When we headed to Romania, I expected goulash. I expected sausages. I anticipated nights of knocking back Palinca and Visinata. I knew there would be potatoes and pork and dairy to die for. But the polenta was a surprise.
Our first meal in Romania was a lovely welcome dinner (part of our Adventures With Sarah/Savor the Experience tour) and birthday celebration for Darling Husband, at the divinely elegant Casa Boema in the city of Cluj.
Dan, who'd already decided this would be a goulash test-taste trip, ordered Boema's elevated version of the dish, with beef cheeks, carrots and potatoes braised in a paprika-rich broth. I chose the fish -- a cornmeal(!)-crusted Sea Bream with lentils and a side of...polenta? I associate this creamy, textured cornmeal porridge with Italy, but our guide Marius surprised me with the fact that polenta is the most commonly-served side dish in Romania.
We also enjoyed a pretty nice bottle of wine -- another surprise. As it turns out, Romania is one of the largest wine-producing countries in the world, with a near-perfect geography for growing great grapes.
The next day, as we departed Transylvania for the northern farmlands of Maramures (pronounced Mar-ah-MOOR-esh), I saw with my own eyes how Romania could put Iowa to the test in terms of growing corn.
Corn, like other New World produce potatoes and tomatoes, was brought to Europe in the 1500's. It became a staple in Romania for its ability to be produced inexpensively and fulfill the calorie requirements needed to sustain tough, physical labor throughout cold winter months.
Romanian polenta (called Mamaliga) is coarsely ground and substantial, and served many ways. But after our first several meals where I indulged in bowls of it -- with cheese, pork cracklings, sausages, you name it, I realized my love affair with the humble cornmeal dish would have to end or I wouldn't fit into my travel clothes by the time we left.
(We also realized we'd have to split the rest of our meals -- Romanian portions are famously generous!)
Of course there's much more to Romanian food than Mamaliga con Branzi. Soups (Ciorba) and stews are a mainstay, as is freshly-baked sourdough bread.
Romanian food is highly-seasoned with lots of herbs and spices, and often includes sweet red peppers and tomatoes. You'll find all kinds of pickles and vegetable preserves (Sacusca), wild mushrooms, and fresh hot peppers which serve to cut through the richness of the meats, sausages, cheeses and, yes, polenta, served at many main meals.
I enjoyed everything I ate in Romania, but these are the most typical foods that you'll find there, along with my favorite dining (and drinking) experiences:
Of course, I have to talk about goulash -- braised meat (beef or veal) with vegetables (typically potatoes or celery root, carrots and red peppers) in a rich broth, seasoned with a LOT of Hungarian paprika, and served either as a stew or a soup. My favorite version was at our agriturismo in Maramures, the Pensiunea Maramures. There we had a home-made goulash soup, cooked over a wood-burning stove by our host's wife and Mama.
The fact that it was served alongside a groaning board of grilled sausages, braised pork, and cheesy polenta cakes didn't stop me from consuming a serving large enough for a meal in itself.
Romania is also known for its bounty of meats -- pork, veal, lamb and especially sausages.
Mici (pronounced MEECH) are traditional small skinless sausage cooked hot and fast on a grill. They can be served with a mixed platter, but I think they're best as a snack with a nice, cold beer.
You'll find slow-cooked ham hocks, meltingly-braised pork shoulder, and delectable pork-belly cracklings (addictive when served with raw, red onions and more cold beer).
If you want to depart from the pig, you can also opt for a well-aged ribeye or even chicken, which is better than what you normally find in the U.S. (unless you're lucky enough to have access to farm-raised).
Of course, I did break up my carnivorism with some fish. Sea Bream, carp, mackarel, salmon, and trout are some of the varieties you can find in Romania. The Casa Alex Trout Farm in Maramures is a heavenly spot for a lunch after some sightseeing, to enjoy freshly-caught trout, either grilled or...cornmeal crusted....
While polenta is a staple, you're of course going to find potatoes -- roasted, mashed, grilled and as "Peasant" potatoes -- Romania's version of home fries, usually cooked in rendered bacon fat with garlic, parsley and paprika.
Cabbage is another mainstay of Romanian meals. Yes, it's sometimes stuffed with meat (Sarmale, the Romanian national dish), but it can also be served as a side dish or slaw -- a cool, crunchy counterpoint to rich, fatty meats and sausages. And polenta.
No Romanian meal is complete without huge slices of fresh-baked sourdough bread. Romanian sourdough is more tender and airy, less chewy and "sour" than what I've typically had in the U.S. If you're lucky, you'll enjoy Bune de Casa -- a homemade sourdough loaf which is burned when baking, the crust scraped off before slicing.
Bread here is typically served fresh sour cream, which is more of a creamy, tart sauce than a thick, gloppy spread. A breakfast of Bune de Casa with cream and sour cherry jam is about as close to perfection as you can find in a meal.
The crowning triumvirate of Romanian cuisine (to me, anyway) is dairy, dessert and drinks.
The dairy is, like most else in this small but agriculturally-rich country, a level above what we mostly get in the U.S. (I might have had to 'fess up to my Romanian garlic at U.S. customs, but they were not going to get a hold of my Manufactura de Branza cheese.)
Desserts and pastries are a big part of Romanian hospitality, but the "national" dessert, if there is one, is Papanasi (pronounced Pah-pah-NAHT-see). A heavenly sort of doughnut, Papanasi are stuffed with a sweet cheese similar to ricotta, then topped with sour cream, powdered sugar and a sauce made of tiny sour cherries.
Dan might have been on a goulash-tasting mission, but mine was to find the best version of this dumpling doughnut (which, not coincidentally, is what he now calls me).
And aside from papanasi, there's plenty more to satisfy your sweet tooth....
To start off your evening (or afternoon, in some cases), you might want to try a shot of Romania's
national hooch, Tuica, which is a strong spirit distilled from fruit, usually plums. In fact, more than 75% of the plums grown in Romania are used to produce this potent (POTENT) fruit brandy (which tastes nothing like fruit or brandy). In the Romanian countryside, many households will make their own, from whatever fruit they might have in abundance at the end of the season. It's used to toast special occasions, business deals, or sometimes just the arrival of 1600 hours.
Maramures has a fascinating tradition of bottling their home-cooked Tuica (theirs is called Horinca) in their version of a ship-in-a-bottle -- the "impossible bottle" -- a clear glass bottle with a hand-carved wooden jib-jab ingeniously constructed inside. There it will stay, bottling after bottling, mystifying guests and lending a golden hue to the clear, stiff spirit.
A more-refined version of Tuica is Palinca, which is further distilled but no less strong. We enjoyed after-dinner shots, served in traditional shot glasses, at Caru' cu Bere in Bucharest, and, well, a few other places.
If firewater isn't your style, you can opt for the sweeter and definitely more palatable Visinata (Vish-ee-NAHT-a), a type of fruit liqueur made from Romania's famed cherries. A little sip of Visinata will settle your stomach after eating all of that delicious, rich country food, and the bonus is that you're gonna forget just how much you ate.
Obviously, Romania isn't just a feast for the eyes -- there's also an abundance of deliciousness to put in your face.
It's a bit of a tossup for me as to whether I preferred the excellent restaurant meals in the cities and larger towns, or the simpler fare at the countryside farms and pensiones.
You can easily find an elegant, elevated meal, especially in the larger cities like Cluj, Brasov or Bucharest. I had two of the best Italian dinners of my life in Brasov -- at Prato and Dei Frati -- for an unbelievably reasonable cost, including excellent wines and brilliant service.
I'll say, though, that my best food experiences in Romania were the humblest and simplest -- gathering apples for horinca, tasting cheese at a small village dairy, enjoying creamy chicken with mushrooms (and polenta) at a picnic table by the river.
Our pensione breakfasts consisted of platters of salted cheeses, cold sausages and smoked pork belly, farm-fresh eggs, freshly baked sourdough bread with butter and honey, house-made Sacusca and dairy-fresh milk.
A home-cooked lunch at the Atelier Mestesugaresc pensione in the Saxon village of Sibiu epitomized the breadth of Romanian food, cooking and hospitality.
Prepared and served with by two sweet, laughing ladies, it crossed off every box -- goulash, polenta with cheese, homemade pickles, sourdough bread, farm-fresh milk, sour cherry spirit and cherry pastries.
The warmth with which our food was prepared and the joy with which it was served was the best part of the meal. But after coming to know the generous spirit of Romanians, that was no surprise.