Mititei - grilled minced meat rolls

A Beginner’s Guide to Romanian Traditional Food

Part of being a travel blogger implies trying local cuisine wherever you’re going. Merging with local culture is a must if you want to get the best possible travel experience, and food plays a big role in any culture. That’s why we’re starting a series of articles and a new food category dedicated to local cuisine.

And because we’re from Romania the first article is dedicated to traditional Romanian food. It’s for sure deeply embedded into our DNA, so we might be a little subjective when it comes to local dishes, but I also believe it gives us the opportunity to present you a better documented article about what you can eat in Romania.

We’ve started by making a short list of things you must try if you want to say “I ate everything there is to eat in Romania”, but the list quickly grew to over 30 items. That’s why this is only the first part from a series of posts dedicated to traditional Romanian food, a list of the best dishes, if you wish.

I tried at first to make a list of things 100% Romanian in origin, but that was probably an illusion of mine, since our neighbours had a deep impact on our food culture throughout history. Pretty much every dish on this list can be found in neighbour countries under a different form, more or less the same. Oh, and don’t even try to find out the true origin of a dish: everyone says they did it first! So I’ll limit these articles to local dishes that are prepared after the same recipes that date back multiple centuries or are different enough from regional variations.

Food culture in Romania

One thing you have to keep in mind: Romania was a country from the soviet block, so communism had a big impact on local food, delaying the arrival of the supermarket and fast food joints by at least 30 years, maintaining the culture of preparing your own food. This means you can still eat naturally grown food with few to no preservatives.

And it’s also pretty easy to find quality ingredients in local farmer markets, where local producers are selling their products (together with imported ones, mind you). Unfortunately the landscape is changing rapidly and as years go by the quality of ingredients is degrading because we’re lining up to European standards. We were aware of this, of course, but this year’s trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina was a real eye opener.

Now, before I begin mentioning the dishes you should order in a restaurant, let’s say a few words about the type of food people eat in Romania. The central ingredient is probably pork meat, followed by chicken meat and potatoes. French fries are the side you can order in 99% of food establishments, together with grilled meat and cabbage salad. It’s accustomed to eat this combination if you’re Romanian, but it’s not traditional by any means, so I didn’t include it in my list of things to try.

It’s probably a good option if you don’t want to risk, if you’re not sure your stomach can handle the other stuff. And make no mistake, if you’re not used to balcanic food, you better make sure you eat small portions, despite the desire to eat everything on your plate. Our food is on the heavy side because we use a lot of fat meat and oil in the cooking process. It’s tasty, but your body will scream for salads after a few days.

But enough with all this nonsense, as I’m sure you know your limits, so here are the traditional dishes you should try out in a Romanian restaurant:

1.Tuica/Palinca/Rachiu

There’s no better way to start a meal in Romania than with homemade alcohol. The most popular drink is probably ‘tuica’, a similar drink to Grappa (very similar actually), featuring around 40%  alcohol by volume, same as whisky. It’s made from plums and is guaranteed to make you hungry, if you’re not already.

‘Palinca’ is the alternative to tuica in the western part of the country, near Hungary, is made from different kinds of fruits and is usually stronger than tuica, the one that’s not distilled twice. Double distilled tuica and palinca can easily climb up to 60% alcohol. You may also hear the word ‘rachiu’, which means pretty much the same thing, but most of the time it’s used to describe alcohol made from cereal grain.

Tuica/Palinca/Rachiu
Tuica/Palinca/Rachiu (CC BY-SA 2.0 Carsten Tolkmit)

Because these spirits are very strong they’re served in small shots, just like tequila. That doesn’t mean you can’t have more than a few, of course. One thing is for sure: everyone makes ‘tuica’ in a slightly different way, so each one tastes different. If you don’t like it the first time, you may enjoy the next batch. You never know!

Tips on where to buy tuica, palinca and rachiu: besides supermarkets and smaller stores, who are selling mass produces bottled alcohol, which you guessed right, it’s not the good stuff, you can purchase home made tuica in farmer markets and wineries, who sell directly from the barrel. That’s my recommendation, but if you’re in a hurry, or want to take some for your friends and family back home you can still find decent stuff in the airport duty free shops. It will be slightly more expensive, of course, as all airports are.

2. Ciorba de Burta (Tripe Soup)

There are two kinds of people in this world: the ones who love tripe soup and the ones who hate it. I love it wed by thile Georgiana doesn’t. Either way, if you haven’t tried it you must at least give it one chance. Don’t be disgusted of the idea that it’s made with parts from cow stomach: it doesn’t look or taste anything like you’re imagining it. You may have eaten something that looks similar in south and eastern Europe, the chicken soup a la Greque, but the different meat makes a big difference in taste.

Ciorba de burta - tripe soup
Ciorba de burta – tripe soup (CC-BY-2.5 Kiril Kapustin)

As some Romanian critics have said, tripe soup is sour, yet sweet, hot and velvety, fat but delicate and simple at the same time. It’s usually served with vinegar or lemon juice, sour cream, crushed garlic and hot green peppers, pickled or not. If the waiter asks if you want sour cream and pepper for your tripe soup it usually means you have to pay extra for them. Lots of people say tripe soup is a remedy for hangovers, but don’t worry, you can eat it with a clear head too.

3. Sarmale (Stuffed Cabbage Rolls)

If you want to reduce Romanian food to just one dish, the ‘sarmale’ would be it. Essentially ‘sarmale’ are stuffed cabbage rolls, made from ground pork meat mixed with finely diced onions and rice stuffed inside cabbage or vine leafs.

Sarmale - stuffed cabbage rolls
Sarmale – stuffed cabbage rolls

‘Sarmale’ are served during Christmas, New Year’s Eve, weddings and other celebrations, but you can eat them in pretty much any restaurant dedicated to Romanian cuisine. They’re served with sour cream, pickled hot peppers and polenta as a side. What’s great about ‘sarmale’ is that you can reheat and eat them the second day and they would still taste great, if not even better than the first time.

4. Mamaliga (Polenta)

One of the popular sides you can eat in Romania is ‘mamaliga’, almost identical with Italian polenta. It was traditionally a peasant dish and is made from yellow maize flour, water and salt; very simple and easy to make. It successfully replaces bread and potatoes. It’s best served hot, but you can eat it later on, with warm milk. Nothing gets thrown away…

Mamaliga - polenta
Mamaliga – polenta

5. Mititei or Mici (Wee Ones Sausages or Grilled Minced Meat Rolls or Smalls)

Together with sarmale and mamaliga, smalls are a signature Romanian dish. It’s the grilled variety, but you can also prepare them at home in a hot pan. You can order “mititei” at any Romanian restaurant or you can find them at public events where street food is present.

Romanians love to barbeque in the open, so you may see people grilling “mici” at the side of the road while travelling through our country. Unfortunately, legislation now forbids open fire in places that are not adequately prepared for this activity, so picnics are gradually reducing in frequency.

Mititei - grilled minced meat rolls
Mititei – grilled minced meat rolls

But let’s get back to ‘mititei’ and tell you a little bit about what their composition. “Mici” are basically a mix of pork, beef and mutton (but there are other combinations available too), with garlic, spices and baking soda. This last ingredient is very important and we had to fight the European Union on the use of baking soda, but we won, and ‘mititei’ remain in our cultural heritage as a Romanian dish. They’re served best with bread, mustard and, of course, beer.

6. Ciolan Afumat cu Fasole (Smoked Pork Knuckle with Beans Sauce or The Army Dish)

I think the name of this dish says it all, leaving almost nothing for me to say. Almost. As I’ve said before, pork is a top ingredient in Romanian cuisine and smoked meats are often prepared in house, in the winter, after pigs are sacrificed around Christmas.

Ciolan afumat cu fasole - smoked pork knuckle with beans sauce
Ciolan afumat cu fasole – smoked pork knuckle with beans sauce

Smoked Pork Knuckles are served most of the time with white beans in what is called “ciolan afumat cu fasole”, but the side is sometimes changed for what can be best described as Romanian sauerkraut. It tastes significantly different that the German one, and is another local delight. Also, unlike German knuckle dishes, you don’t usually get one knuckle per serving. And I don’t have to tell you why it’s called “The Army Dish”, right?

7. Muraturi (Pickles)

There should be a Romanian motto “if it’s a vegetable we’ll pickle it”, but for some strange reason it isn’t. Pickles are not something new for you, I’m sure, but here in Romania we’re pickling everything, from green tomatoes (called ‘gogonele’) to cucumbers, carrots, cabbage, bell peppers, celery, beetroot and even watermelons.

Muraturi - pickles
Muraturi – pickles

We’re using various kinds of marinades and every region has distinctive techniques for pickling. One thing is for sure: during winter time, when fresh local vegetables are very hard to come by, “muraturi” are a great salad to go with that fat pork knuckle or smoked meat.

8. Zacusca (Vegetable Spread)

Here in Romania we love to spread things on bread, and “zacusca” is a great vegetarian one. It’s typically made from eggplants, onions, a local variety of red peppers called “gogosari”, tomatoes, carrots, celery and mushrooms. I find the latter ingredient a must, and every “zacusca” I eat must be the kind that’s made from mushrooms.

Zacusca - vegetable spread
Zacusca – vegetable spread

Zacusca is usually prepared in the autumn, in large quantities in house, and eaten until the first days of spring, when fresh vegetables start to make an appearance.

9. Papanasi (Cream Cheese Dumplings served with Jam and Sour Cream)

We should finish off with desserts, and the most popular Romanian one in restaurants I can think off are “papanasi”. They’re basically deep fried pastry dumplings filled on some degree with cheese and served in portions of two with sour cream and home made jam. You can sometimes order them with chocolate and whipped cream, but that’s not the traditional recipe.

Papansi - cream cheese dumplings
Papansi – cream cheese dumplings (CC-BY-2.0 Vasile Cotovanu)

So there you have it: my list of traditional foods you should try when visiting Romania. A few mode in-depth articles will follow soon, so stay tuned to Travelue.com and let us know if you’ve tried any of these dishes. Also if you have other recommendations leave a comment below.

Note: Most photos are taken from my father’s food blog (if you don’t speak Romanian, here’s the Google Translate Link to help you out). The others are Creative Commons with commercial use allowed.

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