Food, Food Artisans

A Traveler’s Guide to Matzo Ball Soup

*From time to time, we share the writing of our friends and co-workers on this site. Today’s guest post comes from Zingerman’s Bakehouse staffer Chrissy Abe.

Upon arrival on her first visit to Hungary, Zingerman’s Bakehouse Partner Amy Emberling wanted what any weary, jet-lagged person would want – a meal. Any meal. It needn’t even be a good meal, just something to begin the assimilation process after touching down in another country. So, when Amy, Bakehouse Partner Frank Carollo and Zingerman’s founder, Ari Weinzweig, ended up at Duna Corso, a restaurant in a touristy part of Budapest, they were pleasantly surprised to find good food in a family-style restaurant.Goose Matzo soup

Seeing matzo ball soup on the menu, with no mention of it being a Jewish dish, was intriguing to them. Even more interesting was that the matzo balls were swimming in goose broth instead of the chicken broth usually found in the U.S. version. The goose broth was rich and complex, and was served along with an entire goose leg as a garnish. Then there was the matzo ball itself: It was much coarser in texture than any the Bakehouse crew had previously experienced, and it was flavored with fresh ginger root! (Don’t let your bubbe read this…)

“The food that warms your soul is what makes an impression…”

Interestingly, Hungarian cuisine and Jewish cuisine are quite intertwined today. Matzo ball soup is often on menus, latkes are readily available and cholent, often served with pork, is surprisingly common. Jewish communities have existed in Hungary since at least the 1100s and their impact on the nation’s cultural landscape is significant. World War II brought the same fate to Hungarian Jews as it did other European Jews. But this occurred much later in the war since Hungary was an ally of Germany, and maintained its independence until the spring of 1944. Some Hungarian Jews fortunate enough to survive the Holocaust returned after the war, only to find themselves living under repressive Communist rule.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the community became more visible and vibrant. Budapest now has the largest and most active Jewish community in Eastern Europe, and 90% of Hungary’s Jewish population lives in the capital. The result of 900 years of Jewish/Magyar co-existence is an interesting assimilation of Jewish foods into the Hungarian standard cuisine. What we might think of as Jewish food here in the U.S. is simply considered Hungarian food in that country.

One of the goals of the spring 2012 trip was to explore Jewish cuisine in Hungary, which makes sense as Zingerman’s has its roots in Jewish food. Toward that end, the group decided to pay a visit to Tibor Rosenstein. Tibor is the chef and owner of Rosenstein, one of a handful of restaurants in Budapest known for their Jewish offerings. He survived the Holocaust as a baby, and was raised, along with his sister, by resourceful elderly grandparents. After finishing middle school, he chose cooking as a trade because “eating is good, and everyone must eat.”

Tibor built on what his aging grandmothers had taught him: cook what is locally available with love and great care. He opened his restaurant in the early 1990s, and he cooks what his grandmothers cooked. The food that warms your soul is what makes an impression, and his restaurant is a wonderful representation of Jewish and Hungarian traditional dishes served in an elegant setting. One of the best parts of the restaurant is Tibor himself. He is an energetic, smiling, and passionate chef. Truly inspiring!

Returning to the matzo ball soup… At his restaurant, Tibor makes a flavorful goose stock using a mix of vegetables such as mushrooms, parsnips, celery root and Savoy cabbage. But the crowning jewels are the matzo balls. Tibor welcomed the Bakehouse group into his small, but efficient kitchen to show us how he makes his matzo balls, using coarsely crumbled whole matzos, whole eggs, goose fat, fresh parsley, and fresh grated ginger root. We left his kitchen prepared to bring Hungarian matzo ball soup to Ann Arbor.

Intrigued? We promise a tasty experience whether you’re a matzo ball soup novice or connoisseur. Come and see us at the Bakehouse on Fridays and try our tribute to Tibor’s soup.