Part of every traveler’s experience in a foreign country is the culinary adventure. What kind of food locals eat and what these dishes tell you about their way of life are some of the most wonderful – and tasty – aspects of a trip abroad.
If you are a traveler to Romania and want to live the full Romanian experience – including the culinary one – you have many opportunities to do so. Of course, you will find there familiar names such as McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, but there are many restaurants that will give you the option of traditional Romanian dishes.
The list below will help you start your search for that particular Romanian flavor that you want to experience and pinpoint. If you stay with locals, ask them if they could prepare these dishes for you. Most Romanian women adore to show off their cooking skills – and they are truly amazing.
1. Polenta (“Mamaliga”)
More of a Romanian staple food than a dish in itself, “mamaliga” is so versatile that you may find it served instead of bread, as part of a meal, or even as an ingredient. A sort of cornmeal mush that is usually served warm, its closest culinary translation would be polenta.
Romanians often see “mamaliga” as a traditional bread replacement. It serves as a great flavor enhancement for your stew or soup. You can pair it with sausages, or eat it with cold milk from a bowl. Another popular way of eating it is the “mamaliga cu branza” (polenta and cheese) dish, where layers of polenta alternate with layers of homemade cheese, and are then cooked in the oven.
When in Romania, just ask for polenta. They will find a way to serve it.
2. Stuffed Cabbage Rolls (“Sarmale”)
This dish consists of ground meat, rice and spices rolled in cabbage leaves. Every major holiday finds Romanians with this dish on their tables. Boiled in a mixture of water and tomato paste and accompanied by soft pieces of pork fat, “sarmale” are generally served with a big scoop of sour cream on top. Depending on the region, the rolls may be smaller or larger. If you decide to eat them with polenta instead of bread, you will feast on a 100% traditional Romanian dish. Otherwise, soak your bread in the sauce and enjoy.
3. Stuffed Peppers (“Ardei umpluti”)
The main actors in this dish are the red, yellow or green bell peppers stuffed with a mixture of ground meat, rice and condiments. They are boiled in a tomato-based sauce, which is sometimes sweet. This dish is generally served with bread, as are most Romanian dishes.
4. Skinless Sausages (“Mici ” or “Mititei”)
When Americans dust off their grills and start cooking their hamburgers, Romanians are doing the same with their “mici.” “Mici,” sometimes called “mititei,” are a type of skinless sausages made of a mixture of ground veal and lamb, to which condiments are added to obtain a very specific taste. This combination is rolled into short, small sausages, not longer than 3 or 4 inches. (As a piece of trivia, “mici” stands for “small” in Romanian.) They are then placed on a grill, or cooked in a pan on the stove. The mustard, bread and a jug of beer are mandatory company. In fact, Romanians follow the tradition of eating “mici” and drinking beer every 1st of May, the Romanian counterpart of the American Labor Day.
5. Mashed Beans (“Fasole frecata”)
A very simple but satisfying dish, this is a delicious way out for Romanians that are trying to fast, but do not want to sacrifice taste. Even though beans are deemed as the poor man’s food and Romanian hospitality may make your host hesitant to cook this dish for their guests, Romanians often prepare it and greatly enjoy it. Beans are boiled and mashed into a paste, then served with fried onions on top, and sometimes with sausage, bacon, or pork steak. Make sure you do not miss this one.
6. Meatball Soup (“Supa de perisoare”)
Let’s take a step back and talk soup. Romanians like their sous to have lots of liquid, and enjoy them less in the pureed form, which rather reminds them of sauces or stews. However, Romanian soups are consistent enough, and never lack the mandatory chunks. With Romanians being serious meat eaters, the meatball soup is very common. Even if every woman has a different way of preparing the soup, the common denominator is what gives the soup its name: the big meatballs floating in the well condimented liquid that goes well with a scoop or two of sour cream.
7. Boeuf Salad (“Salata Boeuf”)
A very common Romanian appetizer, the boeuf salad is rarely absent from the Romanian tables on holidays. Even though its origins can be traced back to the nineteenth century and a well-inspired Russian chef, Romanian adopted it and made it their own. A mixture of finely chopped vegetables (mainly carrots and potatoes), pickles, sweet peas and sometimes chopped pieces of meat, the boeuf salad is saturated with homemade mayonnaise. Romanian cooks delight in decorating this dish with a layer of extra mayonnaise, to which they add flowers or other decorations made of thin cuts of bell peppers, boiled eggs, tomatoes, parsley, peas, olives, or whatever else strikes their fancy. Adorned this way, the dish looks festive and adds a splash of color to any Romanian table. To curb the fatty taste of mayonnaise, Romanians eat this salad with bread.
8. Eggplant Salad (“Salata de vinete”)
A simple dish that may serve as an appetizer or a snack, the eggplant salad continues the love story that Romanians have with their mayonnaise. It is made by baking, peeling and chopping the eggplant, then mixing it with chopped onions, lemon juice and mayonnaise. Romanians usually spread the salad on slices of bread. It pairs well with slices of tomato or even cheese.
9. Vegetable spread (“Zacusca”)
Served on slices of bread, and very tasty when served with hot tea, this vegetable spread is made of different varieties of bell peppers and eggplants, grilled, peeled, finely chopped and boiled for hours in tomato sauce, in a rather long but well worthy process. “Zacusca” may be consumed as breakfast, light dinner, or a snack. Some women use this spread for sandwiches that their kids take to school or in short trips.
Making this spread is a lovely tradition that many Romanian women honor every fall, when they prepare big batches of “zacusca” and store them away in jars “for the winter,” so that they have easy access to vegetables even if they are out of season. The event is an important one in every household: the lady of the house patiently grills and peels the peppers and eggplants and toils over the pots and jars for a whole day.
10. Plum Dumplings (“Galuste cu prune”)
A satisfying potato-based dish, plum dumplings are found in different variations all across Eastern Europe and can be served as a main dish or dessert. Balls of dough made of boiled and mashed potatoes, eggs and flour are built around a pitted plum (or sometimes jelly), then boiled in water and rolled in a mixture of bread crumbs and sugar. The result is a hot, juicy treat that mixes the consistency of the dough with the softness of the fruit inside. This is a delicious meal you will not forget.
Romanians take their food very seriously. Even if rich and not exactly liver-friendly, Romanian traditional dishes are a must for every serious traveler. Using a little bit of moderation – and this list – you will fall in love with this food.