But you’re absorbing a little of Budapest’s Jewish heritage without even knowing it.

And that’s a great blessing. I can’t think of another European city where this is possible. Soho, north and east London used to have great Jewish restaurants, bagel shops and salt beef bars where goyim (non-Jews) like me could stuff their faces and eavesdrop. Today, apart from outposts like the fantastic bagel shop on Brick Lane in the East End, these have pretty much disappeared.

I’m using the Yiddish word for praise, probably incorrectly, but you’ll notice an overwhelming emphasis on food in my farloyb of Jewish culture. This is for three reasons.

Eating the food of an ethnic, religious or social group is the best way to show respect and have a chance of being tolerated, if not accepted. There’s always a story connected to food that will give you an insight into a people’s history and way of life. The Jewish food I’ve tasted so far in Budapest has been delicious.

When I come up to Budapest from the countryside, I love being able to drop into Frohlich Bakery and Café on Dob utca for coffee and the best flódni I’ve tasted so far in Hungary.

If you didn’t already know, and I certainly didn’t, flódni was traditionally made for Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday that takes place in December and celebrates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in 165 BC. Flódni is made with poppy seeds, apple, walnut and plum jam, each layer separated by a thin slice of pastry.

Sabbath Stew

I only discovered cholent relatively recently. This is the stew traditionally made before the Shabbat, when Jewish law doesn’t permit any cooking. Shabbat runs from just before sunset on Friday evening until three stars appear on Saturday night. It’s ushered in by lighting candles and reciting a blessing.

According to American cookbook writer and journalist Joan Nathan, “Throughout their wandering history, Jews have adapted their life-styles to the local culture. Food is no exception. Following the same dietary laws, Jews, relying on local ingredients, developed regional flavors. Because they have lived in so many places, there is no ‘Jewish food’ other than matzah; haroset (the Passover spread); or cholent or chamim (the Sabbath stews that surface in different forms in every land where Jews have lived).”

My first taste of cholent was at Kőleves on Kazinczy utca. “Kőleves” means “stone soup” and refers to an ancient Eastern European story, the basics of which you can find on Wikipedia.

One day, some travelers arrive in a village carrying nothing but an empty cooking pot. None of the villagers want to share their food with the hungry travelers, who fill the pot with water, drop in a large stone, and place it over a fire. A villager becomes curious and asks what the travelers are doing. They explain that they’re making “stone soup” which is delicious. They’d be delighted to share it with the villager, but it needs a little bit of garnish, which they don’t have, to improve the flavor.

The villager, thinking about the fantastic soup, is happy to part with a few carrots. Another villager wants to know about the pot and the travelers tell them about stone soup. This villager hands over some seasoning. And so on it goes until the soup, now filled with ingredients, is ready. The travelers remove the stone and share the soup with the villagers.

Although the travelers tricked the villagers into sharing their food with them, everyone gets to eat something delicious. For me, there’s something particularly Jewish about this story. A group of wanderers uses their wiles to trick initially unfriendly, not so smart people into parting with something they didn’t want to share but with happy results for all.

The cholent at Kőleves is great. There’s also a vegetarian option. But if you’re looking for something a little more authentic, check out Fülemüle on Kőfaragó utca, down from Astoria. The cholent there is absolutely fantastic but incredibly filling. In this recent summer heat, a mouthful is enough.

More to Life Than Food

Organized by the Budapest Jewish Federation (BZSH) and Broadway Event Kft., the Budapest Jewish Cultural Festival is a unique event that runs from late August up until early September. There’s nothing else like it in Central and Eastern Europe.

Andrea Deák, one of the organizers of the festival tells me that it first took place in 1998, towards the end of the first decade following the collapse of socialism in Hungary.

“This was the time of the Jewish renaissance in Hungary, mainly in Budapest. The Hungarian Jewish Community wanted to show itself, to enjoy freedom of self-representation,” she says.

Today, it is the most popular Jewish event of the year in Hungary, with around 15,000 Jewish and non-Jewish visitors. More and more of these are tourists.

Music is, of course, the other perfect way into appreciating a culture. The festival program always reflects both Jewish tradition and contemporary cultural trends. This year, the festival included the world-famous Budapest Klezmer band, the Barcelona Gipsy Orchestra, chief cantor Gergely Nógrádi and violinist Korcsolán Orsolya.

Although the festival is the highlight of the year, there are always Jewish cultural events happening in Budapest. I’d suggest you visit Spinoza, the theater-restaurant on Dob utca. The flódni there is excellent, as is the entertainment.

Shalom!