This past Sunday, my friend, Dipti Mistry, invited me to cook an authentic Indian meal…
Cooking a meal with Orsi Herbein, my “cultural chef” for the month of June was like an extremely short, very exciting summer camp experience! I know that sounds CRAZY but let me explain. When my five kids were little, June was a celebratory month! School was finally over for the year and summer camps, which were all the rage, were on the horizon! Excitement was in the air as my kids, all unique individuals with specific interests, pursued different opportunities. Combined they attended all sorts of sports camps (baseball, soccer, tennis, golf, and horseback riding), educational camps that involved trips to Washington, DC where they visited museums and explored other cultures and music camp. The more adventurous of my children attended camps where they spent the night far from home, met new friends, enjoyed the beauty of nature, and even cooked over an open flame. Except for playing a sport, I did all these things with Orsi!
The thing I enjoy most about writing “A Yummy Year: Cultures, Cooking & Connections” is that, like my children, each cultural chef is unique and opens a window of understanding into her culture in her own way. So, when Orsi invited me to her home to cook a traditional Hungarian dinner, Paprikash Krumpli, using a metal tripod over an open flame, I was thrilled, and knew I was in for an adventure! Orsi lives a couple of hours away and just traveling on 95 N on a Friday afternoon in heavy traffic was an experience worth its very own blog! But I survived…yay for me
I arrived at Orsi’s with a bottle of good wine, fresh Italian bread from the bakery and a big appetite! Orsi and her husband, Kyle, greeted me warmly and welcomed me to “Playa del Kyle”, a beautiful outdoor space they created that is perfect for spending time with their family, entertaining friends and relaxing in each other’s company after a long day of work. Before we started cooking, I met Dia, Orsi’s sister, who had recently moved from Louisiana to the house next door to Orsi. The sisters are extremely close and share many things, including the same birthday. Orsi joked, “We are twins except we were born twelve years apart!” “What a coincidence,” I said. “My twin daughters were born on my son’s 8th birthday. I guess I have triplets!”
While Kyle swung an axe to split wood for the fire that we would soon be cooking over, Orsi, Dia and I prepped the ingredients. As we peeled potatoes, chopped onions, and sliced sausage Orsi explained that Paprikash Krumbli is traditional Hungarian stew, originally prepared by shepherds. “It’s easy to prepare and can be cooked on the stove or, using a tripod, in a cast iron pot over a fire,” she said. There are many variations of this recipe but according to Orsi they all start with grease, either oil or fat rendered from meat, in which onions are sauteed until soft and clear.
After starting the fire and waiting while the coals to get good and hot, Kyle showed me around their beautiful land. Their home, nestled on a beautiful, forested hill, has a steep incline in the back and a large flat side yard with a lovely vegetable garden. Orsi proudly pointed out the stone steps leading up the hillside to a leveled clearing in the woods that Kyle laid. “We are going to build a pergola and Koi pond up there,” she said. “It will be our Mayan temple.”
Trekking back down the hill, we were greeted by Huxley and Coco Nut, Orsi’s two rescue dogs, who looked as excited as I felt…it was finally time to start cooking! With the cast iron pot hanging from the tripod, Orsi tossed the chopped onions into the sizzling oil. When I asked how much onion the recipe called for Orsi replied, “You can never use too many onions!” She said, “There’s an old Hungarian saying, ‘If you want something to taste good put onion in it. If you want it to taste better, put more onion in it!’” I couldn’t agree more…three cheers for caramelized onions!
We sipped wine and chatted until it was time to add the other ingredients. We stopped talking long enough for Orsi to scrape the sausage from the cutting board into the pot and dump in a bunch of Hungarian Sweet Paprika along with salt and pepper. After a few quick stirs, she added the cubed potatoes, while Kyle poured in enough chicken broth, water, and wine to just cover the potatoes. Knowing it would take about 25 minutes for the potatoes to get tender and the sauce to thicken, I asked Orsi to tell me how and why she and her family came to United States.
Orsi’s family came to the U.S. in 1995 when her father, an engineer, was hired on a temporary basis by a firm in D.C. to resolve an issue that had stumped the company for three years. When he solved the problem in a few weeks the company offered him a permanent position. At the time, Orsi was just 17 years old. It was extremely difficult for her to leave her friends in Hungary and start over in a new school in a new country where she stood out as a foreigner. “It was a culture shock in many ways,” Orsi said. Recalling that time of her life, Orsi added, “It was hard. But then again, I was 17. I was resilient. I met a new boyfriend and…things got better.” Listening to Orsi, I found myself thinking how difficult it would be for me to uproot my life now as an adult let alone as a teenager. I said, “I think you were brave!
The aroma of the onions, sausage and spices wafting from fire was tantalizing. I distracted myself by listening as Orsi shared more of her story. Here’s some of what I learned. She is happy living in the United States. It took 10 years, a lot of money and great deal of effort but she is now a citizen. She has made a life here with her husband and her daughters. She’s a homeowner, active in her community, volunteers at a local nonprofit and co-owns Brand3, a very successful marketing and consulting business. Though happy in the U.S. she still misses Hungary. As I sliced the fresh Italian bread into thick slabs I asked, “What do you miss the most?” Naturally, Orsi misses her relatives and friends. Prior to the pandemic she traveled to Hungary every year and is looking forward to going there again soon. She also said, “I miss speaking my native language and singing traditional folk songs.” Lucky for me, Orsi indulged my request to sing a song in her native tongue. Standing next to the fire, she sang a melancholy tune that celebrated her homeland, and which reminded me of the sentimental ballads I sung long ago at girl scout camp.
Orsi stirred the stew and declared it perfect! More wine was poured, the bread was passed and the piping hot Paprikash Krumbli was spooned into bowls. Topped with sour cream and sliced green onions fresh from Orsi’s garden, it was beyond yummy! The sausage was cooked to perfection, the potatoes were tender, not mushy, and the sauce was thick, creamy and oh so flavorful! The piece de resistance was the Eros Pista, also called “Strong Steve”, a fresh crushed hot paprika paste that gave a burst of taste and texture to the already delicious stew. So focused was I on savoring the flavors, I didn’t even ask a single questions for quite a while…hard to believe but true! Eventually, I asked, “In your experience, what’s the biggest difference between living in the U.S. and Hungary?” Orsi contemplated the question before explaining that in her opinion, the people of Hungary are more emotional, more pessimistic, and more willing to share their feelings and their problems. As a 17-year-old, she learned the hard way that that was not the way in the U.S. “I learned that people in the U.S. are more guarded. They interact on a more superficial level and keep their struggles to themselves.” Orsi believes sharing your struggles with others is a good thing. She said, “We all have problems, so why not talk about them. Being mutually vulnerable connects us with others. It’s a way of saying were all humans. We’re all in this together.” In addition to being a great cook, Orsi, is obviously a very wise woman!
After dinner we toasted each other’s health with pear palinka, a pear- flavored Hungarian moonshine. Orsi had invited me to spend the night, so we stayed up late, talking and laughing in Orsi’s comfortable living room. We covered lots of topics, even discussing religion and politics, before sharing personal stories that indeed invited a deeper sense of connections and a greater awareness of our shared humanity. After a delicious meal and an evening of stimulating conversation, I fell fast asleep in the comfort of Orsi’s guest room. Upon awakening, I recalled the previous day with gratitude. I thought how fortunate I was to travel a few hours from home to walk in the beautiful woods surrounding Orsi’s home, cook a delicious Hungarian meal outdoors, meet new friends, sing around a fire and learn about another culture. It was time to head home. Camp Orsi was over…I hope I get to go again next summer.