Customers crowd into a bustling Budapest restaurant for dinner. They open their menus, expecting to read about stuffed paprikas and Hungarian goulash.
But instead they find … Eritrean sourdough pancake bread. Afghan pie. Syrian sweets.
“It’s a little bit difficult, because not all the ingredients are available in Hungary. So a few of them are coming from Austria or other countries. But we can do it!” laughs Judit Peter, the bartender and director of special projects at Kisuzem, a trendy, bohemian bar in Budapest’s historic Jewish quarter. “People really like it. We’ve served 80 portions a day — and that’s quite a lot for a small kitchen like ours.”
Kisuzem is one of 10 Budapest eateries that have been serving up food from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Somalia — in solidarity with migrants and refugees streaming into Hungary from those countries. It’s all part of the Körítés food festival, which aims to combat xenophobia through cuisine.
This past week, migrant arrivals to Hungary so far this year surpassed the 300,000 mark. But the right-wing government in Budapest has taken a hard line against migrants, building fences along the country’s borders, and passing new laws that make it illegal to enter Hungary without a visa. Prime Minister Viktor Orban says mostly Muslim migrants threaten Hungary’s Christian character.
But a bunch of Budapest-based foodies are hoping cuisine can heal prejudice. The name of the Körítés food festival is a play on the Hungarian words for “fence” and “side dish.” The week of foodie events — including special menus, cooking demonstrations, art projects for children, pub quizzes — ended Sunday, but organizers hope to raise funds to extend the festival, and expand it to other Hungarian cities.
“If you don’t know something, you can be afraid of it,” Peter says. “And if you do something which can make you closer to that culture, it can help you understand each other — and stop the fear, and make something new.”
At Kisuzem, a recently arrived refugee, Luwam Melake, hands out special menus printed with facts about food and culture in her native Eritrea.
“Most of them [Hungarians] don’t know anything about Eritrea. They don’t even know the name Eritrea!” says Melake, who is 27. “You can just see it on their faces. Because you’re an immigrant, they don’t accept you like someone normal. I haven’t had any bad comments, but the attitudes are there.”
As part of the festival, Melake and her cousin, Saba Tesfay, perform a traditional Eritrean coffee ceremony for curious Hungarian onlookers. They hunker on low stools on the floor of the restaurant, and roast green coffee beans over an open fire, jiggling the beans in a metal pan, so that they don’t burn.
“And then I grind them, and eventually put them in these jebena — clay pots — which they use in Eritrea and Ethiopia,” Tesfay says.”And then finally we drink the coffee.”
She shares tiny cups of thick Eritrean coffee with her new Hungarian friends. Then the restaurant’s cooks emerge with sizzling plates of injera, flat sourdough bread, piled with chickpea paste and meat stew. The chefs had a crash course in Eritrean cuisine last week, in preparation for the festival.
“It’s my first time, and it’s great!” says Victoria Csorgo, a Hungarian customer. “There is a sort of pancake, and it tastes a bit like rye bread,” she says of the Eritrean injera bread. “On this pancake there are different stews made of beef and chicken. It’s very spicy.”
Another participating restaurant, Anker Klub, holds a pub quiz with questions about Syria.”What is the internet suffix for webpages in Syria?” the MC asks. (Answer: .sy)
Körítés was organized by Hanna Mikes, with the Artemisszio Foundation, an NGO dedicated to intercultural dialogue and volunteerism in Hungary. She received a €5,000 grant (about U.S. $5,600) from Norway’s development agency to fund the food festival.
“To be honest, it’s not a political project, but on the other hand, everything is political when you’re talking about migrants and refugees,” Mikes says. “The whole idea is from an initiative from the United States actually, called Conflict Kitchen, which serves food from countries with which the U.S. is in conflict. The whole idea is basically, how can we reach people to learn more about cultures through food?”
At the Körítés food festival, the 10 participating restaurants foot the bill for their own ingredients. They had so many reservations during the weeklong festival that they’re clamoring to extend it. Mikes would also like to expand it to rural areas, where polls show xenophobia is strongest, and where most migrants and refugees actually enter the country.
“We were thinking of moving it to the countryside. It would be lovely to take this to places where we have refugee camps,” Mikes says. “Those people who live close to the refugee camps should know more about the people inside.”
At the Budapest restaurant Manga Cowboy!, owner Ivan Sandor says he couldn’t decide which of the four cuisines — Syrian, Afghani, Somali, Eritrean — he wanted to serve at his restaurant. So he chose them all. Each day, his lunchtime menu features dishes from all four countries: Somali fried bananas, bolani with fresh laban (an Afghan pie with fresh Syrian cream cheese), alicha birsen (Eritrean lentil curry) and kanafeh (Syrian sweet cheese pastry).
“The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” Sandor says, chuckling. “I hope that’s true for everybody.”