The most memorable food from Romania, for me, was fresh and warm mini-bagels sold in the center of town. I am not a big fan of food – I eat mostly to sustain myself and rarely as an indulgence. Yet my visit to Romania was very food-centric. It was a holiday season (Christmas, New Years & two additional religious holidays honoring saints) and most of my visits were first time meetings with Andreea’s family. Also, since I don’t speak Romanian – eating is the next best way to socialize – so I was constantly surrounded by food.
Wine is always served. When we visited village homes – there was always plenty of home made wine (a humble home winery had a capacity of 700 liters). When we visited other homes there was usually a healthy quantity of wine that came from a family-relative village winery. The wine is not too strong (it’s usually a fresh vintage) and is a rather light drink, it can be deceiving.
Tsuica is a lethal alcoholic beverage ranging from 30%-60% proof. Like wine, most of it originated from family-relative village homes. It was made from the mashed grape left-overs from the winery. These left overs are stored in sealed bags outside in the cold (which prevents further fermentation) – which are used to brew fresh Tsuica throughout the winter. Only once was it served to me raw, the smell alone was too much for me, the taste was awful (and I have a feeling it’s appeal is not the taste). Most of the time it was served mixed with a berry-fruit-concentrate that resulted in a really pleasant drink that reminded me of a port-wine we once purchased from a monastery. Every sip seemed to immediately caress my insides with a delicate and tingling warmth – it was great fun.
There are many brands (and loads of stupid TV commercials) of bottled water. It is ridiculous because there is so much excellent natural water in Romania. The faucet water in the city was of dubious quality. It is usually much better in the village where it is either pumped or manually (yes still!) drawn from nearby wells. Ironically water never seemed to be offered on the table, I had to ask for it 🙂
Mamaliga (yellow dish in the center of the post at the beginning of this post) is a an instant, fresh, warm and cheap substitute for bread. You place some corn-flour (which is literally ground dried corn!) in boiling water with some salt and after a few minutes it turns into … Mamaliga.
One of the reasons it’s a popular food (besides how ridiculously simple it is to make) is that if you live in a village you are very likely to have plenty of corn – as it is widely grown and used to feed the livestock (chickens, goats,pigs, etc.).
One of the Romanian Christmas treats is Hemp cake (if you read Romanian – you can find a recipe with more images here). As Christmas nears (and at no other time during the year) the market is filled with bags of hemp seeds – there is nothing “high” about it. Its cream filling is made using hemp seeds which are considered healthy (but not much fun). It has a delicate flavor. One variation of the cake is in the following image, and as you can see, the wine is ever-present.
Finding simple vegetarian food is usually an unwelcome challenge when I travel – all I need is some rice and vegetables to make me happy – and it often difficult to come bye – especially when eating out. Plenty of vegetables were very available in Romania. One of our first walks was to the market – and it was a delight for me. Many fruits and vegetables are imported and therefore relatively expensive. But what took my breath away is the amazing variety of large (and muddy) root vegetables at amazingly low prices (much much much cheaper then in Israel – which is considered a heaven when it comes to fruits and vegetables. $15 would have probably supplied the two of us with a month’s supply of cooked vegetables. I was blessed with two or 3 wonderful meals cooked by Andreea’s step-mother which included plentiful vegetable dishes.
I often feel that when people talk about organic foods – that the focus is on the biological or chemical aspects. For me a bit part of organics is a state of mind of appreciating and embracing what nature has to offer. I could easily and heartily embrace Romania’s land and nature offered. It may not be an equivalent of 5 star restaurant food – but that is not what I am looking for – I am looking for good, wholesome, affordable (it’s free if you grow it by yourself – more on that in an upcoming post) nutrition.
Due to the nature of Romanian weather (a long and cold winter) they are very proficient at preserving vegetables (and other things) using various techniques (pickling, salt, etc.). One preservative I couldn’t fathom, and found very unpleasant was watermelons – small personal sized watermelons are … well… pickled – resulting in a slimy red substance … eeek!
Potatoes deserve a special mention. They are widely available and also very cheap. But they have a bad reputation – they are considered poor (as in social standings) food. Since rice is sometimes harder to come by or more expensive – potatoes are a favorite substitute for me. This created a cultural conflict. Our hosts needed to be convinced that serving potatoes is OK – they did not want to give the impression of being poor. They preferred to serve something that symbolized abundance – which brings us to the main event: Meat!
Yesterday Andreea & I passed by the meat section in a local supermarket – and we both laughed at how pathetic it looked. I don’t eat meat – but I was impressed by the amazing variety of meat in Romania – much of which is of course made (at least partly) of pig. Actually, I arrived at exactly the time when, in the villages, pigs are slaughtered (just before Christmas) and almost every part is somehow prepared or processed to provide meat in the coming winter. So not only did our hosts not want to serve me potatoes – they very much wanted to serve me freshly slaughtered pork meat. For them it is a celebration they look forward to every year.
During our first village visit (on the same evening that I am close to being drunk) a fresh platter of meats (from animals that were recently slaughtered) was placed on the table and I decided to taste. some. I took three bites of three different meats. They had a rich flavor and a lot of character. But that was all for me. In my consciousness the events of the following night were tightly linked.
By the time we got home I was suffering from a painful headache and my entire body was tightly wound. I settled on the living room sofa (I didn’t go to the bedroom because it is a noisy room, it was still early and the city noises hammered into me) and wrapped myself in a blanket. I kept my eyes closed because the light from the TV (which was thankfully muted) hurt me. Eventually we moved to the bedroom and I had a terrible and sleepless night. I don’t usually remember my dreams, and this night felt more like some kind of hallucination then a dream (I imagined that it felt like I was on some kind of Indian spirit journey – though I’ve never been on one so I can’t really tell).
I was trying to solve some kind of three dimensional puzzle. Tubes were flowing through space, creating an endless maze of paths and spaces. I was busily trying to unravel the puzzle – and it wasn’t working – the puzzle was getting more and more complicated – it was my entire world. Every time I “solved” one area, others appeared – it demanded an all-inclusive solution – a sudden revelation. At one point I realized that I was actually creating the puzzle. My efforts to solve it were fueling it – making it larger and more dense. I felt that if I could only find a way to stop my consciousness, that the puzzle would simply disappear – and there would be nothing left to solve. I was restless during the entire night, twisting and turning on the bed, until sometime in the early morning hours I found some peace and sleep.