I’m rather uneducated when it comes to the foods of the world. It comes as no surprise that where my ignorance is greatest, stereotypes do their best to the fill the voids. My image of Romanian cooking was about as broad as an ant’s thorax. Stews? Tasteless meat? Potatoes? In some ways, yes, but the complexity and richness of Romanian cuisine makes my stereotypes look extraordinarily embarrassing. I couldn’t have been more pleased or delighted by the culinary delights awaiting me.
The culinary adventure started in Bucharest and concluded in Timisoara. From sausages made of game, savory soups, and desserts, I tasted a bit of everything. In Bucharest things got started with the covrigi. Locals line up outside bakeries with their treadmill ovens spitting out these scrumptious pretzels almost as fast they are snatched up from the baskets. The smell of the baking dough fills the streets and it’s not uncommon to see a woman or man up ahead of you ambling down the street with the a batch of five crovigis strung together with twine, steaming in the autumn air. Crispy on the outside and soft and chewy in the center, you’ll never go far in Bucharest without a crovigi stand.
While only a couple of days in Bucharest, we were also fortunate enough to indulge in papanash. Take everythig you’d to fatten up your arteries and combine it into one mega dessert. A combination of cream cheese, berry sauce, and a doughnut. Mr. Donuts and Dunkin Donuts should take note.
Our next stop was Braov – a small outdoor lover’s paradise in the southern reaches of Transylvania. When Dracula wasn’t sinking his teeth into us, we were busy sinking ours into a wide variety of homemade foods. Our CS host once again played a big role in introducing us to the local specialties. A man who takes matters into his own hands, Catalin had ample quantities of homemade wine, soup, sausages, and palinka. The sausages were made from game (wild boar), hunted in the very hills surround downtown Brasov. As expected, the meat was a little tough, but the flavors rich and rewarding with each bite.
The perfect companion to these sausages was a short (or tall) glass of palinka. Palinka is a strong, strong vodka-like alcohol – ranging between 30 and 40 percent alcohol. Actually, that sounds pretty much like vodka. Locals are apt to consuming vast quantities and we bore witness to a few shockingly brazen drinking sessions during our stay in Romania. For a region that sees heavy snowfall in winter, the fire in the bottle is sometimes the preferred source of warmth. Certainly cheaper.
Shortly into our stay in Brasov, I succumbed to a fever of 39 degrees as was prescribed the household remedy of palinka with chilies. I was skeptical. The combination of spicy and flammable appeared to be too much for the viruses in my body, however. Within a day or two of drinking my first glass the fever lifted.
Like moonshine in the mountains of Tennessee, palinka comes in many local varieties, although the taste seems to vary little for my unsophisticated tongue. Locals take pride in their palinka and the greatest differentiating factor from one bottle to the next appears to be the alcohol content. Some may tell you they can taste the apples, cherries, or plums, but the only true sensation is a burning one as it does down. Each distiller has their method for testing the alcohol content level, but my favorite was splashing a bit from the tap on the boiler, striking a match, and then seeing how many seconds it burns. Shorter the burn, the stronger the brew. Strikes me as interesting (read dangerous), considering some get drunk off the fumes filling the shed. Combustion anyone?
Recovering from the fever with my palinka and chili took me into Romanian soups. The only liquid more prevalent in Romania than palinka must be soups. You don’t have to limit to children ages 11 and older either. Tomato based, stewed, clear, you couldn’t go a meal in Romania without sampling the local soup. I even heard of a Russian who loved his soup so much that he would go to a soup stall before going to another stall for his main meal. Our couch surfing host topped the list with the most delicious soup in Romania that we ate. A tomato-based soup simmered slowly for hours and reused day after day, the delicious broth was rich, deep, and full of flavor. A slice of bread from the local bakery and a big bowl of soup was all you needed for a first course or even the meal. Talk about delicious fast food.
Ciorba, or sour soup, is found throughout Romania. According to wikipedia, the differentiating factor between soup and ciorba is the use of sour (acidic) ingredients (lemons, sauerkraut juice, etc) and various other ingredients. Conversely, clear soups are just that, a simple broth with few veggies or other ingredients. Our host’s soup included meatballs and tons of vegetables. The oil from the meat beaded on the surface and filled every spoonful with fatty goodness. The beauty of the soup is that it is timeless and 3 weeks into our time in Romania, it became as essential to the meal as rice is to Japanese food.
Soup was definitely a highlight, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that not everything we ate sat well with us. For me that lowlight was mamaliga (polenta). A corn based paste that sits somewhere between bread and porridge, it comes off as rather bland and tasteless. I guess the same thing could be said for rice or potatoes. It was served as a main meal, however, with cream, yogurt, or cheese mixed in. I think it’s one of those tastes that you acquire when growing up in Romania.
While on the subject of main courses, let’s get back to one that hit the jackpot. During our second day in Brasov a friend came over to hang out and do some cooking. She had been preparing the meal for some time at home already and brought over a pot that was already smelling good. We took a peek inside and saw a bunch of cabbage leaves. A little closer examination showed they were all wrapped up in cylinders, like eggrolls. Ah! Cabbage rolls, otherwise known as sarmale in Romania. Stuffed with the usual ingredients, pork, onions, etc the sarmale was extremely popular and disappeared quickly.
Moving north from Brasov we went to the land of the peasants. One of the oldest, surviving peasant cultures in Europe, the area north of Baia Mare is a mix of wooden churches, ramshackle towns, and fat hogs just before Christmas. While we didn’t participate in any feasts with the peasants, we had many great meals with our CS host. In addition to her extremely generous drives around the countryside she showed us how the Romanians up north do pizza pie. It took me a second to get my head around the fact that we were ordering a cheese pizza and a apple pie pizza. But when the pies arrived, I understood. A rather flaky crust with a pocket in the center, it resembled an over-sized pita. Cheese sprinkled on top and baked in the pouch for the cheese pizza and cinnamon and sugar on top and apples in the middle for the apple pizza pie. Needless to say, it was delicious.
Rounding out our little tour of Romanian cuisine, I have to include something that is hardly a Romanian specialty, but is a fond memory of mind. The very last city we stayed in was the college and industrial town of Timisoara. Our host was an avid music lover and invited the two of us to tag along with him and his friend to a concert in the mountians. It was going to be a long drive up and back so we prepared some grilled cheese sandwiches for the road. Our host had one of those sandwich presses that clamps down on two slices of toast and whatever you’ve got thrown in between. When you raise the cast-iron plates, a pair of golden, crispy triangles are sitting there waiting for you. Still groggy from a hefty bit of traveling and drinking the day before, Hisako and I wok to the smell of cheese toasting. Someone should an invent an alarm clock that does that. I think he must have gone through a loaf and a half before we started packing them into bags for the trip. I can remember munching on the tasty mosels in the car, on the walk to the cave, and the again in earnest when we picnicked. By the time we headed home I was stuffed like sandwiches, with cheese.
Whether it was the one-bite wonders in Timisoara or the slow cooked meals in Brasov, Romania was a surprise to our culinary senses. You can bet that I’ll be searching out places in Tokyo to help rediscover the aromas and memories wafting out of a good ciobra.