Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Picking Up Something Spicy and Illicit at Rákóczi Tér (Csarnok)

The Gustave Eiffel-designed market halls, with their iron girder lattice-work, look like huge hangers for old-time zeppelins. But this being the Eight District, the flight is mostly chemically induced, and the only contraptions of bodily transport are the home-built half wheelchair/half bikes favored by a local stripe of paraplegic. With the gentrification and, now, total gutting of Rákóczi Tér, the neighborhood that is the former welcome mat of the red-light district, has almost become upstanding. But there are still oddities to be found in my favorite csarnok, if you just scratch the surface a little. Here are a few:

5. Tiny pickled melons. Looking like aborted watermelons, I have never seen their like outside of Hungary. At once sweet and sour, and occasionally fermented along with hot peppers, the tiny dinnye can be found at any of the row of pickle stands.

4. Zsaru, Krimi, and Pandúr magazines. Want to know what strip of Pest gigolos and rent boys cruise, how many break-ins there were in Borsod County, or just see some grizzly pictures of dead bodies? The newsstand has the best and bloodiest crime magazines, written in easy to read, low-brow Hungarian, and an excellent source of new and shocking vocabulary.

3. Horse sausage. I don’t know the history of eating horse in Hungary and Austria, but I suspect it coincided with a wartime famine. The spicy links look innocuous enough, and unless you know the word for horse in Hungarian (ló), could be easily mistaken for standard pork sausage. A decadent, nay, downright taboo-busting snack, especially when coupled with number one on our list.

2. Chinese porn. But I just bought it for the…characters. Along with soy-bean drinks, fermented eggs, dried greater-lizard fish barbeques sauce, and frozen crabs, the Chinese market at the Rákóczi Tér csarnok is one of the city’s best, and might just be the only local purveyor of Chinese pornographic magazines and soft-core movies.

1. Moonshine. Cheap házi pálinka is to the Eighth District what oil is to Texas. Only don’t light a match too close to the codgers and nénis whose tables run down the center of the building. The hootch is not on display with other only slightly more legal goods: home-made hot pepper sauce, odd-looking onions that could only be home-grown, and already-baked squash. Their fruit brandy is made in backyard stills, sold in mineral-water bottles kept hidden from view. Last I checked it was but a thousand forints for .25 liters. Drink up: now who says Rákóczi Tér is getting respectable?

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

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