Once my eyes stop streaming and Andrea stops laughing, we leave the store and cross the street to Rákóczi Square. “Under communism, Rákóczi Square had a bad reputation,” says Andrea. “It was the place where, how shall I put it? – she pauses, shyly – “the ‘cheap ladies’ would congregate.” It’s a pretty fancy place now, with plane trees, benches and a children’s play area. The east side is filled with an elegant peach-colored brick building with a two-story central archway, a work of architectural ambition one would expect from a large railway station or national museum. But it is a market.
The Market Hall in Rákóczi Square was the second of five covered markets built across Budapest in the late 19th century. They are all still in operation and each is a common thread in the tapestry of residents’ lives, who come to collect fresh ingredients for home-cooked meals. The best known is the Great Market, near the river at the southern end of the Váci pedestrian street. It’s big and bustling, with stalls selling necessities alongside traditional Hungarian goods that make perfect souvenirs. It is rightly a tourist favourite. But clearly the market hall in Rákóczi Square offers a more authentic experience for someone who wants to get under the skin of the city.
“You won’t find any tourists here, that’s for sure,” Andrea says, as we pass through the monumental entrance, designed to allow horse-drawn carriages to enter and unload. Inside, the floor tiles are red and cream, and the roof is supported by a network of barrel-vaulted blue iron beams. It looks like an industrial style cathedral. The aisles are lined with stalls specializing in foods of all kinds. Shoppers gather at a stand tended with salamis, prime ribs and slices of pork belly. Glass jars of multicolored pickles, baby corn and cabbage-stuffed peppers crowd the shelves of another stall like specimens in an old apothecary. It is a building of energy, smells, noise and beauty. It offers a truer insight into Budapest life than any museum exhibit or riverside tourist trap.
A merchant passes her hand over the products in front of her, inviting me to browse them. She is of East Asian descent, as are several other traders here. “In the past, the market was only occupied by Hungarians, but now there are a lot of immigrants from China,” explains Andrea. I wonder if that caused any tension; The country’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has made international headlines for his populist statements decrying the impact of immigration. “Ah, Orbán makes a big deal out of it, but for us locals, it’s not a problem at all,” Andrea says dismissively.
A stuffed cow with prominent udders takes pride of place at the dairy stand, where a lady in a white hat pours sour cream into a container for a customer. “See how rich and thick it is,” says Andrea. “Not liquid like in supermarkets. The quality is so much better here and the prices are lower. Nearby, a large pink-finned carp clogs the side of its tank. The fishmonger sees me watching and lowers a net to stir up a whiskey catfish from the bottom. Freshwater specimens from Hungarian rivers and lakes are cooked in an earthy-tasting fish soup called halászlé, popular across the country, and you’ll find tanks like this in each of the market halls.
“Now my lentils,” Andrea says, before throwing a quick question in Hungarian at the fishmonger, who points to a store nearby. “The nice thing about this hall is that you can talk to people,” Andrea said busily. “It’s not so easy in the Great Market Hall.” The corner shop has a large wall of drawers stocked with dry foods: cashews, pecans, banana chips, chocolate covered cherries, white beans and more. “Here they are,” she nods, opening a drawer and putting the pulses in a bag. “Lentils look a bit like coins, so it’s traditional to eat them on January 1 to ensure a prosperous year ahead.” She assesses the bag, then adds another ball. “I’m going to be so rich!”