Harsh Noise and Black Garlic: Balázs Pándi Talks Music and Food
A conversation with the prolific Hungarian drummer turned cook
Balázs Pándi is a Hungarian drummer and avid record collector, who under normal circumstances is on tour nearly non-stop. He has a long list of collaborators from all around the world and since 2009 he has been touring and recording with arguably the most prolific and influential Japanese noise artist, Masami Akita (Merzbow). EastEast editor Ben Wheeler, who met Pándi during his trip to Tbilisi, Georgia to collect LPs and subsequently performed with him for a short tour in Northern Italy, spoke with him about a topic other than music: his love of and experiences with food. COVID-19 forced Pándi to switch focus, working for the first time as a cook and shifting gears from playing shows to designing dishes for his own pop up in Budapest.
Ben Wheeler:I remember you telling me you basically got started cooking because you were booking shows in Budapest and needed to feed the bands
Balázs Pándi:When I was seventeen, I was broke and with all these bands that were coming to play, we would have blown the whole budget for the night at a restaurant. So back then it was the basic thing: if the band comes we cook food for them. I think this has always been a big difference between touring the US and touring Europe. You might get some overcooked pasta but you always get some kind of food and it’s always made by the promoter. I mean, it’s never been Michelin star cuisine, you know? But it does the job.
BW:I imagine if you’re a band on tour it’s nice to have some home cooked food, to have someone actually take the time to prepare something for you.
BP:For a short time, I used to book shows at a pretty big venue and we had La Coka NostraLa Coka Nostraa hip hop supergroup from the United States featuring DJ Lethal, Danny Boy, Everlast, Ill Bill, and Slaine. while they were on tour. I remembered after the show, according to their contract, I booked a restaurant for them. And those guys were so happy, they had some really rough days, and they said they could only eat at McDonald’s and Burger King. It had been just fast food for them for five, six days, and promoters didn’t really care about their requests in the contract about eating a decent meal in a restaurant. That’s a good example, that even if you reach some kind of “status” it still doesn’t mean that the food is steady and good on tour. You still have to eat garbage out of paper bags.
In Hungary, you can actually have a full on meal at the butcher
BW:So I know when you host bands in Budapest you often take them to visit a special butcher and try their stuff. What is it about this place in particular?
BP:This butcher is one of the last ones of its kind. One thing that’s really important and the main difference between butchers around the world and in Hungary is that here you can actually have a full on meal at the butcher, you can have a sausage, you also go there to have lunch, or even breakfast—a lot of people will just start the day with a big liver sausage. This butcher in particular, I just like the guy a lot—it’s a family run business for over thirty years and according to him this place has been a butcher shop for almost 100 years. So it’s a classic place. But also, it’s the food that’s incredible. They have this pork belly that, in Japan, you would pay $50 for a slice or something. I’ve taken musicians from Japan there and they’re losing their minds, saying these are cuts of meat they wouldn’t be able to afford back home and I just pay for the whole thing, which is about seven euros.
BW:Is it just good quality meat or is it prepared in a certain way?
BP:I don’t really know exactly how they prepare it, but I think they do bake it in an oven for quite some time. But it’s still super juicy, super flavorful, like all the fat is locked in there. Maybe it’s a secret of that particular place. I mean, you could have had this in lots of other butchers but they keep closing down. I’m pretty sure most young kids consider going to the butcher to be super gross, you know? I mean, everybody is really into fast food here. And pizza, really bad pizza.
BW:What gave you the idea to do this pop up? I know that so many tours and shows have been canceled because of COVID-19—was that the main motivation or have you always wanted to put something like that together anyways?
BP:I’ve been cooking pretty much for the last twenty years but I’m a home cook. So a few things happened: within one week, all my shows got canceled. And then this guy showed up at the journal where I used to work who is known as the butcher of all independent media. He took over national TV here and turned it into a right-wing propaganda channel. He took over other online magazines and got them writing anti-refugee, super racist propaganda articles. So when I heard this guy’s name, I knew that we were done and within a couple of months, I had to resign as a journalist. So there I was with no income. I spoke with the same place where I still have a weekly jazz night spinning vinyl and where I used to bartend and they were like, “well, you know, you always have a place here” but all the bartender spots were already full. So they offered me the idea of becoming kind of the new chef for this place and instead of just suddenly introducing a new menu, they wanted to do this pop up week as a way of introduction.
BW:What are the new offerings like? Are you drawing from Hungarian cuisine? How did you decide on the menu for that?
BP:It was a tight thing because the pop up menu had two soups, two main courses, and three egg dishes. I kept this Turkish poached eggs in yogurt dish that was really popular there on the menu. That is a revelation. I mean, it takes a lot of effort to make it but it’s totally worth it. And then I added a vegetarian version of Eggs Benedict and a creamy omelet with black garlic butter.
BW:Are you making the black garlic yourself?
BP:Yeah, I make it myself. I mean, to buy that stuff is super expensive. You just need a rice cooker and you can make it for pennies. Fill up a big rice cooker and then you have black garlic for months.
BW:How do you make it in a rice cooker?
BP:You just wrap it in tin foil and then you put a bowl into the rice cooker and keep it on. It’s important that your rice cooker has a standby mode. One thing is that it’s going to be pretty pungent, so it’s not ideal to keep it in the living room. And also, it takes three weeks to a month until it’s ready, so that thing is going to stay plugged in warm for a long time. I bought one rice cooker that’s dedicated to this and then I have a smaller one that’s good for just cooking rice.
BW:And Hungarian recipes? I see you have goulash on there; I feel like if anyone knows any kind of Hungarian food, they’ll probably think of that first, right? What is what is distinct about yours?
BP:I mean, for me, it was the meal everybody wants to try when they come here. So I had to learn how to cook it and how to make it good. You hear people toss all kinds of stuff into it, if you go to Austria and eat goulash, it’s just full of everything, they put all kinds of spices in it and red wine and all that stuff. I just figured out that the less I put into it the better it becomes. So what I go for is top quality ingredients, usually people use the beef shank and then they put paprika and peppers and tomatoes and red wine and whatever into it, but I just figured out I like the cheek better because the sauce becomes more gluey. I don’t know if that’s the word in English.
I just figured out that the less I put into goulash the better it becomes, so what I go for is top quality ingredients
BW:I guess more gelatinous?
BP:Yeah. So that gets into the sauce and then it becomes this super rich thing. My way of preparing it is when I buy the meat there’s still some stuff you need to trim. My policy is that whatever feels super tough I cut it off, fat and other things that probably wouldn’t melt down. I slow cook it, pretty much overnight and on low heat. Actually, I used the rice cooker for this as well. So for my recipe I use onion, paprika, the beef, and salt. And that’s all. I braise the meat, then I start with the onion, put the meat on top, then the paprika, and I just use low heat. Some people use water just to make sure the paprika doesn’t burn because then it gets super bitter. But if your meat is good quality then it releases enough moisture so that the paprika doesn’t burn. It’s okay to use water. I just don’t do it. But if you want to play it safe add one or two cups of water. Then you can cook it for an extra three hours on low heat and then it should be ready. What I do is cook it for about two hours and when the meat is halfway to being tender, you put it in the rice cooker overnight on standard standby mode, which is around sixty Celsius, and then it will keep the chunks of meat together.
BW:It also seems like you’re pickling a lot of stuff, making some original concoctions there.
BP:I always come up with something. I just saw these pears the other day at the supermarket and they were not ripe at all and then I figured out that they would be perfect for pickling. So I made a marinade with my homemade apple cider vinegar and apricot juice and then I added some chili and salt and sugar. And then I cut the pears and some purple onions super thin, I used some pomegranate seeds, and mixed them all up and poured this liquid on top. That turned out pretty good.
BW:Last time we saw each other was in Italy and I remember that most of the time between shows was spent eating and talking about food. The friend of the promoter that hosted us for our first show brought this amazing cheese and polenta breakfast dish. Do you remember that?
Just the same way as in music, you have to practice, fail, practice more
BP:Yeah, that was amazing. The guy who picked me up from the train station, he was super cool. And we started to hit it off immediately and we were talking about food. He told me about this dish that’s specific to that region [the Northeastern Province of Belluno] which is cheese cooked in cream with polenta and then the next morning after the show, out of the blue, he just showed up with one serving. He was like, “I told my wife: this is my mission.”
That’s the thing that in Italy, as divided as it was, they have always had this relationship with their traditions and with cooking and food. And here in Hungary, we used to have a great tradition as well. And then the wars came and then when the communists took over they sort of centralized everything and all the restaurants that used to cook great food, the government took them over and turned them into these super cheap, super low quality buffets and mess halls and they were like that up until 1989. Then right after that all these fast food places popped up. So Hungary never really had time to recover any of its regional dishes. I mean, all you have is nostalgia for the stuff that survived from communism. In recent years there’s some change, people have started to unearth old cookbooks and republish them but it’s still far from optimal. These people won’t change the big picture; I still don’t know what will get people back behind the stove or get them interested in local culture and cuisine.
BW:The last thing I wanted to ask you is about this connection between food and music: basically all the musicians I have known are really into cooking. Why do you think that is?
BP:I was just thinking about this the other day and there’s a lot of connections for me—I can see why I’ve gotten so heavily into cooking these days. Cooking is the same thing that you do with music, there's so much relation in terms of muscle memory, you know, like the way you get better chopping onions, it’s the same way you get better at practicing paradiddles paradiddles A common practice exercise for drummersand then cooking the actual food and putting it together is more like playing a show: you can improvise, you get more refined. You can have the same confidence in the kitchen as you have onstage. Just the same way as in music, you have to practice, fail, practice more. I remember when I used to go to the supermarket and I had a hard time, I always had to bring a big shopping list. Since I started to cook again, I go to the market if it’s open rather than the supermarket, just to see whatever they have and I just come up with things on the spot, like improvising with dishes, figuring out new things. For me, there’s definitely the same excitement with cooking and food as there is with music.
Music Features and News Editor at EastEast. Experimental musician, сomposer and musicologist, co-founder of Mountains of Tongues organization. He performs regularly at venues and festivals around the Caucasus and has contributed to the soundtrack and sound design for multiple independent films. He also organizes the annual Caucasus All Frequency Festival, and hosts and produces the podcast Caucasus All Frequency.