We’ve spent a brief vacation week in Romania in July, and had an intense amount of fun (& especially food). The foodcrafter spirit is strong there with many traditional simple, yet delicious dishes and local specialties. We realised that international awareness about Romanian cuisine is close to nil, most people thinking “yeah, greasy and heavy eastern European stuff. All the same!”.
Nothing could be further from the truth! (well… ok…. maybe the greasy part… sometimes…)
Being both from Romania, we decided to start a weekly series over the next 5 weeks to share some highlights from our exceptional culinary heritage. This week we’ll introduce you to the country and its traditions, and over the next weeks we’ll talk about the main pillars of Romanian food (milk & cheese, veggies, soups, meat, and deserts) so you get a feel for what goodies the country has to offer (with recipes!!).
The bulk of Romanian food is based on simple and natural products: milk, bread, meat, and veggies.
Romania is a beautiful country, packed with mountains, forests, access to the Black Sea, and the Danube Delta. Before the 1989 revolution that put an end to the communist regime, Romania used to be one of Europe’s largest producer and exporter of cereals. I remember as a child spending my summers on the country side running in huge fields of wheat and corn, and mobbing poor chickens at my uncle’s farm.
Just like the many abandoned and rusty factories, mines, and buildings all over the country are the ruins of our glorious past, much of our fertile land is now left to rot. Or worse, to build massive and ugly houses no one can afford to live in. The sad reality is that local farmers are faced with more and more difficulties in competing with the discounted prices offered by large retailer chains. Most of the fruit orchards are now unexploited, and Romania ended up importing much of the produce we used to grow and raise.
Nevertheless, “farmer’s markets” (the real thing – not their trendy occidental counterparts) are still where most people would go and buy vegetables and cheese. For everything else, there is the supermarket. The tactile interaction with products that happens in a real market, where you can touch, smell, taste, and even negotiate the price of what you want to buy, has disappeared in our modern society where goods are wrapped in plastic and vacuum sealed.
What impressed us first is the quality of the basic products you can buy. And I’m not talking about the high-end bio jewellery that you can only find at expensive stores, quite the contrary! The quality of the cheapest vegetables you can get in any market is just outstanding. Tomatoes, onions, carrots, aubergines, all have an incredible taste – full of flavour, sweet, inviting to be eaten!
As such, most common meals are pretty simple and on the run; a slice of bread (pâine), a hastily salad made with some tomatoes (roșii), sliced onions (ceapă) and cucumbers (castravete), a chunk of fresh cheese (caș or telemea), and, more often than not, some lard (slănină). Simple, but so efficient and good! Family meals usually start with a veal or chicken soup or ciorbă (a more consistent soup), and then a warm main course centred around some meat (pork, beef, or chicken). Often, home made pickles are served on the side, especially with richer dishes such as tocăniță (light stews with vegetables).
The best cooks in Romania are moms and grand-mothers, that draw on their mental repertoire of secular recipes to mix things together, without any need for a timer or measuring cups. On warm Sundays, fathers usually take over the barbecue, and will happily spend the day in the garden making mititei (minced meat finger-shaped wonders) or bogrács (originally a Hunagrian recipe, a thick soup with zillions of ingredients that is boiled for hours), both requiring an essential ingredient: beer!
In their hands, not in the food, mind you!
People rarely eat outside, and only on special occasions at restaurants, therefore street food is not very common, beyond plăcinte (a savoury thick pancake filled with cheese, potato, or cabbage), mititei, covrigi (hot pretzels covered with sesame or poppy seeds), or langoși (deep-fried pancakes with sweet or savoury filling).
The real deal remains the quintessential sarmale (cabbage leaves stuffed with meat, rice, and spices that are eaten all year long, but especially at celebrations such as Christmas), mămăligă (basically polenta), and ciorbă de burtă (tripe soup, tastes so much better than it sounds).
To summarise, Romanian food is not for the faint of heart (and certainly not for those on a diet), but it is definitely tasty, honest, and made with great produce. Much variety and delightful surprises await those who are ready to get off the beaten tracks and delve into centuries of tradition and foodcrafting.
Next week, we will start our Romanian journey with an omnipresent ingredient: milk! And obviously everything that can be made with it, such as cheese, creams and more!