Monday, September 28, 2009

Ungari Köök

At eleven o’clock on a Monday morning, in a Selver grocery store parking lot a couple kilometers from downtown Tartu on Sõbra Street, a metal security door raises and reveals a cozy enclave that specializes in two things: soups, and lángos. A lán—what? The closest thing to a lángos in the States is an elephant ear at the state fair: a deep-fried nightmare for your arteries. But this thing, this thing is a masterful concoction of deep-fried goodness and healthy toppings to counteract the trans fats of fried Hungarian flat bread. The eggplant and beef with mushrooms are my favorites.

There are other, slightly simpler toppings as well, that are sure to surprise you. The owner and chef can do wonders with a basic spread of sour cream and Estonia’s ill-named Athlete’s Cheese. Actually he uses an imported German cheese now. He says it’s cheaper, better and easier to grate. Rumor has it that for all of Estonia’s cheeses and cheese “producers,” they’re all made in the same cheese machine. I’ve heard the same about potato chips in the States.

When Ungari Köök opened a couple years ago, only this lángos was offered. A Hungarian specialty. The Hungarian owner is happy to chat about it with you in Estonian or English. People kept asking him why he didn’t sell meat burgers and fries, not masking their disappointment upon learning that they would either have to try something new—heaven forbid!—or rudely walk out. It turns out the customers did in fact like it, so he quickly expanded to soups. I remember the beginning of that change—one soup, sold out within minutes. Now there are three soup containers or boilers or vats or whatever they’re called (the thing in the photo) every day, with the daily special printed on the front door. There are customers who eat there every day, all year. He also makes his own bread quite often.

I went in five minutes before opening today so I could ask questions about his story, but within four minutes of the metal door going up, there was already a line of three people. Between customers he was able to give me a sentence or two, so I think I’ve been able to piece together the story of the Hungarian Kitchen. It makes me a little angry.

See, there are only two things I don’t like about Ungari Köök. One is the location, and the other is the selection of food. It’s not enough! This is good cuisine, and the guy has proven his culinary abilities. I want more.

As a newcomer to Estonia, there are few options available for work (I’m not talking about students). Something involving language teaching, and food. That’s usually it. The owner of Ungari Köök for example has a degree in art history. What’s he doing making soup? He was able to rent a few parking spots at the grocery store, build a small structure that is up to code for the health inspectors, and sell the food that he knows best—his national cuisine. He loves doing this, as he says, “I don’t want to get rich, I just want to be happy and make good food. That’s why I don’t raise prices.”

The soups are sold out by two at the latest, every day. It’s that good, it’s that popular. And what’s funny is that people can tell the difference between the soups he makes and those of his staff. He wants to expand now, but is having serious troubles. Expansion involves a larger kitchen obviously, which in turn requires a new location—downtown. That’s fantastic for people who aren’t able to drive to the current place. It also opens up the tourist market. Let’s face it—tourists in Tartu all eat foreign cuisine. There’s only one real “Estonian” restaurant (aptly called “Estonian Restaurant”) and the rest is Italian, Georgian, Turkish and Chinese. I’m just talking about the authentic stuff. Everything else is themed.

The Hungarian doesn’t want a traditional “restaurant” though. From what I understand, he wants to be sort of a cross between a restauranteur and a street vendor. There just isn’t that much of a selection downtown that would meet those criteria. He’s considered building again. The City Government is more or less doing anything they can to prevent it. One location, on the “wrong” side of the river and by the Narva Street dorms, doesn’t have anything there. It’s a park in fact, that in its current form exists mainly to frighten lone women walking by at night. “We don’t want anything built there,” says one city official. An official who works for a city that is hell-bent on telling everyone how much it was wronged in the past century, but that would never do anything to fix the situation. Looking at old photos of that same park, you can see tons of buildings, cafés and restaurants. A center of life in Tartu. And this is just one of the hurdles and tripping stones the Tartu City Government lines its streets with.

The owner of Alvi Kebob has a similar story. He wanted to buy an old putka (not the Bulgarian vulgarian meaning, but a food kiosk) to open up a kebob place. Before paying, he talked to the city government, who promptly gave a resounding “No!” because they “don’t want a putka culture in Viljandi.” Well then, what kind of culture do they want?

Viljandi is the self-described cultural capital of Estonia. That would mean they just want Estonian culture then, right? The only food I’ve ever been able to find in Viljandi is from Soviet söökla culture. Shredded cabbage and carrot salads, fried pork in thick, white flour sauce that they call Béchamel, and two-kroon condiments. That means you have to pay more if you want ketchup on your fries or sugar in your coffee. Modern culture, around the world, is a healthy blend of different national cuisines. I think what’s really needed is for people to look toward the future, not try to recreate a past that no one can agree on in the first place.

Or maybe this argument would work: Tallinn has a putka culture, and right across the street from the Old Town, at Balti Jaam (Baltic Train Station). Why not you? There was interest in Tartu putkas banding together to build a putka house—a single structure, like a mall food court, in one of the empty downtown parks. Then some ridiculous rules appeared, something like, “only if you paint it pink.” Basically it just wasn’t going to be allowed. Despite Estonia being a free market economy on paper, there are still strong elements of a planned economy.

The way I see it, if you’re shy then there’s no better way to say you don’t want foreigners than to hide behind the guise of health and cultural protection. So many people have tried to open restaurants (foreigners and Estonians alike, I’ll admit). There are so many restrictions and requirements from the Health Inspectorate that it’s often impossible. And let’s be honest—the Health Inspectorate serves the same function as the Consumer Protection Board. It’s consumer protection. Only consumer protection doesn’t exist in Estonia. Look at the laws: if it’s broken or defective, you can’t get your money back. The shop just has to repair or replace it. I know from several, several first-hand experiences that even that isn’t enforced. The city governments just don’t want to move forward, and they’re counting on their constituents—who just might in fact want to move forward—to demand not a thing. A city’s cuisine is a direct reflection of the city itself.

I’d like to see a list of grandfather clauses in force for Tartu’s restaurants. There are some real holes that would not be allowed to open today. Like how old Moskvitches are still allowed to drive, despite today’s stricter emissions laws. I think there are no grandfather clauses in the food industry. Just some pasty white guy behind a brand-new flat-screen computer monitor trying to make everyone else suffer for his lack of vision.

Here’s the cheesy part of this review: I consider myself a Tartu patriot (I could never live in Tallinn, for example), and what I want is for a tolerant, multicultural Tartu. Multicultural only in that if you want some variety from time to time, you can get it. I just want a choice—I don’t want to force people to live among people they are too scared of. So I choose to eat goulash and lángos and kebobs and sushi and I probably single-handedly support the import of Mexican food products in Tartu’s grocery stores (meaning just Santa Maria tortillas and chilies). And I think I’m not alone. I’m sure delicious food isn’t the only reason all these people are starting to eat at Ungari Köök.


Mingus said...

Alright alright, it's called an "electric soup pot," but it's still not just a "pot."

miou said...

Aww, now that's something. Although the dishes are somewhat free interpretations of "real" "Hungarian" food (whatever that means), it's really lovely. I miss Estonia, esp. Tartu terribly, and as I work with Estonians now I'm filled with nostalgy. BTW who's the owner of the stall?