Before you read another word, click over to yellowpages.com and locate the Romanian restaurant nearest to your home (if you are actually in Romania, you are not eligible for this exercise).
So, how far away is the restaurant? Depending on your continent, it’s anywhere from 1,000 to 12,000 miles away, right? With the rare, screwball exception (Los Gatos, California comes to mind), you just don’t see Romanian restaurants abroad. Why is that? Some might be tempted to wryly reply “Because if I wanted to eat cabbage, potatoes and cornmeal mush, I’d go back to summer camp in Alabama.”
Certainly, Romanians love their cornmeal mush like few other sentient beings in the known universe, but Romanian cuisine is far more complex and surprisingly savory than most people know.
Let’s start with that cornmeal mush, or mămăligă as they call it around here (or ‘polenta’ as it’s more popularly known). Admittedly, I don’t care for the stuff. I’ve had 20 different Romanians try to prepare mămăligă 20 different ways in an effort to roll me over and so far its been an unmitigated failure. It’s usually served mixed with cream and shredded cheese, which is certainly an improvement on the sawdust cake constancy and flavor of straight mămăligă, but it’ll never be something that I bolt upright in the middle of the night craving like I do with bacon cheeseburgers and Michelle Hunziker.
Next is mici, or mititei, links of grilled minced-meat composed of a blend of beef, mutton and pork meat, enlivened with pepper, garlic and other random seasonings, served with a side of mustard for dipping. Although very popular, mici seems to be less present as an at-home regular menu item and more of a fixture at picnics and outdoor festivals where its easy-to-carry-around nature makes it wildly popular street food. Ironically, this is customarily where the worst mici is served. Better to try it in a decent restaurant first and judiciously regress from there. In its street form, mici is nearly always served with a giant glass of beer, as most dodgy street food is, to disguise irregularities like pig nostrils and hooves.
Chicken and pork play a big roll in Romanian restaurant menus. Inevitably there’s a lengthy list of subtle variations on simple fillets, usually with a sauce of some kind. These dishes are really hit or miss, ranging from tender and superb to something resembling microwaved brake pads. Price is rarely an indication of what you should expect, so be prepared to gamble. Below is a fine example: grilled chicken breast on the left, a pork fillet under a red mushroom sauce on the right. Although you can add any side dish you want, I usually opt for the ‘countryside potatoes’ (cartofi ţărăneşti), roasted potatoes seasoned with onions, garlic and bits of ham.
Turning the to poor, seemingly un-enticing cabbage. As hilarious as it would be to report that people sit on the front stoop on a Sunday afternoon and eat cabbage raw like a giant apple, it ain’t so. It isn’t even a main course. Like everywhere else, it’s principally used to add substance to dishes, like a stew. Though cabbage is usually seen as a poor man’s meal fortifier, it’s really a kind of light, healthy wonder food when you think about it, since it tends to absorb the qualities of the food it’s cooked with, while adding both weight and a nice texture.
Soups are big in Romania, especially in winter when it’s colder than a vampire’s gonads. Ciorbă, similar to borscht, is a general term for any soup with meat and vegetables. I can’t get enough of ciorbă rădăuţeană, an egg yolk chicken soup with shredded carrots, onions, red peppers and potatoes served with sides of cream and garlic and a jalapeno. This stuff will warm you up no matter how undead you are. Other ciorbă that I’ve liked are ciorbă văcuţă (red soup with beef, green beans, onions, carrots and other veggies), ciorbă cu perişoare (cream soup with meatballs) and an out-of-this-world ciorbă de pui a la Grec (chicken soup, ‘Greek style’, with carrots, pepper, potatoes, onion) that I noisily swooned over at Bella Musica in Braşov.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find a good piece of beef here, but if you look hard enough, you can find something that won’t make your face screw up. I had excellent beef in both Sibiu and Braşov, but have yet to find a place in all of Iaşi that can 1) serve a good cut and 2) prepare it correctly. Unless you know the restaurant you’re in will get it right, or you’re just dying for something other than chicken and pork, probably best not to roll the dice on the ‘fillet mignon’. Equally, at about US$9 for a your meal, you can afford to go around town sampling beef in every restaurant until you find a winner.
Finally, probably my favorite dish: sarmale. Kind of like a mini-burrito filled with ground beef (or pork or veal), rice, onions and spices wrapped up in cabbage or grape leaves and baked in a pot of water until the water has boiled away or been absorbed. Some people in Romania deride sarmale and accuse restaurants and guest houses that serve it of trying to pass off ‘cheap peasant food’. This isn’t remotely true. Firstly, sarmale is a delicious explosion of flavor by any standard. Secondly, it’s a very labor intensive meal to prepare. After one goes through the lengthy effort of preparing the beef, cutting up all those vegetables and boiling the cabbage (or what have you), all those little burritos have to be hand rolled, which I can tell you takes hours. I’ve flown from Minneapolis to Norway in less time. When it’s served to you, especially in a private home, know that they’ve pulled out all the stops for you and be suitably thankful.
I’ll close by admitting that you can go wrong, very wrong, with Romanian food sometimes, but it’s really no different than eating out in restaurants in any other country. Some places are phenomenal, others will give you mild food poisoning that requires pharmaceutical intervention to correct. Just don’t allow yourself to get too hooked on this food, because once you get home the drive to your nearest Romanian restaurant is a doosie.
Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, co-authored the current edition of Lonely Planet’s Romania and Moldova. Visit his personal blog, Killing Batteries, for more information on food he can’t cook.