Rice is nice…

My latest experiment in noodlesprucing, a couple of days ago, resulted in a very tasty rice dish with a Hungarian twist.

I wanted to knock up a quick meal of rice and not have to worry about preparing external sauces or stuff like that, as I had limited time and several other things that needed to be done.  It occurred to me that, just as rice can be tweaked with the addition of a bit of turmeric (or saffron if your budget will stretch to it) – mostly for colour effect – other seasonings could probably be added at the start of cooking to infuse both colour and flavour.

Digging not too far into my spice collection I came across a packet of Vegeta that Eszter, my Hungarian former housemate, gave me when she left last year.  I first came across Vegeta on my trip to Hungary half a dozen years ago.  It is a condiment that, apparently, originated in Croatia but is very popular in Hungary and (as far as I know) other parts of eastern Europe.  It consists mostly of salt, with powdered dehydrated vegetables (including carrot, onion and celery), MSG and spices (the exact mix of those not being divulged in the Wikipedia article or, as far as I can tell, on the packet – though mine is all in Hungarian and I don’t know it well enough to be sure).

Incidentally, the Vegeta packet gave me a memorable lesson in the importance of correct pronunciation in Hungarian, especially with regard to paying attention to diacritics.  When Eszter was still around I was trying to read aloud the ingredients list from the back of the packet (which, at the time, was still hers) while she was cooking one evening.  I got to the word zöldség, which I correctly identified as meaning “vegetables” – mainly from remembering that zöld means “green”.  Unfortunately I failed to pronounce the final é sufficiently long (as indicated by the accent) – something like the ‘a’ in “cake”; instead I made it rhyme with the word “egg” (The IPA for the correct pronunciation is /ˈzølt͡ʃeːɡ/ but the end of my attempt came out more like /ˈʃɛɡː/).  That wouldn’t be a problem except that the word segg in Hungarian is a vulgar word for buttocks (roughly on a level with the English word “arse”, I gather), which made my mispronunciation quite amusing for a native Hungarian speaker.  As it happens, I already knew (but had forgotten) about the dangers of saying segg (NB the letter ‘s’ in Hungarian is pronounced as “sh” (or /ʃ/ in IPA), while the “s” (/s/) sound is written as ‘sz’) as, when I visited the town of Szeged, I was warned to avoid saying it with “sh” at the beginning (and why). 

To return from my linguistic digression, I decided to try lobbing a bit of Vegeta (about a medium-sized pinch if you want to be slightly more accurate) in with the rice.  For good measure I also chucked a bit (a large pinch this time!) of paprika in there.  The end result was very tasty, even without any accompaniment. I think it would work nicely, too, if the rice were being eaten with something else.

By the way, my usual rice cooking method is one which I picked up from a Chinese cookery book (one by Kenneth Lo on the art of cooking with a wok, as I recall; I can’t remember what it was called although I think I still have it somewhere – probably on my kitchen shelf if I could be bothered going to look).  Esssentially, you measure a quantity of rice into a saucepan, add boiling water in a proportion of 3:2 (water to rice; I usually use a 1/2 cup measuring cup of rice and one each of 1/2 and 1/4 cup measures for the water when I’m making rice for one meal for myself), put a lid on the pan, stick it on the cooker at lowest heat for 10 minutes (more-or-less carefully times), then turn off the heat and leave it sitting (with the lid still on) for a further 10 minutes (although I often only give it 5 or so for this latter stage and it seems to work fine).  As long as you’re reasonably careful with the measurements the rice comes out consistently well-cooked – moist but not too wet – and it avoids having to either watch your rice like a hawk or risk either very soggy rice or a burned pan.

I’m not sure how much rice features in Hungarian cuisine (though it is mentioned on the Wikipedia page so evidently it’s not unknown there) but I’m under no illusion that this is particular preparation likely to be an authentic Hungarian dish (although I could be wrong about that).  I think it’s one I’m likely to use again, though.


Hello Szeged

As I mentioned the other day, I recently came across a notebook containing some poems I wrote a few years ago.  I have already posted the poems written at Llandudno Junction railway station in June 2007 (or at least those that were fit for sharing), so now it is the turn of the other occasion represented in the notebook – my visit to Hungary in July 2008.  More specifically, these poems were written on the train as I was leaving the country.

I was visiting Hungary with my old friend Andy (one of the few friends from my pre-university days with whom I am still in touch) and his wife, Samm, whose family lived there.  At the time, Andy and Samm had just bought a farm near Szeged (and next door to Samm’s mum’s farm) and were preparing to move out there.  They decided to put on a British-style barn dance for members of the church they were moving to and invited me, as a fairly experienced barn dance musician, to go out and join them for it.  We turned it into a week-long holiday and then they stayed on to do some work on the farm while I travelled home alone (we had jouneyed out together).

The first leg of my solo journey was on the train from Szeged (right down in the south of the country) to Budapest (the capital, up in the north), where I was to catch a plane back to the UK. It had been a wonderful week and, naturally I was quite sad to be leaving my friends behind (not to mention slightly daunted as this was actually my first significant time travelling alone in a foreign country).  The weather, which had been beautifully sunny and warm for most of the week, was turning to rain and it was a grey, miserable day that complemented my mood fairly well.

The first couple of my poems (judging by their order in the notebook) were haiku, which seem to have been inspired by the scenery (in particular the sunflower fields which are one of my favourite features of the Hungarian landscape) and the weather.  The first one is:

Flatlands stretch away
golden yellow green and black
sunflowers in the rain

I think I deliberately left out punctuation (especially within the middle line) to be ambiguous.  And here’s a picture of one of the sunflower fields (taken on a brighter day; click on it to see it bigger):
Sunflower Panorama

The second haiku was probably written while the train was sitting in a station somewhere en route:

Summer lunchtime;
Soft breeze in station flowers,
Featureless grey sky.

After these haiku I next turned my attention to the limerick, another poetic form that I like to dabble with, although rather less often:

There was a young man on a train
Which crossed the Hungarian plain.
He sat wond’ring why,
In deepest July,
The weather was turning to rain.

I rounded off my days endeavours at very short poetry with a quick stab at a clerihew, which represents my second and (to date) final non-abandoned attempt with this genre.  I have ignored the traditional constraint that the subject should be a famous person (and that it should poke fun at them).  Instead, this one is about Samm’s younger sister, whom I met for the first time on this trip (actually, I may have met her at Andy & Samm’s wedding, as we were both there, but I don’t recall any contact with her then):

Kimberley D
Is as sweet as can be.
She welcomed me in
With a big hug and a grin.

After having warmed up with these shorter poems, I tried writing something a bit longer.  I have mixed feelings about this one, as I quite like the meter (which is vaguely inspired by the rhythm of the train) and the general sentiment expressed (the sorrow of parting, combined with the observation that it’s better to part from friends than never to have met them) but I’m not incredibly happy with most of the actual lines.  Perhaps one day I’ll rework it.  In the meantime, here is the poem as it currently stands (with a couple of minor edits from the first draft):

I’m sat on a train
Watching the rain
As we traverse the Hungarian Plain.
It seems that the sky
Is starting to cry
As the time has now come when we must say goodbye.
It’s terribly sad
And driving me mad
To come to the end of the good times we’ve had.
It’s always the same
And no-one’s to blame;
Though now I must go I’m still glad that I came.
It’s sad but it’s true
And there’s nothing to do;
Our ways now must part so farewell, dear, to you.
That’s how it must be
And I hope you can see
That I’m missing you, as I hope you’ll miss me.

By the way, in case you were wondering about the title of today’s post, one of the curious features of the Hungarian language is that they use the word “hello” (actually, I think it should probably be spelled “hállo”, although it’s probably more a feature of the spoken language anyway) as both a salutation and a valediction (i.e. a greeting for both ends of a meeting), rather like the Italian word ciao (itself evidently quite popular in Hungary, as well as a number of other countries).  As it happens, I wrote about this in my old blog.