April 24, 2012 / 10:40 AM / 5 years ago

Hungary Roma restaurant eases prejudice through food

Head chef Malvin Nemeth, better known as Aunt Malvin, shows off her dance moves in a Budapest restaurant that serves food traditionally eaten by Hungary's Roma minority, April 21, 2012. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - 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 consumed 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.

Strange 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, 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 neighbors, he said.

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 organizers.

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.

Pork ribs are cooked in a Budapest restaurant that serves food traditionally eaten by Hungary's Roma minority, April 21, 2012. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

STUFFED CABBAGE, PORK CUTS

“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 said.

“My neighbors 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 neighbors... These (guests), they don’t know Gypsy cuisine, but they are (also) curious about it.”

Slideshow (7 Images)

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.

Reporting by Marton Dunai, editing by Paul Casciato

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