BUDAPEST (Reuters) - A bunch of restaurants in Budapest have found a mouth-watering way to challenge Hungarian attitudes to Europe’s migrant crisis - by serving up tasty dishes from Syria and other countries that are providing many of the refugees.
Hungary’s right-wing government has come under fire over its clampdown on migrants fleeing conflicts and poverty in the Middle East and beyond. The erection of a steel fence along the southern border with Serbia has prompted particular concern.
But Hungarians are also famed for their love of good food - and the restaurant initiative aims to provide a more intimate, human perspective on the cultures that the tens of thousands of people now flocking into Europe have left behind.
“When we can see various aspects from people’s lives or taste the dishes they would have eaten while still at home, then perhaps the barriers people have in their minds can fall,” said Hanna Mikes, co-ordinator of the culinary project that has been organized by the Artemisszio foundation.
The week-long event, named “bORDER-Gastrofest in another way”, also provides information about everyday life in the four countries involved - Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea - and features brief interviews with immigrants living in Hungary.
Ivan Sandor, manager of the Manga Cowboy restaurant in a bustling district of central Budapest, said the project, in which the immigrants provide recipes that restaurants then prepare, could help dampen tensions fueled by the migrant crisis in Hungary.
“In the past few weeks all sides tried to use the tensions for their own (political) benefit. I think that at a table laden with good food we can perhaps defuse these tensions,” said Sandor, whose restaurant is one of 10 participating in the project.
One of the immigrants helping with the project, Akela Sabona, 27, came to Hungary with her family from Afghanistan many years ago.
“As I am a vegetarian, I told them about vegetable dishes ... for example Borani Banjan,” she said, referring to a traditional eggplant dish. Sabona was smiling broadly as she had just been granted Hungarian citizenship.
Saba Tesfay, 37, born to a Hungarian mother and an Eritrean father, has helped two restaurants to choose Eritrean national dishes, including ‘Injera’, a flat bread with a spongy texture that is served with a spicy beef and chicken stew, eggs and lentil puree.
“This is a national dish, but not like goulash for Hungarians, because people eat this (in Eritrea) even for breakfast, and surely at least once a day,” she said.
Tesfay, a cultural anthropologist, said she had never had any particular problems as a second-generation immigrant growing up in Hungary, but said the migrant crisis was now making life more difficult.
“You can feel that when people now ask ‘when did you arrive in Hungary?’ they may do so not because they want to know how they can help but for fun, in the sense of ‘here we have yet another immigrant’. This happened to me in the market recently, though never before. It felt really bad.”
Even though most of the migrants trying to get into Hungary do not intend to stay but to travel further west, especially to Germany, Prime Minister Viktor Orban says he is acting to save Europe’s “Christian values” by blocking their main overland route. Most of the refugees are Muslims.
His tough stance has angered human rights groups and some governments who see the new border fence as a throwback to the Cold War era of European division. But Orban also has support from Europeans who say the huge influx of migrants will put intolerable strain on public services and stoke ethnic tensions.
The Budapest diners enjoying the dishes from distant Eritrea and Afghanistan were similarly divided on the issue.
“I think in the short-term we must help those who sleep rough, who are hungry and thirsty, and especially those coming from a war zone who have had to endure tough situations which to us are inconceivable,” said Antal Karolyi, 44, an investor.
Finishing off a thin-crusted Afghan pastry filled with potatoes and onions called “Bolani”, served with Syrian minty yogurt sauce, Karolyi said in the longer term the solution to the crisis must lie in the countries of origin.
His colleague Zsolt Farkas, seated at the other side of the table, could not decide whether the fence was a good idea but said the Hungarian government had to act to manage the crisis.
“History will tell whether the government reacted in the right way,” he added pensively.
Editing by Gareth Jones