FOOD AND CULTURE OF ROMANIA
The Romanian is a study in contrasts. Like the Romanian climate which is icily cold in winter and fiercely hot in summer, the Romanian can be consumed with melancholy listening to the doine (poignant country songs of love and longing) or elevated to a passionate frenzy when dancing the hora or the colusari. Gypsy violins can make him cry but the sound of flutes and nai (panpipes) or cimpoi (bag-pipes) will evoke songs and laughter. He likes his tea very weak and his coffee very strong, his pickles very hot and his desserts very sweet. Like the powerful wind called the crivetz, which whips up the snow in the winter and drives the yellow dust in the summer, the Romanian soul is alternately gay and animated or sad and despairing – but seldom dull.
Aside from these extremes of temperament and taste, the two-thirds of the Romanian population engaged in agriculture do show a form of moderation when it comes to their work. The rich fertile lowlands and the Wallachian Plains yield bounteous crops with little effort, and for centuries the people contented themselves with their own needs and little more.
Probably it is those same fertile pastures, orchards, vineyards, and fields of grain that enticed the Roman conquerors about 100 C.E. In exchange for the grain and the gold that they took from the land, they built bridges and roads; but more important they built the beginnings of an identity and left a language and culture that is proudly preserved to this day. The strength of the Roman cultural identity can be better appreciated when one realizes that Romania was and still is almost surrounded by Slavic peoples and even counts within her own population more than a dozen ethnic groups. Despite this, more than 85 percent of the population speak Romanian, which is closely related to the other Romance languages of Latin, Spanish, French, and Italian. Further, their homogeneity is displayed not only in their almost universal temperament and tastes but also in their religion, for the vast majority of the population are members of the Romanian Orthodox Church.
Romania today is composed of the areas of Transylvania, Banat, Wallachia, and Moldavia, with the Transylvanian Alps and parts of the Carpathian Mountains forming her interior. In former times, Bucovina and Bessarabia were also a part of Romania – but never all these areas at one time. Because of the tug-of-war for her lands, parts of Romania developed differently, strongly influenced by invaders. For example, Transylvania, originally a Romanian province, before 1000 C.E. became a Hungarian province, but in the 1200s was settled by German colonists, thus adding to the population of Romanians, Hungarians, and Szecklers (of non-Hungarian origin). At this time Hungarian domination spread to most of Romania, and the original Romanian population was kept in ignorance and subservience for almost 800 years.
In the 1400s, the Turks conquered Moldavia and Wallachia and placed Greeks on the thrones. In the late 1600s a contest of power between Austria and the Ottoman Empire further suppressed the Romanians and added Hungarian peasants to the oppression.
By the late 1700s, Russia joined the battle for Romania’s lands and by 1812 Bessarabia became Russian. But a surge of Romanian nationalism resulted in the creation of Romania as an independent kingdom in 1881, and rather than wars, she made treaties with Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire and gained some internal stability.
In the powerful desire to throw off their subservient yokes and gain independence, the Moldavian peasants began a surge of anti-Semitism that later became government policy and led in the early 1900s to a mass exodus of Romania’s Jews.
Towards the end of the First World War, Romania’s siding with the Allies gained her more territory at one time than she had previously ever known. Back into her fold came Transylvania, Bucovina, most of Banat and Bessarabia. In the wake of this good fortune, Romania rescinded its anti-Semitic policies and attempted much-needed land reform policies. This too was short-lived and growing political pressures and Fascist sympathies led again to Jewish repression, censorship, and alignment with the Germans during the Second World War. By 1944, Russian armies swept into Bessarabia and Bucovina and deep into Romanian territory to secure her surrender. The gradual spread of communism began, as did the shift from a basically agricultural economy to a more industrialized one.
Because of the repressive history of Romania, it is all the more intriguing that the country has retained her ancient Roman cultural identity and language – even the Romanian Orthodox religion. With the many territorial exchanges and foreign rulers, and despite the sufferings of her people, Romania mirrors her history in her cuisine but not in her identity. From the Southern Slays of the former Yugoslavia came the sarmales and ghiveciu, from Hungary the tokany, gulyas, and paprikash, from Austria the strudels, tortes, and wiener schnitzel, from Turkey the pilafs, baklava, halva, dolmas, and strong Turkish coffee, and finally from Russia the taste for soured soups, blini, and a variety of dark breads made from rye and coarse wheat flours. In some areas the German love of potatoes predominates over the inherent Romanian love of mamaliga, Romania’s staple “bread of gold” made from cornmeal.
Aside from cuisine, one other Slavic tradition has become important in Romania. This is the reverence for wheat as the symbol of life. A part of the Romanian Orthodox funeral service is the blessing of a plate of mounded wheat sprinkled with sugar, raisins, and nuts. This is similar to the Ukrainian kutya, the Russian kutija, and the Serbian koljivo or zito.
Romanians are noted for extremes in temperament and taste, and diversity in history and cuisine, but some things have remained comparatively consistent. Although increasingly Romanian women are stepping into full-time jobs away from their homes, they still retain their age-old respect for their men; the Romanian man comes first. And although Romanians are devotedly religious, they have embraced Christianity in addition to, not instead of, paganistic rites and superstitions.
All share one other characteristic: they believe firmly that old age is simply a disease, not an inevitability. Health spas, mineral baths, drinking waters, the assiduous application of herbs and sometimes even a spell or two are believed to do the trick. From infancy to adulthood the taking of special waters, teas, and herbal brews are as much a staple as their beloved mamaliga. Hence too the serious devotion paid to the skills of the kitchen by all Romanian women: what can be more important than food and herbs?