Two things you probably won’t find too often in this corner of the internet are efficient travel tips or traditional food recipes. But, with cuisine playing such an important role in any country’s culture and heritage, it’s imperative that we address the issue of Romanian food.
First and foremost, you should know that we, Romanians, swear by pork, but we also love our many soups and homemade doughy desserts. Our foods are neither sophisticated nor too complicated, but definitely delicious. And we kind of like to brag about them, too.
Being seasonal as well as regional, Romanian cooking has been strongly influenced by the cuisine of the countries and cultures it has been in close contact with—or occupied by—over the years: while some foods can be traced to the Romans, the more recent and stronger influences come from the Hungarian, German, Slavic, Turkish or Greek cuisine. Quite many, huh? However, we somehow managed to adapt them, by adding local spices and flavour, and made them ours. So, without further ado, let’s start.
A-Z in Romanian Cuisine
A. Ardei umpluți
Stuffed peppers. They are sweet, yellow peppers, filled with pork mince, rice, onion and herbs, and cooked in a simple, delicious, tomato sauce. Served with or without sour cream. (With, please!)
B. Brânză; Boeuf Salad
Brânză stands for cheese. There are quite many varieties of cheese in Romania, but two of them are the most popular around: telemea—from cow, sheep or buffalo milk—is either soft or aged and it pairs perfectly with polenta, summer salads, or simply with green onions and tomatoes. Cașcaval is a semi-hard, yellow cheese from cow or sheep milk, and one of the most popular Romanian dishes is cașcaval pane, with cheese slices being deep fried in a coating of bread crumbs.
Salată boeuf, Boeuf salad, is a festive dish—there’s no Easter, Christmas or New Year’s Eve without it. There’s a perpetual joke around Romanians regarding this salad; while it contains boeuf (French for beef) in the title, we actually make it with chicken meat. Boiled potatoes, carrots, peas, and parsnip are added, then pickles, all mixed with mayonnaise.
Soup. Thick, sour soup. Traditionally, Romanian meals start with a soup. It’s either a chicken noodle soup or, more likely, one of the hearty ones, with sourness coming from vinegar, lemon or borș (fermented bran). One of the most popular, by far, is ciorbă de burtă, tripe soup, from cow’s innards, with lots of garlic. Other favourites include ciorbă de perișoare, meatball soup, or ciobă de fasole cu afumătură, bean soup with smoked ham hock.
Very similar to a lamb haggis meatloaf, lots of herbs and, sometimes, with a boiled egg inside. No Easter meal is complete without it.
Just like Christmas, Easter is a very important tradition in Romania, and subsequently, accompanied by a very traditional meal. You’ll have the above mentioned drob, plus other specialties made of lamb, like roasted lamb or lamb soup, Boeuf salad, Easter eggs, many hors d’oeuvre, lots of fresh vegetables—with green onions and red radishes as headliners—a soup, sarmale (more on that below) and, for dessert, pască, a soft, yeast bread filled with sweet cheese and raisins and cozonac, similar to marble cake in appearance, but closer to sweet bread in terms of consistency—filled with walnuts, poppy seeds or Turkish delight.
With roots in the countryside, most traditional Romanian meals were originally cooked with pork fat but, with people more and more preoccupied about a healthier lifestyle, the tendency is to replace it with lighter options. However, generally speaking, Romanian cuisine remains quite heavy.
La grătar basically means anything that can be grilled. A restaurant choice or, even better, an outdoor gathering of friends, grilling can go from simple, lighter choices, like vegetables or skewers, to serious business, like meat, sausages, and—a national favourite—mici or mititei (literally meaning small ones). These are small rolls, usually made from a mix of meats (pork, beef, lamb) with lots of spices and herbs and served with mustard on the side. It’s very likely that you find them on every restaurant’s menu and they definitely worth a try.
H. Horincă (& țuică & pălincă)
While we are decent beer makes and excellent wine producers, it’s probably one of these spirited drinks that you’ll be more interested in. Made from plums, apples, pears or apricots, they are the epitome of countryside hospitality.
I. Salată de icre
Fish roe dip is one of the most popular spreads and a perfect appetiser, usually made from carp or pike, blended with oil, onion, and lemon juice.
A byproduct of the lard, these crispy pork graves are perfect for a snack. Usually served with pickles or onion, to balance the fat. Fyi, we pickle everything: peppers, green tomatoes, cabbage, onion, cucumbers, cauliflower, mushrooms, watermelon. Yes, you read that last one right.
Chimney cake. This spit cake is a typical Transylvanian product, with origins in the Hungarian-speaking regions, known as Székely Land. The name comes from rolling the dough on a cylindrical form and roasting it in charcoal. As the cake cooks, sugar is sprinkled on the dough and you end up with a hot, caramelised cake, with cinnamon, walnuts, coconuts or cocoa powder topping. An absolute must.
Wild garlic is specific to Central Europe and has lots of health benefits, but that’s only one of the reasons people eat it. A spring product, the wild garlic leaves are used in salads, omelettes, tarts, and soups.
Well, here we are. Polenta (or corn mush, whichever you prefer) is the most famous side dish of Romanian cuisine. Since in the past it used to replace bread, mămăliga can be paired with basically everything—cheese and sour cream, meats, different stews and sauces, soups.
Walnuts. They’re nothing new, you’ve tried them before, but dulceață de nuci verzi, green walnut jam, you most likely haven’t. With Turkish origins, this is a deluxe dessert that requires lots of time and dedication. A souvenir, maybe?
O. Ouă pictate
Many people decorate eggs for Easter, but the hand painted Easter eggs in Romania are something else. It’s a rural tradition —best preserved in Bukovina area—consisting in a very intricate process that involves mixing colours, floral and animal representations with religious and traditional symbols.
These fried cheese doughnuts probably contain an ungodly amount of calories, but who’ll be counting? Best served hot, with sour cream and berry jam—trust me, the combo is to die for—you can find them in any traditional restaurant.
R. Răcituri (Piftie)
Pork (usually trotters, rind or ears), chicken or turkey jelly is a typical Christmas / winter aspic not often found in restaurants, so make sure you get an invitation for Christmas dinner!
Sarmale or sărmăluțe, cabbage rolls, are basically Romania’s national dish. Made from pork mince or a mix of pork and beef, rice, onion, herbs and spices, rolled in pickled cabbage leaves or vine leaves, the rolls are slowly cooked in a clay dish in the oven or on the stove. They’re usually served with smântână (sour cream), and mămăligă (polenta) and the only problem is that you can’t stop after just one or two.
Anything that can be stewed, will be stewed. Meat (did I mention Romanians like pork?), veggies, mushrooms, fish. Gulaș, goulash, of Hungarian origin, is a must when in Transylvania. Ah! And guess what’s the best side dish for the stews? Mămăliga, of course.
I bet you knew we’ll get to garlic eventually. Romanians love it, for its health benefits and mostly for its yumminess. For best results against vampires, try someplace else.
Salată de vinete, roasted eggplant spread, or potlagel—as it appears to have been called in the Romanian Jewish community—is one of Romanians’ favourite appetisers. Once the eggplants are roasted, the skin is removed, they are finely chopped, blended with oil, lemon juice and onion or garlic. Mayonnaise is optional, but very tasty.
Having great soil and climate conditions for growing grapes, Romania is among the biggest wine producers in Europe. While most wines are still made for the mass market, recent years saw a new generation of winemakers—small, craft producers— interested in new technology, aiming to produce premium, high-quality wine.
Y. Young people
As opposed to their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, that relied on a very traditional home-based cooking, the young people nowadays have quite a different attitude to food. They travel, they like to eat out and experiment, therefore eating is often more than just a necessity, it has to be an experience in itself. There are lots of recently-opened cafes, bistros and restaurants which offer not only international cuisine, but also vegan and vegetarian dishes, Romanian remixed foods, while there’s a stronger focus on healthy eating, using local products that come from organic producers, a.s.o.
This vegetable spread is—again—one of the best appetisers or snacks. Mixing roasted eggplants and peppers with tomatoes and onion is probably the most common recipe, but there are other combinations using beans, mushrooms or even fish, that are equally delicious.
Featured image: Kelly Neil / Unsplash