Tuesday, May 27, 2014

My Essential Budapest 15

I have always been fascinated by Budapest's tumultuous yet rich history. I was captivated by the city after reading Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian a book that follows the history of Vampire into Eastern Europe where he spends considerable time in the cafes of Budapest praying on the beautiful Hungarian women. Or the more recent stories of spies and treason when Budapest was cut off from the world during the Communist Bloc.

Perched on the banks of the Danube, Budapest was actually two separate cities- the administrative Buda and the cultural Pest which were united in the late 19th century. Budapest is one of the largest cities of Central Europe. Budapest's history can be traced as far back as 1 A.D. where it was part of the ancient Roman city Aquincum. The systems of the Roman Empire especially the public baths can still be enjoyed in the city. It was largely the cultural capital of Central Europe. It was heavily bombed during the World Wars in British and American air raids. Its Jewish population was annihilated by the Nazi Germans. And right after the war,  it was invaded by the Communist Soviet and was closed off from the Western world for almost 50 years. During this time there were several protests and demonstrations, students took to the street, at one point Budapest declared it self independent of the Soviet Union only to be supressed by the Soviet troops who half destroyed the city killing thousands.

Budapest is a young city, opened its doors to the world when the Soviet Union dissolved in the 90's. It has restored almost all the bridges, castles etc that were destroyed over a hundred years of conflict. I had the opportunity to spend a few days exploring the city early this year in the dead of the winter. I found the foggy cold grey skies a perfect backdrop to explore this slightly ruined but very posh and hip city.

1. Though Hungary is part of the EU -(yes you can travel on the Schengen), it uses its own currency the HUF. Approximately 3000 HUF's = 1 Euro. You can imagine how screwy that conversion rate is. Check and double check your money and change. Also make sure someone does not slip in Romanian coins in the change. Those are useless currencies and can easily pass off as the HUF.
2. Most people don't speak English, a few Magyar greeting words can go a long way.
3. There are two types of cabs- private and public and the fare difference is astronomical.
4. Call a cab is very reliable.
5. Though not largely vegetarian there is a vegan subculture.
6. Winter is the non- tourist season and in my opinion just as fun as the summer. We did luck out with sunny cold days.
7. There are several hop on and off tours and some include the entrance cost of a bath house as well. This was a great option if you are short on time.

I also loved Elle Croft's Budapest list.

Here are my essential 15:

1. The Buda Castle district
There are three churches here, six museums, and a host of interesting buildings, streets and squares. The Royal Palace houses an art museum, the Fisherman Bastian offers fantastic views of the Danube and Pest. The Mathias Church is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful Renaissance Churches in Central Europe. Lots of cafes and a great place to walk around high up on the hill. Access it via the funicular for a lovely ascending view. 

2. Ride the Funicular to the Buda Castle
You could take the winding walk up or just take the straight and more scenic route up the hill to the castle. The lines can get pretty long but the ride up is totally worth the wait. The ascending view across the Danube of Pest is simply breathtaking

3. The Mathias Church
Stated as one of the most beautiful churches of Central Europe in the Renaissance style, Mathias church was recently renovated and opened to public. The interiors are a busy myriad of hand painted pattern on stone in warm hues of red, orange, yellow and green. Its hard to take your eyes off any of the ornate surfaces. All of the doors, windows, stain glass, locks on the doors, sculptures, the flooring pattern are intricate and fine with Romanesque flourishes. 

4. The Fisherman's Bastion
Right outside the Mathias Church is this fairytale like castle turrets that offer some of the most splendid views of Budapest. The castle was maintained by the fisherman's guild in the 15th century and hence the name.

5. Driving along the Danube
Either side of the Danube offers great views, cross over any of the chain link bridges. Or walk across the famous lion bridge. On one side of the river is a symbolic Jewish memorial for thousands of Jews who were drowned in the river. There are several metal sculpture shoes floating on the bank of the river as a reminder of the heinous act. Other interesting buildings are Parliament, the bath houses and some very modern architecture. 

6. A ride on the Danube
Budapest is a giant city with many things to see and visit. After an entire day of walking, take a boat ride at dusk along the Danube and enjoy as the city lights up all the various monuments and bridges. One of the most stunning ways to enjoy the city, floating slowly by the landmarks with a glass of gluhwein.

7. Architecture and monuments of Budapest
From the symbolic monument at Hero's square, to one of the finest Synagogues in the world, Budapest boasts beautiful architecture from over the ages. Public parks for ice skating in winter, art nouveau bath houses, bombed ruined buildings converted into cool night clubs and some of the finest turn of the century interiors hotels in the world. Beautiful cafes, markets, shopping, art galleries, museum, bathhouses- the Budapest experience is rich and diverse.

8. Visit The House of Terror 
This was one of the bleakest and most horrifying buildings I have ever been to. This building has seen the deaths of many people during the 20th century. It contains exhibits related to the fascist and communist regimes. It is a memorial for people who were captured, detained, interrogated, tortured and even killed in the building. On exhibit is the history of the regimes, the original offices, the recordings of conversations, the cells that held the prisoner and the spine chilling central court of the building from which people were thrown down to their deaths. Though grim - it is an eye opening building and is part of the Platform of European Memory and Conscious.

9. The Gellert Bath
Known for its beautiful art nouveau interiors, the bath house has several indoor pools of various temperatures, a large hall ornate hall with a swimming pool. Definitely sink into a 35 degree C pool of water rich with calciums and mineral that are known to be wonderful for  joint and body aches. I got a sense that this was a way of life for the locals and not just some tourist attraction.

10. The Szecheny Bath
In this city of thermal baths, Szecheny is one of the largest and most interesting with 3 outdoor hot water pools that are active during the dead of the winter. Imagine this lounging around in 42 degree C water while the outside temperatures are sub zero. It was a first time for me. I am sure my immunity levels shot up a few notches as I took a few laps in the 27 degree almost room temperature pool while it was freezing outside. Having experienced this in the winter, I am curious what the summer time in hot water pools would be like.

11. Eat From the street carts
Have you ever tried Hungarian paprika. It is slightly hot and very rich both in color and flavour. It adds a certain smokiness to the food. At street carts try the Hungarian sausages spiced with paprika grilled to perfection served with freshly baked bread or try slow grilled pork ribs marinated in spices that are a burst of flavours in your mouth- tender, juicy and spicy. For the vegetarian try sauteed vegetables with a generous seasoning of paprika. Also dont miss a bowl of the famous Hungarian Goulash - a type of meat stewed with vegetables spiced with Hungarian paprika. Comfort food at its best. Hot Goulash and cold winter evening. Yumm! Wash it down with a sweet gluhwein or warm up with a really hard Palinka

12. The beautiful Hungarian cakes
Absolutely beautiful to look at and even more delightful to taste. Fresh buttery, creamy, nutty, chocolatey, almond topped, berry filled, beautifully crusty base. You name it they have got it. German cakes and breads were outstanding, but the Hungarian baked goods were a whole different level of goodness.

13. The New York Cafe- The most beautiful cafe in the world
I am willing to bet a high wager if someone can dispute the above claim. Sumptious ornate baroque interiors, impeccable service and delicious coffee and cakes and ice creams. The New York Cafe was a dream to visit. We went there on the eve of mom's birthday and celebrated with richness and beauty of Budapest. We were lucky to witness a fairy tale like wedding party in the lower level. A must see and try to keep your jaw closed.

14. Get Ruined partying
So once everything is done in the day, step out into the Jewish Quarter at night and just walk from one bombed out extremely restored space to another. The Zsimpla has been named as the 3rd most amazing bar in the world. Over graffitied, found objects, bright colors, dim lights, a collection of tchotchke items. A wonderful place for live music, a place to relax. You can even strike up a conversation with a very handsome French man reading a Cuban author in the bar 1 in the morning.

15. Live on Deak ter Square- the Jewish Quarter
Finally if you are visiting Budapest, I urge you to find an apartment in Deak Ter square, closeby to everything including the trains, trams, and buses. The house we lived in was in that giant archway apartment complex with a lovely terrace and murals overlooking the residential square. On one side is the posh bustling capital center and the other side is the start of the uber cool ruin bars.

And while you are at it, get into the mood and listen to this beautiful rendition of the Blue Danube originally composed by Johannes Strauss.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Things to do with Thandai powder

Come spring, every year around holi, mom and I prepare a huge batch of Thandai powder. Thandai by definition is something cooling. Its a mixture of ingredients that help you replenish your salts and sugars after a hot day in the sun. Two things that I enjoy making with Thandai is Thandai cake and a Thandai Lassi. 

But first the Thandai powder:


1 tbsp Almonds
1tbsp Pistachio
1/2 tbsp Fennel seeds
1 tbsp Watermellon seeds seeds
1/2 Khus/ poppy seeds
1 tsp Black pepper whole
15 pods whole cardamom
1tbsp dried rose petals

Blend together well in a mixie and store in an airtight container in the freezer. Use all summer long.

Thandai Cake
This cake is a lovely eggless cake which I have been baking on Holi day. Its a great substitute to deep fried gujiyas and an absolute novel idea when presented well. 

1 1/2  cup all purpose flour (maida)
1 cup yogurt( room temp)

4 tbsp milk
6tbsp homemade Thandai powder 
1/2  cup powdered  sugar 
1/4 tsp baking soda 
1 1/4 tsp baking powder 
1/2 cup refined oil
2 cardomom pods coarsly powdered 
1 tsp dehydrated rose petals (opt) 
1/4 cup chopped nuts( almonds and  pistachios) 
6-7 saffron threads
1/2 tsp rose water  
A few sliced pistachios and rose petals for topping 

  1. Preheat oven to 200C. Sift the refined flour and keep aside
  2. Whisk together yogurt, milk, thandai powder, saffron, sugar, rose water and  cardamom powder till creamy
  3. Sprinkle baking soda and baking powder, gently mix and leave aside for 2-3 mins 
  4. Once the mixture turns frothy mix in oil 
  5. Gently fold in the sifted flour (make sure not to overmix) 
  6. Mix in the petals and nuts .Pour in a greased and dusted 8" pan sprinkle the sliced pistachios and  petals  on top and bake in a preheated oven at 200C for 10 mins
  7. Reduce the temp to 180 and further bake for 30-35 mins or till the toothpick inserted in centre comes out clean
  8. Cool for 35- 40 mins unmold, slice , sprinkle some powdered sugar, chopped rose petals and serve

Thandai Lassi

1tbsp Thandai powder
1 cup yogurt
1 cup milk
honey or sugar according to taste
5-6 ice cubes

Put all the ingredients in a blender and blend till all the ice is crushed and we have a frothy mixture. 
Pour in a tall glass. Enjoy a glass of thandai lassi when you come home from the hot summer sun.