There’s not much we can call our own when talking about Romanian food and drinks. There are no special ingredients growing on our lands, that no other country has ever seen before, so don’t expect anything too exotic or unheard of. Instead, you can rely on Romanians for hearty, rich meals that can easily be considered comfort food, and recipes you can always take home with you.
Romanian „cuisine”, if you can call it such, has borrowed and adapted from the neighboring countries. That’s why most of our prized local recipes and foods are also considered traditional in Hungary, Turkey, Russia, or Moldova, of course, under different names. Which doesn’t make them less tasty or addictive.
As a general rule, there are no rules when it comes to meals in Romania. We love food and we will have it when we need to have it, not at a certain hour and not in a certain order. We will have dinner food for breakfast and vice-versa, if that’s what we want. And we will have alcohol before lunch, if we feel like it (but that’s a different story).
So, if you’re invited for dinner somewhere or going to a restaurant in Romania, don’t expect a certain hour for eating. In most restaurants, you can order any type of food at any hour, and nobody will look at you funny.
I guess if there’s one tradition we still stick to (especially in more traditional families), that would be having a soup as entree to lunch or dinner. The soup can be sweet or sour (called „ciorbă” [chorba]), and will be followed by a main course, and (optional) desert. But this happens mostly in the families of our parents and grandparents, as modern Romanians are adapting more and more to the fast paced world around them and are either adopting international recipes, or relying on fast food and ready-meals.
And, of course, we still have traditional holiday dishes that we love to eat (and sometimes prepare), and I will detail them below.
Christmas is responsible for a wide selection of traditional foods, as it revolves around the pig’s sacrifice, a tradition that was until recently still legal (I’m sure many still practice it, but it’s now forbidden by law to slaughter your own pig). This tradition is better described in this article (please be advised the images might seem a bit shocking).
A variety of foods is then prepared from the pig’s skin, offal, and meat, and women spend long hours in the kitchen to have everything ready. So when we are visiting our relatives around Christmas, we have to eat a lot of everything, or they’ll feel offended.
- The pig’s skin, cleaned by hair using an open flame, and cooked in the oven for a few minutes (or on a stove/over a stove flame) is called șorici and is often eaten on the spot, with a bit of salt or sometimes mustard.
- After cleaning and portioning the pig, it is also customary to prepare pomana porcului (the pig’s alms), which is basically fatter pieces meat cooked with garlic, salt and pepper in a pan. It is usually accompanied by either țuică (our local alcohol made from plums, or other fruit) or wine.
- Pork sausages are prepared from ground meat, garlic and condiments, and are usually cooked fresh, on a grill or in a pan (not smoked). Other varieties of smoked/cured sausages are prepared in certain regions of the country.
- A special type of sausage is called caltaboș. It resembles very much the French andouillette sausage, and, depending on the region, it can be made from either pork offal, or ground fatter meat, plus pork fat, rice, onion, certain condiments, usually assembled and boiled in a pig’s large intestine. Not everyone likes it, as it has a pretty strong smell and taste.
- Tobă – pork headcheese (the Romanian haggis) is another product prepared from pork around Christmas. It’s not necessarily made from head meat, and more often contains pork offal. We usually eat it for breakfast, or as an entree (it is basically a cold cut).
- Several types of pastrami, bacon or ham are also prepared from pork (check out the post about breakfast foods)
- Beef salad (salată de boeuf) is also a must for your Christmas table, but this tasty entree is also prepared on other celebratory occasions. It’s usually made of beef, potatoes, carrots, celery, pickles (all cut into small cubes) mixed with mayo, paced on an elegant dish and decorated with olives, pickles or fresh herbs, sometimes following an intricate design. Recipe here.
- Aspic traditionally served in Romanian homes around Christmas and New Year’s consists mainly of pork meat boiled for a few hours with garlic and condiments. The water in which the meat boiled is sifted and poured over the pieces of meat, then, everything is refrigerated before serving.
- Sarmale is probably the first Romanian food you will hear about, as they are highly advertised as a traditional Romanian recipe. In fact, sarmale is a dish we borrowed from the Turks, dolma, or grape leaves stuffed with ground meat, rice and veggies. Although, to be fair, most Romanians prefer their sarmale in cabbage leaves. Recipe here.
- Scutecele lui Iisus (meaning literally Jesus’ diapers) is a cake made from tortilla-like sheets filled with a ground nut and syrup mixture, somewhat similar to baclava, but not quite the same. Recipe here.
As almost every holiday in Romania is an occasion to both cook and eat a lot of stuff, Easter is not different.
But while Christmas focuses on pork, for Easter, many Romanians prepare lamb recipes, such as:
- Lamb and fresh herbs soup is made from leaner meat, potatoes, onions/leeks, peppers, lovage and parsley.
- Lamb steak, chops or lamb cooked in wine with herbs, in the oven
- Drob is a lamb offal terrine which, traditionally, contains boiled eggs inside. It is served sliced, as an entree, together with boiled red eggs (a tradition in many countries) and cozonac (a sweet bread). Recipe here.
The other preferred meat is rabbit, but pork and turkey can also be found on the Easter table. As for desert, two traditional things must always be present:
- Cozonac is a delicious sweet bread we like to have on all occasions. Italians have their Panettone, Greeks have tsoureki, Hungarians have baigly, and the list is long. Romanian cozonac can have several fillings, from Turkish delight to cocoa and sugar, poppy seeds, raisins, or combinations of these. We sometimes like to eat it dipped in a bit of red wine.
- Pască is something between sweet bread and a cheesecake, and is specific for Easter in Romania, as its name is derived from Paşte (Romanian for Easter).
Other foods associated with religious occasions:
- Every year on March 9, we celebrate the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste, on which occasion, a special desert is prepared and given as alms. It is called mucenici or măcinici, and, depending on the region (Moldavia or Wallachia), it can present itself as pretzels shaped as eights and covered in honey and ground nuts, or small pasta shaped as eights, boiled in cinnamon and sugar water.
- Colivă / Koliva is basically a boiled wheat and sugar pudding, shaped like a cake and decorated with ground nuts, small round candy and white sugar. Due to its religious role (it is prepared specifically to remember the dead), it will almost always be decorated with a cross.
By now, you will have realized that Romanians love two things: pork and garlic. Indeed, these are the main ingredients in many of our recipes. Poultry is second in line as favorite meat, while vegetables and legumes mostly used in our kitchen are beans, peas, cabbage (fresh or pickled), potatoes, bell peppers, onion and eggplant, all of which go great in stews. We’re not that fond of complex salads, but our steaks and sausages go great with simple fresh cabbage and dill salad, tomato and onion salad, pickles, or red beet salad. And, very important, many Romanian foods go great with mămăligă (corn flour porridge) instead of bread, especially when there is some sauce involved.