Chanju Mwanza, Mishba Mahmood, Yasmin Duffy & Alastair Curtis
(What do you want?)
Were you to venture into a Romanian restaurant along the Danube, these are the words you would likely be met with. One of the central characteristics of the Romanian cuisine is its variety – there is not necessarily one culinary tradition that could be said to typify the country – and so there is no single answer to the question. But sitting in the restaurant, you will almost certainly tuck into the aperitive (starters), the supe (soup), and you might relish the dulciuri (sweets) and almost certainly the bauturi (beverage), all before you reach the felul doi (main course). You may also recognise many of the dishes from back home: there is ‘ciorba de perisoare’ (meatball soup) or carne la cuptor cu legume (roast meat with vegetables), all as popular in Romania as here in the UK. Even so, Romania maintains a distinct character and there will be some dishes particular to Romania for the more courageous – from caviar știucă (pike caviar) to borş lipovenesc de peşte (fish soup). There is certainly a lot of seafood: Romanian dishes serve up all the different varieties of fish that call the Danube their home as it runs through Romania. But pork, lamb and beef are used just as prolifically.
Romanian cuisine then is marked by diversity rather than singularity. The country’s culinary tradition owes some of this variety to the influence of different cultures it has been exposed to throughout history. It has been influenced by Ottoman cuisine with German, Serbian, Bulgarian and Hungarian influences also featuring in several dishes. Nicolae Klepper in Taste of Romania suggests the influences can be traced even further back: there is an ancient Greek influence, for instance, because the Romanians once traded with them, whilst the Romans gave Romania both its name and some of its food. But some of the most significant Romanian dishes, such as zacusca (a vegetable spread popular throughout Romania), are inspired by Turkish gastronomy, which began to grace Romanian tables whilst the country was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. With an amalgamation of influences and food varieties from several countries that combined to create Romanian cuisine, the Danube can perhaps be thanked for breaking down barriers and allowing an influx of nations to inspire the Romanian cuisine.
“…after that extraordinary ‘ciorba’ and after that dreamy ‘tourta’, I would say that not only does the world in fact know nothing about Romania, but neither do you Romanians recognise miracles. When it comes to cuisine, at least, you are very, very rich in your so-called poverty.”
Oceanographer Jacques Yves Cousteau, though slightly pessimistic in his tone, recognises the variety and unique blends of dishes served in Romania. Food can always be portrayed as an identifying factor of a nation’s culture, from the curries of India, to the ‘fish & chips’ that span along our very own River Thames. Food historian Annie Gray proposes food has the capacity to carry significant symbolism, often related to religion and eating ‘celebration’ food when a fasting period has come to its end. Pancakes were initially eaten on Shrove Tuesday to use up expensive food before Lent, whilst Easter fell at the time when fasting was finished and when people were able to get hold of the lamb, symbolic of the agnus dei (the lamb of God) and spiritual rebirth. It is therefore unsurprising that food has significant symbolism in Romania, being related to specific rituals: from life traditions to religious holidays.
More than 80% of the ‘stable’ Romanian population self-identify as Romanian Orthodox. Central to this religion is the tradition of fasting, ingrained in Romanian society for centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary recognises fasting as abstaining from all or certain types of food and drink. In Romania there are seasonal fasts most notably in the run up to Christmas and Easter: Advent and Lent. Less well-known outside of Romania are the weekly fasts which occur every Wednesday and Friday, including Patron Saint days. To the uninitiated, this fasting would seem like a big undertaking. Advent entails fasting for 40 days but Lent is the longest period of fasting occurring for up to 48 days. Romanian Orthodox Christians are often incredibly stringent with their fasting, especially within the smaller, secluded villages where fasting can occupy 192 days out of the entire year. For Romanians, this entails following a diet very similar to that of a vegan: no meat, eggs, dairy products, fish, wine or oil can be consumed. This is undoubtedly inspired by a passage in the Old Testament, Daniel 10:2-3 ‘I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth […] for the full three weeks’.
The notion of fasting is meant to purify the body by abstaining from indulgences that are present in day-to-day life. Fasting itself is a biblical discipline that takes place in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. It is also said that through fasting the body is being prepared for the feasts that are prepared on specific holidays such as Christmas Day and Easter Sunday. Indeed, on particular Sundays during the fasting periods, Romanians are allowed to eat fish, and some people continue to use oils in their cooking. Originally, a brave member in our group [Chanju Mwanza] had perilously planned to undertake a weekend of fasting according to the Romanian Orthodox Church and cook traditional Romanian dishes that fall in line with their strict rules of fasting. However stricken down by illness, fate decided [probably for the best, we say] that it was not to be. This is, however, how we interpreted the day’s cuisine would go:
Breakfast – pâine cu zacusca (bread served with zacusca)
Lunch – mămăligă cu legume la gratar (polenta with grilled vegetables)
Dinner – sarmale de legume (vegetable cabbage rolls)
Snacks – fructe și piuliță (fruit and nuts)
But it is open to debate whether the tradition of fasting is as widely practised as it once was. With only 7% of self-identifying Romanian Orthodox Christians attending weekly services, there has been a vast decline of strict Orthodox members. This suggests that fasting as a commonplace practice is also on the decline, with less and less Romanians fasting every Wednesday and Friday, and a large majority only fasting during Lent and Advent. Fasting will however,remain an integral part of the Romanian food culture, with several vegan dishes being developed for fasting periods.