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An introduction to Romanian cuisine in 7 ingredients 

An introduction to Romanian cuisine in 7 ingredients 

by Irina Georgescu 09 July 2018

Irina Georgescu introduces the food of her native Romania, shining a spotlight on the ingredients and dishes that make this nation an undiscovered culinary paradise.

They say that people get to know a country through its food and traditions. Seen as untamed and untouched by mass tourism, Romania is intriguingly situated between the culinary cultures of western Europe and the Middle East. There are delicious influences from Austria, Hungary, Turkey and Greece, not forgetting the important Slavic roots and French inspiration.

Romania has a diverse landscape. There are the rich, flat plains of the south, the high peaks and deep ancient forests of the Carpathian Mountains in the north and the unique Danube Delta in the east. They all play an important role in the type of food people cook, and how they prepare it.

The most popular Romanian dishes are stuffed pickled cabbage leaves, creamy polenta, hearty borș soups, tangy fermented vegetables and fruits. There also are velvety pilafs, moreish apple pies, potato or cheese-based desserts and luscious layered cakes. Romanian cooking speaks about a flavoursome cuisine of seasons, and a way of life. Let’s visit this fascinating country through seven of its staple ingredients and dishes.

1. Pork

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Romanians love meat, especially pork. From hearty stews and stuffed vegetables to the incredible flavours of chargrilled meat on the barbecue, it is used across all regions of the country (except in the Danube Delta, where fish is king).

Very often, especially when making stuffing or sausages, pork is combined with veal, beef or mutton. This is what makes the dishes Romanian. These koftas, called mici (‘littles’), contain a mix of pork and beef and are made with a bit of bread soaked in garlic sauce, a teaspoon of sour cream and a generous pinch of pepper. The extra layer of flavour comes from the hot grill, which adds the smokiness and a hint of bitterness to the mici. It is a simple, quick and melt-in-the mouth dish. Mici are a street food staple, usually served on a paper plate, with a dollop of mustard and a slice of white bread to mop up the juices.

Pork is also the traditional Romanian meat served at Christmas – not only as roast pork, but as charcuterie, too. The slaughter of the pig and its preparation from nose to tail are very much a part of the village life. December is the month when the charcuterie is prepared: fresh and cured sausages, black pudding, leber (liver) sausages, brawns, jellies, confit meat and cured lardo can be made from one pig; nothing goes to waste. On Christmas Day, charcuterie is served with pickles, red onions and a glass of plum brandy.

2. Apples

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Romania is a country of many resources, the most important being wheat, corn, meat, dairy produce and fruit. The summers are abundant with juicy apricots, peaches, damsons, cherries and sour cherries, while autumns are full of zesty grapes, pears, quince and apples. The apple reigns supreme in Romanian cuisine, being a versatile fruit that is used in both savoury and sweet dishes. There is a famous savoury dish of stuffed apples with ham hock and pancetta that makes a delicious and nourishing weekday meal.

One of the most popular cakes in Romania is an apple cake. The way the filling is sandwiched between the two layers of dough makes for a very popular, traditional bake. It is called plăcintă, which translates to ‘pie’, and the fillings can be sweet or savoury, including flavours such as apple, pumpkin, cheese curds, walnuts, cabbage, potato or meat. The pie is usually baked in a tray and cut into squares after it cools down. It is a moreish snack, and one square can be gone in seconds.

3. Polenta

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Romanians have embraced polenta (known as mămăligă) like no other nation. It is a staple side dish that can also be a meal in itself served for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Traditionally, it was poured right in the middle of a wooden table, sliced using a string, and eaten instead of bread. Today’s version tends to be creamier, perfect for absorbing rich sauces or for carrying flavours.

The most popular Romanian breakfast dish is polenta with cheese and sour cream. It is the Romanian equivalent of a full English, and many people like to add pancetta or a fried egg. The variety of Romanian polenta dishes is impressive: it can be layered, baked, made into a ball, fried, drizzled, fermented, sweetened or soaked in syrup. No wonder it is loved by so many.

4. Cheese

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Romanian cheese is usually served at the beginning of the meal, together with charcuterie and pickles. Cow’s and sheep’s milk cheese are equally loved, whether hard, soft or fresh. The fresh cheese (urdă) is often made at home and is similar to ricotta, only drier, making it ideal for fillings. There are pies, strudels, stuffed flatbreads and the Romanian Easter bread Pasca all based on this particular cheese.

The most iconic Romanian dessert is called Papanași. It is a cheese curd doughnut, served with sour cream and cherry jam. The presentation is unique, as the beignet is served on top of the ring doughnut. The cheese curds make the doughnuts light, fluffy and addictive, which is why they are always served in pairs, easily shared between two people.

5. Smoked prunes

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Romanian cuisine is not only led by seasonality, but also by religious traditions. Lent is very important, and certain vegetarian dishes have become very popular over the years. The pilaf with smoked prunes (pilaf cu prune) is a testimony to the Turkish and Persian influences. As with other Romanian savoury dishes with fruits, this includes two tablespoons of sugar that are melted and caramelised, resulting in a delicious caramel flavour. The dish is not overly sweet, despite the sound of the ingredients. It has the right balance of savoury and sweetness that makes it extremely satisfying.

The abundance of fruit during the Romanian summer means preserving it for the months ahead is very important. Jams, compotes, sun-drying and cold-smoking are common methods. Apricots, plums and cherries are usually cold-smoked before being used in stews, either with or without meat.

6. Borș (fermented wheat liquid)

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The Romanian borș is a term that refers to a group of sour soups (sometimes called ciorbă as well as borș) and the ingredient used to flavour them. These broths can be made with butterbeans, pork ribs and tarragon; with chicken; with lettuce, courgettes or nettles; with fish or with beetroot. At Easter, the only time when Romanians eat lamb, a hearty lamb borș is prepared with spring onions and wet garlic.

The ingredient borș is made from fermented wheat bran or maize. In cities, where millions of people are packed into blocks of apartments, not every household makes their own. There are people who make enough to sell, so word of mouth spreads and children are usually sent with an empty bottle to ‘get a litre' of borș as it needs to be fresh. It is sour like other fermented ingredients but not overly so; instead, it has just the right hint of sweetness and is pale green in colour with golden reflections. These are the signs of a perfect borș.

7. Cabbage

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Cabbage is an important part of the Romanian diet throughout the year, whether fresh (called sweet or new cabbage) or pickled in brine. The Romanian sauerkraut is kept in barrels at home, and it is very carefully looked after so that it doesn’t turn bitter or soft.

Cabbages are usually stewed, baked or stuffed, often accompanied by meat. However, at Lent, the cabbage is stuffed with rice and sultanas or tomatoes and mushrooms. There are also versions of cabbage pies and flatbreads stuffed with sauerkraut. Romanian stuffed cabbage leaves (called sarmale) are made with pickled cabbage and served with polenta, sour cream and a pickled chilli. In some regions of the country, the cabbage rolls are arranged in a hollowed-out pumpkin and baked in a clay oven.

The end of August is when new cabbage comes into season. People usually make a popular dish of sautéed cabbage with fresh tomatoes, peppers, dill and a splash of borș. It goes wonderfully well with a grilled pork chop or slow-roasted ham hock.

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