Rooster Testicles in Budapest. Oh, yes I did…

I had a ball in Budapest. Actually, I had a bunch of them. We were walking down the street here, minding our own business, when what should confront me but a simmering cauldron of rooster testicles.

We had stumbled upon an Easter market set up in the middle of a small square not far from our apartment. There were food stalls with all sorts of delicious looking things – spring lamb turning on a spit, potatoes sauteeing in onions and goose fat, pork knuckles in sauerkraut, and lots of other light and healthy snacks. And then there was a pot of rooster testicle stew. That other stuff looked great, but how could I pass up rooster testicles and look myself in the mirror?

A steaming cauldron of testicles.

A steaming cauldron of testicles.

What would you do? I know what you would do. You would do what normal people do. You would giggle, crack a little joke, and you go about your life. Right?

Well, not me. Rooster testicles aren’t just food, they’re a challenge. I pride myself on being the ever-so-slightly-more-hirsute Andrew Zimmern, the guy from the TV show Bizarre Foods. If there is some crazy weird morsel out there, chances are I’ll eat it. And there I was, staring at these tiny spherical gauntlets that had been spread at my feet (my apologies for combining a medieval warfare metaphor with a reference to male poultry reproductive organs). I could not back down. I would not back down.

Why on earth was I put in this position in the first place? Apparently Hungarians either 1) are very hungry (har); 2) have an excess of roosters this time of year; 3) don’t like to waste anything, even rooster testicles; or 4) have a terrific sense of humor.

They didn’t look that scary, and the pot of nuts even smelled kind of good, although Janine didn’t agree. I was standing downwind of the big vat of boiling orbs, but I suppose the cooking smells clung to my clothes a bit. Later, Janine would berate me for walking around Budapest smelling like a chicken’s jockstrap. I will admit that Marky Mark may not make Eau du Boule du Coq his next fragrance, but if you ask me she was overreacting. I think she was planning to burn my clothes while I slept, but I’m relieved to report that she restrained herself.

And so I walked up to the stall and proudly and unashamedly announced that I would like an order of rooster testicle stew. “Would you like a full order or a half order?” the nice lady replied. I went for the half order. I’m not crazy, you know. (It is here that I thank my lucky stars that the Hungarians speak English so well. If we had been in Japan I would have certainly inadvertently ordered a double helping.)

By now you’re all dying to know how they were. Well, they were good. They came in an onion-y tomato sauce, which might be the part that Janine most objected to (well, that and the testicle part). They were, well, creamy, a bit gamey, and they were indisputably offal. I guess you could call these testicles the ultimate organ meat.

Really, they were much better than you would think.

Really, they were much better than you would think.

Enough of this nuttiness. What are we doing in Budapest anyway? Weren’t we just in Burma? Well, yup. Apart from a brief side trip to Japan, we have managed to stay in the southern hemisphere for the winter, but we decided to take one more swing through Europe before heading home. This meant risking some cold weather, however.

Going from southeast Asia to eastern Europe is a massive shift. One day, we were melting in hundred degree heat in a shorts and flip flops (the common garb for men and women alike is a light cotton longhi – a simple sarong that provides some excellent ventilation).

Sweating profusely (but happily) in Myanmar.

Sweating profusely (but happily) in Myanmar.

Four plane flights and twenty five hours later we were standing in thirty five degrees of wind chill next to the Danube wearing all the clothes in our suitcase.

3 weather in budapest

Freezing our bippies off in Budapest.

Janine had always wanted to see Budapest and Prague, so here we are, freezing our asses off and eating testicles. We were hoping that by April things would warm up a bit, but we were wrong. No matter, Budapest is a lovely city with lots to offer.

In addition to its adventurous cuisine and astonishingly cheap beer and cocktails (at a nice bar, a gin and tonic will run you about $3.50), Budapest has elegant nineteenth century architecture, a very moving and informative Holocaust museum, an old and stately Parliament building, and one of the most beautiful opera houses I’ve ever seen.

Hungary's beautiful parliament building.

Hungary’s beautiful parliament building.

The Hungarian State Opera House is a lot nicer than its communist-era name would suggest. It’s another one of those wedding cake jewels that looks like something out of the movie Amadeus. It opened in 1884 and is said to have some of the best acoustics in the world. Janine and I have been on an opera house kick. After taking lots of opera house tours, we finally saw an actual opera in Sydney, but the Sydney Opera House is a decidedly new world creation and we hadn’t experienced old world opera the way we’re supposed to.

A gorgeous opera house with an impenetrable opera.

A gorgeous opera house with amazing acoustics.

We started going to the opera back in San Francisco and decided that we really like it. Operas are like broadway musicals with bigger sets, bigger casts, much bigger orchestras, less dancing, and a lot more singing. The good news was that there was an opera being performed while we were in town, there were tickets available, and they were cheap!

The bad news was that the opera was Parsifal by Richard Wagner.

Let’s set aside, if we can, the complications of seeing an opera by Wagner. Wagner is performed all over the place, so having outsourced my moral decision making to opera buffs who still attend Wagner in New York, San Francisco, and other places, we settled into our seats to see what the fuss was about.

The thing is, we’re opera novices. What we know about opera you can put on the head of a pin. Well, Wagner is complicated, and Parsifal damn near impenetrable. What’s it about? I’m still not entirely sure, and neither, it seems, is the Hungarian State Opera. In the program notes, even they admit that “it’s difficult to pin down what the story is about.” I’ll say. It has something to do with the holy grail and the spear used to wound Christ, and it’s often performed on Good Friday, but that’s about as far as I got. I will say that it was long and that it had more false endings than the Bush family.

Opera requires a lot of patience for the performers and the audience, but Parsifal really puts one to the test. Some guy would come on stage, sing a bunch of exposition for thirty or forty minutes, and then disappear for an hour or two. Where did he go? When’s he coming back? Some other guy would sing two or three lines and then be made to stand on the side of the stage watching everyone else do stuff for hours on end. Was he being punished? What about us? The first act, which clocked in at a hair over two hours, felt like a twenty two inning baseball game in which both pitchers walk the bases loaded in every inning but nobody ever scores.

On the positive side I thought the orchestra was wonderful and the acoustics were indeed splendid. And if I got bored I could look at the ornate room or compose this blog post in my head.

I confess that we didn’t stick it out for the whole five and a half hours, but I’m really glad we went. Like all stretching exercises, now that we’ve seen Wagner it will make all the other stuff a lot more easy.

And now, for your viewing pleasure, the video evidence of my culinary conquest:

Going Around in Circles in Yangon, Myanmar

When we decided to go on this trip, I put Myanmar, which used to be called Burma, up at the top of the list. I had a feeling that it would be the Cuba of Southeast Asia, for good or ill, unsullied by outside forces. And for good or ill, it is.

We were joined at the Bangkok airport by our dear friends Chris and Marianne for the trip to Yangon (which used to be called Rangoon). We stayed at a guest house called Bamboo Place Yangon, which is run by a woman named Nwezin, who may be the face of the Burmese revival. She was extremely hard-working, infinitely friendly, and she’s making a go of her new venture. It can’t be easy. For one thing, her family lives on the premises, which is a lovely colonial-era building, but it appears that most of the rooms are set aside for the guests. One evening I wandered through the front room (where the guests hang out during the day) and found her young daughters spread out on the floor under a mosquito net, hunkered down for the night. Other relatives appeared to be bivoaking in the hallway. Can you imagine waiting for a bunch of foreigners to get out of your sleeping area before being able to go to sleep? Me neither.

In the face of these challenges, the service was gracious and amazingly accommodating. One night we didn’t feel like going out, so Nwezin prepared a traditional Burmese dinner for us, which included a deeply satisfying chicken curry, some fried noodles, watercress salad, sautéed green beans, and a lovely clear soup of some kind. The meal came to ten dollars for the four of us. For breakfast, which was included, you could have eggs and toast or a traditional breakfast of spicy noodles from the Shan region. In my twilight years, when what’s left of my mind turns to paste, I will still remember these noodles. I attempted to extract the recipe from our hostess, but the best she could offer was that I should fry some chicken in onion, and add spices, noodles, and soy sauce. Oh, well. This is what the internet is for.

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An absolutely delicious home-cooked Burmese dinner.

Yangon is a fascinating place. Myanmar was a longtime British colony, with Yangon as one of its major cities. As often happens, the colonizers built buildings that reminded them of home, whether or not those they’re particularly suited to the climate. Many of these buildings are still standing, if only barely. Some look like they’re being held together by mold and mildew. Others are starting to be rehabilitated and are being turned into, among other things, art galleries and hipster bars. One night, Chris, Marianne, Janine and I did a four-part Yangon happy hour pub crawl, where the evening’s bar tab for four people might have topped out at about sixty bucks. Take THAT, Brooklyn.

I love tourist attractions for the catastrophically lazy traveler. This is why I love the hop on hop off buses that wend their way through most major cities. For twenty bucks or so, you get on some relatively nice open top double decker bus and you drive past most of the sights worth seeing. It’s not cheap, but it’s remarkably efficient. You get a lay of the land and you can pretend that you saw a city. Oh, and you don’t have to move a muscle. It’s like the choo choo train that circles Disneyland. It’s fun and it’s efficient and I refuse to apologize for my sloth.

The hop on, hop off bus has not made it to Yangon yet, thank goodness. (Neither, for that matter, has McDonald’s or Starbuck’s, but that won’t hold.) For one thing, it would never get anywhere. In the three or so years since Burma opened up to the west, one of the major changes has been the influx of cheap used cars from Japan. This has made driving in Yangon a challenge for three important reasons – 1) the city roads were not constructed with a lot of traffic in mind; 2) there are still very few traffic lights and other means to control how traffic moves; and 3) since very few people owned cars until now, nobody really knows how to drive. Can you imagine setting many thousands of student drivers out on the roads with no traffic lights? That’s what it’s like to drive in Yangon. We regularly came to an impasse at an unregulated intersection in which the cabdriver and some other driver would struggle to determine how to proceed. It was entertaining, if a little unnerving.

Thus, one of the great ways to take in the city is the Yangon Circular Railway.

(A brief digression. The train was recommended to us by our friends Robert and Ana, who have lived abroad for many years, and in Yangon for the past year. Our kids were friends in pre-school in DC, and we haven’t seen them since they left the States in 2003. On our first night in town, they invited us over for dinner, and it was just fabulous to see them again. It reminded me that travel can be a great way to meet new people but that it’s also a great way to re-connect with people who no longer live nearby. While I’m at it, we hadn’t seen Chris and Marianne for five years because they’ve been living, of all places, in Yemen, the Republic of Georgia, Thailand, and now Pakistan. Thankfully, they were available to join us in Yangon, which has been such fun. Reconnecting with them has been a real highlight of our journey.)

Anyway, back to the railway. By contrast to the hop on, hop off bus, the circular railway has real passengers who are living their lives like normal people. (Tourists, on the other hand, live their lives like abnormal people. They walk around in circles, get in people’s way, and they dress funny.) The railway was built by the British more than a half a century ago, and it’s the lifeline for the city’s regular folk. I have a sneaking suspicion that with the exception of advertisements for cell phones and the like on the walls of the trains, a time traveler would not notice much difference over the years. The train putts along at about thirty miles per hour and circumnavigates the city in three hours or so. It passes though the center of town and then works its way out to the northern suburbs, although you won’t spot any soccer moms or minivans out there.

I was eager to give it a go. We found the funky old station, bought our tickets, and climbed aboard for our journey on a rolling metal time machine. We chugged through the city, which is gritty, dirty, and desperately lacking in modern infrastructure. After about a half hour, the train became a cargo vessel and filled with goods from the market, headed, one would assume, for the city. Soon after we were in the countryside, where farmers hip deep in flooded fields harvested watercress, which is a staple in the Burmese diet. There were rice fields, tea fields, and thatched roof shacks.

Passengers on the Yangon Circular Railway loaded down with goods from the vegetable market.

Passengers on the Yangon Circular Railway loaded down with goods from the vegetable market.

It was a hot, sweaty, stinky ride, but endlessly fascinating, and you couldn’t beat the price – a ticket on the circular railway will run you a grand total of two hundred Burmese kyat, or nineteen American cents, or 6.33 cents per hour. I read that there are plans afoot to modernize the railway, which I’m sure will make it more efficient but a lot less charming. I hope they find a way to keep it affordable for the people who rely on it to move their goods from place to place. Without this creaky, pokey, rolling wheelbarrow, life for lot of people would be even harder than it is.

One thing that is decidedly not poor is the Shwedagon Pagoda. This temple, which dates back in one form or another to about 600 BCE, is said to hold relics of the four Buddhas that attained enlightenment, and is an important Buddhist pilgrimage site. It is also just a bewildering collection of priceless religious art and architecture. The pagoda is covered in gold – not just gold leaf, but actual plates of gold. The top of the pagoda, known as the umbrella, consists of half a ton of gold alone. I was just as interested in the pilgrims themselves. There are monks of all ages, including children who look five or six years old. There was a little boy in elaborate dress who was being carried by one man and shaded from the sun by another. It was The Last Emperor, Myanmar edition. Then there were people who may have turned up for some peace and quiet – I saw more than a few people curled up in a cool, quiet corner of a prayer hall, snoozing away.

I must say, the little feller looks rather unexcited about being carried around and shaded.

I must say, the little feller looks rather unexcited about being carried around and shaded.

This is a fascinating city. It’s more or less as I imagined it – it evokes every bit of the faded glory I had expected, although it’s always worth remembering that a certain amount of that so-called “glory” was colonial. I was also reminded that, while we are always eager to wander among the stalls in the marketplace and take the decidedly un-spiffy circular railroad, we also don’t turn up our noses at a good ‘ol pub crawl in refurbished hipster havens surrounded by scrums of expats. We want screamy fast wifi to go with our ancient culture. Can a country upgrade itself enough to attract tourists and foreign investment without selling its soul? I certainly hope so.

Yangon has a long way to go. The infrastructure needs to be built almost from scratch. Most businesses have diesel generators to deal with the regular blackouts. Untreated sewage runs in trenches next to the sidewalk. There was no trash collection to speak of that I could find. And through it all people are busting their bippies to make a living and a life, and doing it with remarkably good humor. I wish them very well.

Did I or didn’t I cook with Poo?

I’ve heard that there are things to do in Thailand other than eating or sitting on a beach, and it was our fervent hope that we might possibly do some of them.

High on our list was something of cultural significance. The Grand Palace seemed to fit the bill. It’s a huge complex of ornate, beautiful buildings that used to be the chief residence of the king of Thailand. I could just picture Yul Brynner padding about, although then I began to feel resentful that I never got to be in The King and I on Broadway, but then the hard feelings subsided and I decided that the Grand Palace would make a very nice historic and cultural excursion. Although I think that Trip Advisor ranks up there with bathroom walls as places to receive useful sightseeing information, the purveyor of green balls nevertheless ranks the Grand Palace near the top of things to do in Bangkok.(By the way, according to Trip Advisor, the top rated restaurant in New York is a sandwich shop in the West Village called Faicco’s Pork Store – it may be a perfectly lovely pork store, but New York’s best restaurant it ain’t.) Anyhoo, It was worth a shot.

With this winning endorsement in our back pockets, we set out for the Grand Palace. Getting around Bangkok isn’t too bad, but taking a cab requires a bit of technology, a bit of skill in mime and charades, and a bit of luck. Google Maps really is the revelation of the modern age, but even that has its imperfections. Anyway, I realized that the words “Grand Palace,” which the average Thai cab driver may or may not understand in English, is right next to a temple called Wat Pho, which I had a feeling would be easier for the cabbie to understand. Wat Pho is Wat Pho no matter how you slice it. And besides, who doesn’t love a Thai temple? So I told the nice man to please take us to Wat Pho and he nodded knowingly, and we were off.

Well, ladies and gentleman, Wat Pho is a fabulous place. I know this because as soon as we arrived, we saw prominently displayed photos of President Obama and Hillary Clinton shuffling around this very temple IN THEIR SOCKS. When you enter a Buddhist temple you have to take off your shoes, and apparently they don’t make exceptions, even for the Leader of the Free World. I would think that a place would have to be pretty nice for the President of the United States and the Secretary of State to walk around in their stocking feet. I wonder if the advance team prepared a memo for POTUS (and SOSOTUS) reminding him to be sure not to wear socks with holes in them when visiting Wat Pho. Can you imagine? Actually, what I imagine is some poor schmo site advance kid having to take off his nice socks and give them to the president. So seeing photos of President Obama and Secretary Clinton sealed the deal. We were in the right place.

Wat Pho is famous for its statue of the reclining Buddha – a really extraordinary piece of religious art –although if you ask me he’s not actually reclining, he’s kind of lying on his side. Anyway, he’s huge – he’s got to be more than fifty or sixty feet long, with massive toes that dominate one side of the room. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the toes. The complex is also full of other, lesser temples that are nevertheless quite impressive in their own right. In all, it was a very good, happy accident. We had experienced Thai culture, and we were feeling good about ourselves.

The reclining buddha at Wat Pho temple.

The reclining buddha at Wat Pho temple.

Having gotten a nice cultural appetizer, we set out to take on the Grand Palace, only to realize that it was now closed. And so it goes. Things don’t always go according to plan. (A postscript. Upon further review, I learned that Wat Pho is the #1 attraction in Bangkok on Trip Advisor – take THAT Grand Palace!)

In addition to at least one attraction of cultural significance, I had promised myself that I would take a cooking class in Thailand. I had once thought that taking a cooking class in each country would be a smashing idea, but it never quite happened. For one thing, the cuisines of Argentina, South Africa, Egypt, New Zealand, and Australia (no offense, really), weren’t exactly the stuff you’d go to a cooking class to learn, although Sicily and Japan would have been interesting. I’ve attempted Thai food in the past and it has always been really, really mediocre. I yearned to learn the essential technique that I could use to amaze my friends. One cooking class caught my eye. It was called “Cooking with Poo.” Turns out that some woman named Chonpoo runs a cooking school in Bangkok and she has a sense of humor.

It is here that I must make a shameful confession. I didn’t care whether this was a good cooking school or not. I just wanted to have an excuse to call this post “Cooking with Poo.” Thus, I was deeply disturbed to learn that I wouldn’t be able to cook with Poo after all. Poo was sold out. As you can see, I have shamefully exploited Poo without actually taking her class. I don’t care. If you’re reading this, you clicked on the title. If you don’t feel you’ve gotten your money’s worth, I will happily issue a refund.

Having been prevented from cooking with Poo, I was forced to settle for the more prosaically named Silom Cooking School, which was a perfectly excellent trip into Thai cuisine. The thing I learned about Thai cooking, which should surprise almost nobody, is that if you assemble real Thai ingredients and throw them together in a pot or a pan, it’s going to taste good. Case in point – the first thing we made was Tom Yum Goong – spicy sour shrimp coconut soup. Basically, you prep a small pile of ingredients, including the Thai trinity – galangal (Thai ginger), kaffir lime leaves, and lemongrass – then you add birdseye chiles, which will sear your soul if used properly, and a few other things like fish sauce, shrimp, and some other stuff (I have already sent home the very helpful recipe book that they gave us so I’m working from memory), and you add a few shrimp, some water, and a bit of coconut milk and you throw it into a wok and cook it for four minutes. That’s it, kids! And let me tell you, this was the best damn Tom Yum Goong I’ve ever had. It was tangy, spicy, and it had all those great Thai flavors that you almost never get at Siam Palace, or King of Bangkok, or King of Palace of Siam, or whatever your serviceable non-Thai-owned neighborhood Thai restaurant is called.

Other mysteries were revealed. We made our own coconut milk and coconut cream, which was like finding out the trick of sawing a lady in half. Here’s how you do it – take a coconut, shred it, add warm water, and squeeze it into a fine mesh colander (the Thais use woven baskets, but who’s got one of those?). The product of this is coconut cream. Then you take the just-squeezed coconut shreds and add more warm water and squeeze it out again. That’s the coconut milk. Crazy, huh? The technique trick I learned about coconut curry is that you combine the coconut cream and the curry paste and reduce that for a while, then you add your protein and the coconut milk (and the obligatory mise en place of spices and condiments) and reduce that for a while, and you’re done. It’s not insipid and watery, like I always make. The whole thing takes ten minutes. We also made our own curry paste. This was really easy, even though we used an old fashioned mortar and pestle. Just throw thai basil, thai cilantro (there are several kinds of both), some big not-so-spicy chiles, some little really spicy chiles, and some other stuff in a bowl (or food processor), and you’re done. Who knew?

I wasn't cooking with Poo, but it was still fun.

I wasn’t cooking with Poo, but it was still fun.

I will say that our instructor (who used to live, of all places, in Waco, Texas) may or may not have been the Rachel Ray of Thai cooking. He seemed perfectly fine with using canned coconut milk and prepared curry pastes. I’m sure he was right, but when I get home, I’m going full monty with all the homemade stuff.

We also made penang curry, pad thai, and sticky rice with mango. They were all shmabulously good, especially the sticky rice, which is now my favorite dessert. That one is ridiculously easy – steam (don’t boil) some glutinous rice, soak it in sugar and coconut milk, and top it with some sesame seeds. Your guests will think you’re god, and you’ll giggle and titter at how easy to please everyone is.

Thai cooking is a little like Thailand itself. It seems mysterious, but it’s actually really accessible. Bangkok is like that, too. It’s crazy and chaotic, but not so bad once you get the hang of it. People are friendly, the cabs take you where you want to go for about three bucks, and you can live quite well on a budget. There are higher end joints where you can spend a little bit extra, but in most cases, it will still work out to be a huge bargain when compared to the fancy shmancy joints in other big cities.

We had hoped to stare down at it all from atop the Skybar, the chic downtown cocktail lounge, but in the one moment of inhospitality, we were turned away because our friend John was wearing, gasp, sandals. That’s okay, we didn’t see the Grand Palace either.