FOODS OF ROMANIA
Yogurt, soured milk, and cottage cheese head the list of dairy products in the Romanian food diet for these are not only eaten by themselves but enjoyed as parts of many other food and dishes. Sweet cream is widely used as whipped cream in pastries, and sour cream finds a place in many Hungarian and Slavic-inspired dishes.
Even when other protein sources such as meat and fish are scarce or expensive, cheese is consumed at least once daily and often more often. Most cheeses are made from sheep’s or goat’s milk and include the Kashkaval, a firm yellow cheese, and Brinza, a soft creamy cheese. Together with the fresh cottage cheese, all cheeses are eaten as they are with breads, with mamaliga, atop casseroles, or enfolded in cakes and dumplings, yeast dough and clatite (thin crepes). Some sharp and pungent cheeses are eaten as an appetizer with Tuica (clear plum brandy) and black olives.
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
The climate and fertile lands produce an abundance of quality fruits: peaches, apricots, pears, apples, plums, cherries, grapes, and many varieties of melons and berries. In season these are eaten fresh or as a compote. Some fruits are dried, others made into fruit butters and jams and the famed dulceata.
Many varieties of vegetables are available and are eaten in quantity and variety commensurate with the budget. The Romanian food staples are cabbage and potatoes as well as the usual root vegetables. In season, many vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, and scallions are eaten raw as a side dish. Cabbage may be stored as sauerkraut, and peppers, cucumbers, etc., will be made into spicy pickles. Eggplant is one of the more popular vegetables because of its versatility as an appetizer. Vinete tocate is a vegetable stuffed with meat and rice or as the important part of musaca.
The uses and nutritional values of vegetables are well appreciated by Romanians. Infants are fed finely pureed vegetables as one of their first solid foods. The cultivation of herbs for flavoring and medicinal purposes is widely pursued. Vegetables in colorful profusion are munched raw, nibbled as appetizers, enjoyed raw, or cooked for salads, may be stuffed, pickled, wrapped, layered, stewed, or simmered in hearty soups.
At the very least, most vegetables will be accorded the “simple” Romanian treatment of being chopped, shredded, or diced then tossed with lard and browned onions with a little water. They are then cooked till tender, sloshed with sour cream or yogurt and blended with a little vinegar just before serving. Finally, most Romanian sauces are really only a puree of vegetables blended with oil. One way or another, everyone in Romania gets their vegetables.
MEATS AND ALTERNATES
Pork and veal are the favorite meats and there is no part of the animal that is not used. Meats are grilled or roasted but most often are a part of vegetable soups and stews. One of the favorite snacks is mititei, sausage-like fingers of highly seasoned ground meat grilled over an open fire and served with sour cabbage, hot pickles, and dark bread. Often tidbits of variety meats and offal – heart, liver, kidney, lungs, brain, or udder – are grilled too. Some chicken, duck, and game birds are occasionally used, but the birds are often scarce and expensive. Chicken and egg production is low and chickens are often tough.
From the Black Sea coast, the Danube River and countless smaller rivers and lakes comes quite a good supply of fish. Sturgeon, trout, carp, pike, perch, and bream are baked or grilled and often made into soups or stews. Sturgeon roe (caviar) is expensive, but carp roe is often prepared by mashing and blending into a thick sauce with olive oil. This appetizer is called icre and may be a part of the Romanian food appetizer assortment together with salted olives and tangy cheese. Beans are used quite often in soups, salads, or casseroles.
BREADS AND GRAINS
Corn, wheat, oats, buckwheat, rye, barley and rice are all grown in Romania but nothing exceeds cornmeal in popularity. From this is made mamaliga. This Romanian food’s versatility equals the pasta, rice or potato staples of other peoples, and even the most affluent Romanian succumbs at least occasionally to a meal based on mamaliga. This is not difficult to enjoy, for mamaliga in its bland sweetness seems the perfect foil for meats and gravies, cottage cheese, yogurt, butter or sour cream, various vegetable sauces or simply a mound of browned mushrooms or onions. Cold, it can be sliced into wedges and eaten as a bread or sliced thinly and dipped in egg and breaded and fried in squares, layered into vegetable and/or meat casseroles, or served in the bottom of a soup plate. Sometimes mamaliga is the companion to fried or scrambled eggs, or even just sauerkraut or pickles. With mamaliga who can be hungry?
Wheat flours are processed in various stages of refinement and used for the many pastries, cakes, tortes and desserts so beloved by the Romanians. If mamaliga is not on the table, it is certain there will be an assortment of dark and sour rye breads or crusty coarse wholewheat breads to accompany the meal. Rice and barley are used in soups and stews, in stuffed vegetables and as a base for meat and gravy dishes.
Lard, butter, olive oil, and sunflower seed oil are used in cooking and baking. The latter two also serve as salad dressings.
SWEETS AND SNACKS
Romanians are fond of sweets and they like their sweets very sweet, perhaps as an antidote to the hot peppers.
Dulceata (fruits preserved in heavy syrup) and sweet thick Turkish coffee plus the whole range of rich tortes, layer cakes, filled cakes, honey and syrup-drenched Turkish pastries, sticky-rich dried fruits, strudels filled with fruits, nuts, poppy seeds – the list is endless. Chocolates in every form, plain or filled, are a specially treasured treat. Failing chocolates, Romanians will munch happily on raisins.
As in other parts of the Romanian food and cuisine, the inter-twining of Slavic and Oriental tastes is evident. Olive oil, sour cream, onions and leeks, garlic, black olives (masline), paprika, wine, and a wide range of herbs are used not just for flavor but for their other properties as well. Babies enjoy sticking sprigs of sassafras tied to their wrists. Parsley and garlic are believed to purify the blood, yogurt to aid digestion, and caraway to act as a mild laxative.
In order to prepare the many sour soups that are a frequent part of the Romanian food menu, fermented grains, fruits, beer or vinegar or the juice from pickles or sauerkraut is used.
Romania’s vineyards produce a variety of good local wines enjoyed with dinner and supper and often in between, especially when mixed with soda water as a shpritz. The most popular aperitif is the clear plum brandy called Tuica or Tzuica enjoyed straight but always with appetizers such as icre, vinete tocate, masline, mititei, tiny hot peppers, pickles, or sharp cheeses. Must is an autumnal beverage of lightly fermented grape juice.
On the sober side, clabbered milk called lapte batut is often a part of breakfast with breads or rolls (croissant or brioche) or even mamaliga. Sweetened soft drinks and cola are increasingly available, and fruit drinks called nectars are also enjoyed. Turkish coffee, tea, and herbal teas are also taken.