Traditional Romanian Food
Coming back to Romania was always very exciting for me. I loved the old fashioned rustic cities, namely Brașov where I was born, the amazing hiking in the Carpathian Mountains, the donkey and mule carts still visible among the country roads and, of course, the delicious food my grandmother would cook.
Every course in a Romanian meal, from the soups to the deserts, has a delightful traditional feel to it – you can tell it’s something that a rural grandmother would make. To add to the country taste is the fact that, as the Western food industry has (de)evolved to create higher yields with the use of pesticides and other chemicals, Romania’s was never able to afford such scientific advances and has stayed stagnant. As a result, everything has always been local, fresh, and clean!
Fortunately for those that do not have a native grandmother to cook Romania’s delicacies for them, many restaurants in the area were started by locals and continue to follow the traditional cooking methods they learned at home. They also have no choice but to use the fresh, local ingredients one would find at any market – there are few alternatives, so the food is almost as amazing as one would find at grandma’s. A prime example is Casa Românească in Brasov, pictured to the left!
While the English language tends to label any liquid dish served in a bowl as soup, Romanians will separate them into 2 main categories depending on the ingredients, taste, and look.
Ciorbă is a soup that is often made sour by adding lemons, or sauerkraut juice. It often has a number of other ingredients including perișoare (meat balls), potatoes, carrots and other types of vegetables, as well as meat or large beef bones, especially those with the marrow still in. In the latter’s case the marrow would be removed with a knife while eating and spread on a piece of bread to be enjoyed with the ciorbă.
Various ingredients will lead to various types of ciorbă with distinct tastes and colours. A common example is ciorbă de sfeclă (beets), which will give it a strong purple hue and altered taste.
The difference in definition between ciorbă and supă is not well defined and is often debated jokingly by Romanians. Attributing the right word to the right kind of soup for locals is usually a simple matter of “You’ll know it when you see it”. The most general, although not absolute, rule that we can try to use is that supă is usually clear (although tomatoes soup is supă and is definitely not) and has no added acid (although it is common to place lemons (and even cheese) on the table for each person to add to supă de tăiţei (noodle soup) as they please).
Supă is often made by boiling a type of meat to extract its flavour and then adding various vegetables (notably carrots or celery), meat balls or starches, such as noodles or găluste (a sort of dense Romanian dumpling made with semolina (a sort of grit) and egg). Even supă de roși (tomato soup), which is the exception to the “supă is clear” rule is often served with găluste.
While borş isn’t theoretically a type of soup but actually a liquid derived from wheat or barley that is added to give it a strong, sour flavour, anything with that ingredient added is often referred to as such, even though they would officially be ciorbă. Originally from the Ukraine and Russia and adopted, as many dishes have been between the neighbouring countries, by Romania, borş has become very common in the country. At home, since it is a separate liquid that can be added to ciorbă to give it the desired sour taste, it’s common for one grandma to make a large batch and share with neighbours, so that everyone can enjoy!
Over the centuries, Romanian food has evolved from what was a basic array of dishes, existing just to fulfill a basic human necessity, to a wide array of foods incorporating every ingredient available in the area and ranging from simplicities to delicacies. This was largely due to the many cultures surrounding the country, such as the Ottomans, the Greeks, and the Russians, and whose cuisine spilled into our borders.
Today, some dishes have remained simple and Romanians continue to enjoy the food that was once eaten due to lack of alternatives, which everyone agrees is delicious as is, while others have borrowed ideas to transform and create tasty new additions.
I once asked my grandmother to make me mămăligă so many days in a row that she threatened to stop cooking altogether. In my defence, it is the pinnacle of Romanian cuisine. While any chef would cover their ears at such a statement, as it is the simplest and most basic dish there is – a prime example of the foods that our forefathers ate due to the restrictions of their environment – it is one of the foods that survived unaltered to this day as it was born perfect.
It is essentially a type of porridge made from continuously adding maize flour to boiling water and stirring vigorously until the blend creates a thick, almost solid yellow paste that can be spooned out on everyone’s plates. Various types of dairy products such as butter, sour creme and any type of cheese, traditionally from sheep, are added and mixed in.
This dish was created by the shepherds that would live up on the hills with their sheep for long summer months while they grazed. They couldn’t take regular flour with them as it risked turning, so they took maize flour, which would last for months. As it couldn’t be used for bread, making mămăligă is about all they could do, and since they were already surrounded by sheep, they would milk them and produce the dairy products we still add today. And for that, we thank them!
Usually eaten at Christmas, although not exclusively, sarmale consist of a mix of raw ground meat, rice, herbs and spices that is rolled into balls or cylinders and wrapped up in either a grape leaf or a cabbage leaf. The resulting rolls are placed in a large pot with some added sauce, usually tomato based, and placed in the over.
Similar foods are created by using the same mix but a different container to hold it than the two leafs mentioned. Peppers, tomatoes, and pumpkin can be used, and are called ardei, roși, and dovleac (the names of the respective vegetables) umplute (stuffed). All are often eaten with sour creme.
Meat and Sides
This is not uncommon throughout the world, to have a meat and a side as your main meal. Romanians however, have a few unique ones that are very tasty and worth exploring. Varză călită, for instance, uses sauerkraut as the side for sausages. While sauerkraut is often raw though, these two are cooked together to blend their flavours and give a much sweeter taste to the meal.
Tocăniţă, loosely translated, means stew, and many dishes follow its mindset of simply taking what is available, chopping it up, adding some herbs and spices, and throwing it in a pot to cook until the chef feels it’s ready. It too, is the epitome of “eating what is available”. Nowadays, however, more ingredients are available at once and many more tastes can be achieved through this method.
The wide variety of options in this cooking method allows tocăniţă to serve both as a side and a main dish, depending on the ingredients and cook’s desire. A simple tocăniţă made mostly with vegetables (a common one uses mushrooms as a base) can be a great side to a slice of meat. On the other hand, a heartier version that would include meat and several types of vegetables could be eaten alone or be served with a side of mămăligă. The ability to add the sauces that pour out of all those ingredients in the tocăniţă on the mămăligă makes for a fantastic pairing!
I know a lot of you were preparing for this one!
Most Romanian deserts revolve around baked goods in various forms, from plăcintă (pies) to chec or cozonac (loafs) to prăjitură (pastries). Again, they might sound common to what you would experience throughout the world, but I assure you, once you order one in Romania you’ll see the difference. Maybe it’s because so many really are homemade, but the style is very different. Icing is rarely used, instead replaced with ingredients that would be added to the dough before baking, such as nuts or raisins.
Similar to the poorly defined difference between Ciorbă and Supă, the difference between chec and cozonac isn’t written anywhere. Some will say that cozonac is much more softer and juicier, and made with more eggs, but where that line is always hazy. Romanians generally let their gut (pun intended) dictate which is which, and you’ll see each one clearly labeled on the appropriate type of loaf.
Last but not least are clătite, essentially a mix between a pancake and a crepe – just thin enough to be able to roll up with your favourite ingredients inside, but thick enough to provide a satisfyingly dense, chewy base that you can munch on for a little longer before swallowing.
While the differences between Romanian drinks and those you’d find in other places in the world isn’t as vast as for the food we just described, every country has it’s own poison. In the case of Romania, again, it comes from what was available. Farmers would collect fallen, rotting fruit, which would otherwise go to waste, from their orchards, throw it in a barrel and let it ferment. As this was a local affair, each farmer making their own, they were able to let if ferment for a long time. Naturally, they did, and the result is a strong, clear liquid called Țuică or Pălincă.
I definitely encourage everyone to try both, but don’t say I didn’t warn you!