How to explain Romanian food to your American friends

It is 2013 and the holiday season is in full swing. There is a dead pig in the backyard. My mother, my aunt and my uncle are getting straight down to the business of hand-making sausages while I run around looking for a clothespin to plug my nose. The sausages will hang in the garage for the better part of the winter.

This is not the belly of a Romanian village. This is a California suburb.

My friends thought my family was insane.

But are Romanians really that crazy? And by extension, is Romanian food really that weird? Not according to Cirus Mierloi, the vice president of the parish council for the Saints Archangels Michael and Gabriel Romanian Orthodox Church in Orlando, Florida.

“We do not make things that different,” Mierloi said, referencing how Romanian food tends to be regional variants of dishes from more well-known Eastern European and Balkan countries such as Russia and Greece.

He said that he uses the better-known counterparts to describe Romanian food to American friends. For example, he describes varza la cuptor as sauerkraut. Varza la cuptor translates to “cabbage in the oven.”

For all of the Romanians out there who are tired of not being able to explain our food to our American friends, and for the non-Romanians out there who want to learn more about traditional Romanian cuisine, I have compiled a Romanian-English culinary dictionary that will walk you through a customary meal.

Before I dive into the guide, I’d like to thank the Romanian American community. In April, I reached out to a Romanians in America Facebook group of over 21,000 members with questions about how they explain Romanian food to their American friends. Within 72 hours, I had over 70 responses. Some of their responses are included in this article.

Most photos in this article are provided by either myself, my mother, Laura Postolache, or my aunt, Marlena Grecu.

Starters and Sides

Zacuscâ is Romanian salsa, except herby instead of spicy.

From my experience, it is often served with toasted bread. Similar to chips and salsa, zacuscă on toast can be quite addictive. While it does not count as a full meal, sometimes you stuff yourself with zacuscă to the point that it just became your dinner.

According to my mother, zacuscă started as a food for the winter months, smashing up vegetables that grew in the fall so that you would have something nutritious during the coldest months of the year.

“We have long and harsh winters. The only fresh vegetables you could keep were potatoes and maybe onions,” she said.

Icre is caviar for poor people.

Icre is salted and cured fish, typically roe. It is similar to the Greek dish taramasalata.

Icre is how I became the laughing stock of the Generation Z community in Moinesti, the small town where my parents grew up. I was playing a game of Activity and had to describe a word without using it in a sentence. My word? Caviar. How I described it? “Icre for rich people.”

Mămăligă is basically polenta.

Like polenta, mămăligă has a porridge-like texture. However, unlike polenta, which can be allowed to cool and then baked, mămăligă is almost always served fresh.

Traditionally, mămăligă is regarded as a peasant food. During Romania’s Communist era, from 1947 to 1989, it often served as a replacement for bread.

Murături are pickled vegetables. Which vegetables? All the vegetables.

To all the Romanians out there: if you want your friends to think that Romanian food is good, maybe hold off on mentioning that we pickle everything from cabbage to watermelon.

To all the non-Romanians out there: pickled tomatoes are really good.

Soups

Soups are quite common in Romanian cuisine. We have everything from ciorbă de văcuţă (beef soup) to ciorbă de oase (bone soup) to ciorbă de pui (chicken soup). They are typically quite self-explanatory, but there are several Romanian soups that are notable, controversial or bizarre.

“The reason we have so many soups is because with a little meat, soup can feed a lot of people,” my mother said.

Ciorbă de burtă is tripe soup.

Ciorbă de burtă literally translates to “soup for the stomach,” and it can have a particularly stomach-churning effect on some people. Doru Desire Lames has lived in the United States, primarily Ohio and Tennessee, for over 20 years. He wrote on Facebook that the only Romanian dish he has ever had trouble getting Americans to eat is ciorbă de burtă.

“Especially if I tell them what the ingredients are,” he communicated via the social media network. The main ingredients are beef tripe and bone, and it is served with vinegar or sour cream.

George Beck, another member of the Romanians in America Facebook group, concurs with Lames. “Folks, let us agree that ciorbă de burtă does not define the Romanian cuisine,” he wrote in response to Lames’s Facebook post. According to Beck, mici, sarmale and cabbage-related foods are the true hallmark of the Eastern European country’s food.

There is a variant of ciorbă de burtă with chicken instead of tripe called ciorbă rădăuţeană.

Borş is similar to Russian borscht, minus the “cht.” Sort of.

Russian and Ukrainian borscht is made with beetroot. While beets are a common ingredient in other Romanian dishes, Romanian borş is not made with beet. It is made with borş, a liquid base with fermented wheat or barley bran, an ingredient my mother refers to as Romania’s kombucha.

In the eastern part of Romania, where my family is from, borş the soup is used colloquially to refer to any sour soup. I make my borş with vegetables and potatoes, flavoring the broth with a tomato paste in order to give it an extra sour, hearty tang.

Borş is one of the most popular dishes in that part of the country and can be made with any kind of meat and vegetable. Its popularity stems from the accessibility of ingredients even during famines and food shortages.

“You may have nothing, but you will always have borş,” my mother said.

Entrees

Sarmale are stuffed cabbage or grape leaf rolls.

Sarmale is the holy grail of Romanian cuisine, served at every major holiday, weddings and, well, any occasion where enough people are coming to merit the labor-intensive process of marinating and separating the leaves, preparing the filling, wrapping the filling around the leaves and cooking them for up to four hours.

The filling is comprised of ground meat (beef, lamb or pork), barley, rice, parsley, dill and onions. Traditionally, you have all those elements in a giant bowl, crack two eggs that will work as an adhesive, and hand mix everything until it is combined.

In my opinion, it is one of the best dishes in Romanian cuisine because it is so labor-intensive. Everything needs to be done by hand and you can really taste the love.

Fasole cu ciolan is smoked ham and beans.

Fasole cu ciolan translates directly to “beans with bone.” Baked beans and smoked ham rest in a vegetable sauce. It is served on December 1, during National Day, one of the most important non-religious holidays in Romania. National Day honors the anniversary of when the country’s provinces officially united.

“This is a new thing for the post-Communist era,” my mother said. “When I was growing up, National Day was not in December. The holiday was in August to celebrate the 1944 overthrow of dictator Ion Antonescu by Communist forces.”

Despite perhaps being overthrown as a national dish by sarmale, it is fitting that fasole cu ciolan is served on National Day, as it combines Romanian cuisine’s two greatest loves: meat and vegetables.

Desserts

If you love rum, you will love most Romanian desserts, as they often have a chocolate component that has been made with rum essence. While rum essence is available in grocery stores across the United States, every Romanian family I know relies on Dr. Oetker’s esenţa de rom.

Cozonac is a Christmas bread similar to Italian panettone.

A sweet leavened bread, cozonac is served during at least three major Romanian holidays: Christmas, New Year’s Day and Easter. Cozonac is similar in texture to challah, panettone and brioche.

There are several variants of cozonac: plain, filled with Turkish delight (called “rahat” in Romanian, which is the same word for “bullshit”), with a rum-spiked chocolate and walnut paste or with the rum-chocolate-walnut swirl and Turkish delight.

For several Romanian American youth, including myself, cozonac with rahat is why we were all confused by Edmund Pevensie’s decision to betray his family for Turkish delight in “The Chronicles of Narnia” book series.

Clătite are crepes.

Most Romanian menus directly translate clătite as pancakes, but they are not the thick stack of carbs topped with maple syrup and butter that some think of when they hear the word “pancake.”

Romanian clătite bear more similarity to crepes, as they are thin, have a filling and are wrapped or rolled up. While crepes can be served with either sweet or savory fillings, clătite traditionally only have a sweet filling of chocolate or jam. In addition, they are rarely, if ever, served as a breakfast food.

“Romanians are francophiles. We borrowed a lot from French cuisine,” my mother said.

Nuci are a rum-spiked chocolate and toasted walnut mix sandwiched between two shortbread cookies.

My mother calls them walnuts as the design of the cookie is meant to resemble the nut. Nuci also translates to “nut.” When filling the shortbread shells with the chocolate and toasted walnut spread, it is imperative not to overstuff them so that the “walnuts” do not turn into pistachios. Typically served during Christmas and New Years celebrations, you can top the cookie with a sprinkling of powdered sugar if you are feeling festive.

A word of advice to anyone who who wants to make nuci: buy an electric mold. While getting the right cook time can be tricky, you can cut the time you spend on nuci by a half if you opt out of shaping dozens of nut shells by hand.

Papanaşi are Romanian cheese doughnuts.

While Angelenos may get their doughnuts from places like Universal CityWalk’s Voodoo Doughnut, Downtown Los Angeles’s Birdies or Santa Monica’s Sidecar Doughnuts & Coffee that serve the treat with a chocolate glaze, sprinkles, or maple and bacon, a Romanian papanaşi is always simple: a fried dough with sweet cheese.

Papanaşi are topped with jam and smântână, a sour cream product with a resemblance to creme fraiche.

And that’s a wrap on a walk through a traditional Romanian meal. Are there any dishes I left out that you think should be included? Let me know in the comments below!

LA-based writer. Romanian American. USC ’20 grad. Aspiring foodie. Usually thinking about intergenerational trauma.

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