Anca Caliman moved from Timisoara, a city in the Transylvania region of Romania, to Burbank, Calif., with her family when she was 12 years old. Since then, life has taken her to Boston, New York, Washington D.C. and Ireland. Despite not having lived in Romania since her childhood, Romanian food has been part of her life from a young age, when she helped the women of her family cook by doing “starter” chores like separating the leaves to make sarmale.
Now, Caliman owns and operates Parsnip, a Romanian-inspired Los Angeles eatery that opened in 2017.
Located in Highland Park in northeastern Los Angeles, Parsnip is a small, hole-in-the-wall eatery painted an inviting shade of royal blue, subdivided into two sections: a room where you order your meal and where you can peek into the kitchen, and the dining area, a horizontal strip decorated with star-shaped lights and paper lanterns.
The food business was not what Caliman originally wanted to do with her life. Before 2011, she worked in finance and accounting. Then her mother got sick.
“That changed my life,” said Caliman, who took care of her mother until she passed away.
After her mother’s death, Caliman said she decided she did not want to go back to an office. “I just wanted to do something with my hands,” she said. That propelled her towards food.
At first, she started with plachinta, or stuffed flatbreads. “I wasn’t thinking about it as a business at the time, but that was what I missed the most from my childhood and my grandmother was already too old to do it. It involves a lot of elbow grease.”
Despite having no formal training in the culinary world, Caliman has created a business and owns two restaurants, including Parsnip. While it is not the only Romanian restaurant in the Greater Los Angeles area, it is one of the few.
“Traditionally, we haven’t had a huge restaurant culture in Romania. For the most part, people cook at home. Even now, my family tends to cook at home,” Caliman said.
Despite not leaving a strong culinary footprint in Southern California the way other ethnicities have, Romanians are present in the golden state. According to a 2014 study by Dan Valeriu Voinea, a researcher from the University of Craiova, Romania, there are over 60,000 Romanians in California.
“That number might be much higher because of two factors: undocumented migration and the gradual loss of identity through each generation,” Voinea wrote.
Since Caliman left Romania when she was 12 years old, the food she cooks at Parsnip is partly Americanized.
“I’m not a Romanian grandmother. I took my food memories and my favorite flavors and put those together with my American perspective and food experience,” she said.
When she started Parsnip, she said that she worried that old school Romanians would crucify her for straying from the traditional.
“Your own people are always the most critical, but the response has been very good,” she said.
Caliman added that she has had some Romanian customers who had never heard of certain dishes, such as bulz (polenta dumplings), that are common in Transylvania but not in other parts of Romania.
While Romanian cuisine is not a monolith, there are several universal features in the food, including the resilience and resourcefulness of the people, according to Caliman.
“You can see the fact that it is pretty labor intensive. Most of the dishes involve a layering of flavor and spending time roasting and simmering and braising things in order to get to the best result,” she said. “You taste that in the food — that slow-cooked love.”
In many ways, Romanian food is a pan-European lovechild with a Turkish uncle. It carries the marks of being conquered by the Roman Empire, territorial back and forth with Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, and having been a Soviet satellite state in the 20th century.
This can create territorial feelings about Romanian food, an eagerness to claim cultural possession.
Maria Dumitrescu, a Romanian-American woman living in Oregon who runs the “Romanian Recipes” Facebook page, said, “If you asked my parents, they will argue something along the lines of ‘the Russians stole our best dishes and claimed it for their own.’”
Dumitrescu said that she is not sure how much is whose. “I appreciate all the deliciousness that can happen when variety and creativity come together,” she said.
The theme of community is behind the ethos of Parsnip, according to Caliman. She said she wanted to make it a community restaurant and felt confident that she could do it since she lives in the neighborhood.
“People are pretty similar. Many people have Eastern European roots. Some people are like, ‘I had this Polish aunt that made these awesome things,’ so they kind of have an idea about the food. It’s not totally new and different,” she said. “I thought there would be enough people interested in trying the food if somebody was to make it.”
Parsnip has reminded other immigrants of home. Ursula Kannofsky, a Switzerland native and Highland Park resident, never had Romanian food until a friend raved about the restaurant. Now, she said she comes at least once a week and loves the goulash.
“Goulash is something you have in European kitchens. We have it in Switzerland as well. We may not have the same recipes, but we have the paprika, the chicken and the polenta,” Kannofsky said.
Caliman said that she is happy when people of other nationalities and ethnicities try her food and tell her that it reminds them of home and what they ate growing up.
“It’s simple, delicious food. It happens to be Romanian and I happen to be from there,” Caliman said.
Parsnip is located at 5623 York Blvd., Los Angeles. It is open Monday through Friday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday from 4 pm. to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Vegan and gluten-free options available.