Welcome to Bucharest: An Intro to Romanian Cuisine
Bucharest is a very diverse and exciting place with a kaleidoscope of cultures. You will find Lebanese restaurants alongside Greek restaurants, because we eat kind of in the same way. You also find loads of traditional Romanian restaurants especially in the Old Town. I recommend you explore those before trying anything else. On a Romanian table, you will identify a lot of dishes as Greek, Turkish or Middle Eastern, but also as Slavic or Austrio-German. We even looked at France in the 19th century to get inspired for our own cuisine so you’ll recognise some French influences as well. I think the fact that we managed to distil all of these influences into one cuisine is exactly what is so delicious about Romanian cooking. I always like to look at dishes in a historical context. Only by looking at what happened in Romania throughout the centuries can people understand the identity of its cuisine. Sometimes the names or ideas behind the dishes are familiar, but the actual recipes are different. The local variations add so much of our Romanian identity. As the French like to say, they come with the “terroir”, not only because we use Romanian ingredients, but also because we mix and match in a very unique way. Take borș for instance. It sounds like the Ukrainian beetroot soup but isn’t at all. We ferment wheat and cornmeal, put it through a sieve and use that juice to add a sour element to a dish, whether it’s a broth or stew. You travel around the country and find so many different variations of borș. Some areas make it with a little bit of meat, others make a vegetarian version. In spring, when everything comes back to life and foraged plants are full of vitamins, we make borș with nettles for example.
The Pie Chapter
Plăcintă makes up a whole category in Romanian cuisine, and delving into it is like opening Pandora’s Box. It’s basically our version of pie, and it can be savoury or sweet. We don’t serve these pies with sides or as a main course: it’s part of a snack cuisine. We bake it, slice it and put it on a table for people to pick from when they feel like it: think along the lines of baklava. Although it can be made with phyllo pastry, it isn’t always. Sometimes we roll out yeast dough, divide it in two and use one half to make a bottom layer, that we top with our filling of choice, and the other half as a top layer. The two layers of dough don’t meet at the sides. When we use phyllo pastry we put more than two layers in the pie because the layers are very thin. Curd cheese is one of the most popular fillings for plăcintă and we usually drizzle honey on top of that.
Where to Get Romanian Food on the Go
There are street food shops, small or large, everywhere in Bucharest, where you can buy pies, strudels or covrigi (Romanian bagel made without soaking in water). Most tend to be very good, and open really early in the morning, so people can pick up something to eat before going to work or while waiting for the bus to arrive. If you want a plăcinta on the go or sitting down, there’s a chain called La Plăcinte that’s also open for lunch and dinner. You can see a Moldovan influence in its plăcinte because a lot of them are made with phyllo pastry the way they make them in the Republic of Moldova. You can also have regular dough plăcinte and strudels there.
Locals Like to Dine Out in Home-Style Romanian Restaurants
Romanians dine out to eat home-cooked food which is very encouraging, because you kind of keep the traditions going. When I go home to see my parents and sister, we always go to a Romanian restaurant. It’s not that they choose it because I’m there with them. It’s just where they go on a regular basis. When we go out, we very often want to eat staple dishes like sarmale. Sarmale is stuffed sauerkraut cabbage leaves. We ferment the cabbages whole so we can use the leaves for this dish. We also want to eat the meze dishes that we usually put on the table before we eat the borș. I say “meze dishes” and you imagine little dips and spreads, but Romanian cuisine is a cuisine of very generous portions. We start a meal by putting all these different kinds of salads on the table. “Salad” is what we call all the different kinds of dips and spreads. The most famous is salată de vinete, the aubergine spread made with only three ingredients: roasted aubergines, olive oil and red onion. This is the simplest way to eat aubergines in Romania and it is everywhere. When you order a traditional platter, it will include this salad. We like a butter bean dip too, like the hummus dip but with any kind of white bean instead of with chickpeas. We don’t have tahini in our cuisine but we have garlic and we love garlic so we add it to a lot of dishes.
A Family Favourite
Lacrimi și Sfinți is a restaurant we like to go to in Old Town Bucharest. There’s a sort of nostalgia about it. The chefs cook traditional food in a very clever way. They look at the countryside way of cooking, but they’re professional chefs and obviously bring certain techniques to these dishes. Chef-owner Mircea Dinescu is very good at what he does and is quite a character. Everyone knows him in Romania. He is a poet and political commentator who was also one of the leaders of the revolution in 1989 when the communist regime collapsed. At some point, he said, “the hell with everything, I’m going to cook,” because he loves Romania and its traditions. He bought a farm in the middle of nowhere, and worked on restoring old cooking methods, then opened this restaurant, which is loved by so many people in Bucharest. He serves a lot of stuffed vegetables and leaves, which are very important in our cuisine. Apart from stuffed cabbage leaves, the restaurant serves a starter dish of grapevine leaves stuffed with goat’s cheese and drizzled with honey. It’s delicious. We love that kind of cheese: it’s curd-like, along the lines of ricotta but richer and drier, and perfect for fillings so it goes into different vegetables and leaves. They also make chiftele: meatballs coated in flour then fried, so they come like croquettes that are soft and silky in the middle. The pies are very, very good. There’s one that’s baked in milk. They put a lot of milk in from the very beginning, and the pastry absorbs the milk in the oven as it slowly cooks. It’s absolutely delicious.
Alternative Summer Cuisine
We have very hot summers in Romania which suddenly transforms the cuisine. We tend to want quick, refreshing flavours. We switch to cooking on the grill, whether it’s meat kofte or fish, and always with salad on the side. We don’t have the culture of serving potatoes alongside our grills. The landscape of Romania is so diverse, from mountains to plains to the rivers in between. We have everything really, so we don’t always eat one kind of meat. We eat quite a lot of freshwater fish and crayfish because we have rivers like the Danube Delta. Our diet is also rich in vegetarian and vegan options, mainly generated by our religious traditions, since we have a lot of Lent days dotted around the year. At the end of a fasting day, some people don’t even eat anything that has oil in it because it’s considered to be fat, it doesn’t matter from what. That has created another very diverse segment of the cuisine. You think that when you skip meat, the dishes lack certain flavours but the build-up of taste in these dishes is different. Our cuisine is based on a combination of smokey, sour and salty flavours. We have a prune pilaf for example, where the prunes are smoked. Garlic of course adds a whole spectrum of taste to different dishes depending on how it is used. Obviously garlic can be quite radical sometimes. We have a famous garlic sauce called mujdei which can be something you put on the table to drizzle on top of everything you eat, or it can be added to a soup or stew at the end of the cooking time along with some sour cream. Garlic is also added raw to a stew, like in the ostropel de pui (Romanian chicken stew), where you add a lot of it raw and very thinly sliced at the very end.
Where to Go for the Iconic Mici
We have plenty of grill restaurants in Bucharest. There’s a place with a lot of history called La Nenea Iancu (Mr. Iancu). Apparently the historic building that houses it is where the old restaurant that invented the different names for mici was. Mici is Romanian skinless sausage, sort of like kofta. It is part of the grilling segment of our cuisine. This address is quite iconic and you go there to eat mici and drink Romanian beers.
Romanian Beer Garden
We have a long tradition of making beer and not enough people talk about it. You find a birreria (beer garden) almost everywhere in Romania and it’s a very nice thing to see. People want to buy Romanian beer whether it’s made in Romania, or whether it’s made in Germany following a Romanian recipe. There are birreria that promote Romanian beers only. There’s one very close to where my sister lives called Grădină Olari and is famous for its selection of Romanian beers and sells some Romanian wines and food as well. “Olari” means pottery makers, because it happens to be on an old street where all the potters used to make and sell their creations.
19th Century Beer Recipe and Large Food Platters at the End of a Walk
There’s a place called Gambrinus (also the name of a beer) where you go to drink draft beer following a 19th century recipe. I actually go there for the food. The beer was always served with fried fish, anchovies and little sausages, so you can have a little bit of everything while you enjoy some nice local beer. It also serves these wonderful platters of different cured meats and cheeses. My brother-in-law Paul loves the beer there and always goes after a walk in Cismigiu. Gambrinus is in a historic building just outside Old Town Bucharest and is next to a beautiful park, so you can go for a walk and then stop there for a beer and a bite.
Drinking Coffee in Bucharest
The thing that Romanians drink more often than beer and wine is coffee. It’s Turkish-style (ibric) coffee. Historically, 90 percent of the coffee trade can be credited to Armenian merchants. The Armenian community also owned coffee shops with their own roasting machines, so they created their own roasts and blends. I have to mention Delicatese Florescu in Bucharest. “Florescu” is the name of the Armenian owner and roaster who followed the old Armenian way of making coffee. He was an apprentice at the Bucharest coffee shop that supplied the Royal House of Romania. It was quite prestigious. That’s how he learned the trade and at some point, he had the opportunity to buy the coffee shop. He ran it for many years during the communist regime, but was later imprisoned by the regime because they discovered some sort of links. When the regime collapsed he opened his own shop again and another new venue in the Old Town. It is, with no exaggeration, the best coffee in Bucharest. If you order Turkish coffee, they’ll make it for you the traditional way in an ibric on hot sand. The water and coffee simmer together at the perfect temperature, without burning. The shop itself is full of memorabilia and all of a sudden you’re transported in time.
A Layered Cake Celebrating Romanian History
The world of Romanian dessert is fascinating. You can see the layers of history in a cake and it sparks all kinds of conversation. We bake along the lines of Austrian and German home-baking. It’s not necessarily what you find in patisseries, but more like layered rectangular cakes, with four or seven very thin layers, and different creams in the middle like chocolate or vanilla. We make French tarts as well but I don’t consider them to be traditional at all. They’re traces of influence from the 19th century, and still everyone bakes a tart with custard and some fruit on top. At the same time you see Middle Eastern influence in the baklava and kataifi we make. We don’t necessarily make our kataifi with cheese, but with whipped cream, and bake the layers before adding the filling. You’ll also see strudel, especially in Transylvania. You will find all these things on the same table in Bucharest.
Ottoman-Armenian Richness and Beautiful Architecture
There is absolutely beautiful old architecture to appreciate in the middle of Old Town Bucharest like the building that houses the Hanul lui Manuc restaurant. It’s a huge, very old inn built in 1808. Manuc-Bei’s traditional restaurant is still there in the middle, and the rest of the space is rented to different cafes and bistros, so people get to choose whatever food they like. Manuc-Bei was an Armenian merchant and the only Armenian in Romania who actually had a noble title from the Ottoman Empire, hence the “-bei” at the end of his name. They suspected that he was a sort of Russian informant, spying on the affairs of the Ottoman Empire, which didn’t play out well for him in the end. His inn was the first that offered more than just rooms for travellers. It was sort of like a shopping centre that offered space for different merchants to sell and store their products. Today it kind of functions the same way. I go to Hanul lui Manuc because it’s a place with a lot of history. It’s a wonderful experience to be part of that unique building. Its menu has a lot of Middle Eastern dishes that have a sort of resonance with Romanians, and a Romanian wine list. It’s very clever how they do everything. They have a lot of pies, very much in the line with baklava and Turkish savoury pies, like one with mutton and parsley that they serve with yoghurt and tomato salad. It’s a rich meat pie with so much contrast of flavours. There comes the freshness and sourness of the tomatoes and yoghurt, and it ends up being quite balanced. It’s called beizadea which in Turkish means “the son of a prince”.
Because I write about traditional Romanian cuisine, I am more interested in how people have always cooked. In many ways, it is how we want to eat today. Most dishes are perfectly fine the way they are. Sometimes minor changes in the method of preparation can help bring out more flavour, but our dishes work well with our times: very simple ingredients all gathered and cooked for a short period of time; seasonal and healthy; and able to satisfy dietary requirements. They don’t have a lot of unheard-of ingredients that need to be adapted. It’s a very good way of eating. We have a lot of cornmeal breads and dishes made with cornmeal and are all gluten-free. Of course it’s still good to innovate, because it’s one thing to cook for the public in Romania and it’s another thing to write or cook for the public abroad who want to discover your cuisine. There are two different customers here. I think we have to reach that point and come back in a way. Every chef adds his or her personality to the cuisine. I like what chef Adrian Hadean is doing at MEATic and his different projects, because he doesn’t innovate for the sake of it. He cooks cutting-edge stuff, but you can see the inspiration coming from traditional dishes.
Food is Culture
If you believe that food is culture, then Zexe has always been the place to eat that culture. Its whole ethos and vision around Romanian cuisine is very comforting. It looks at very old recipes from as early as the 16th century as well as how ingredients were put together, then creates unique dishes. Innovation doesn’t always have to be something new. You can look at the past for inspiration. They don’t make little plates of things you don’t recognise. It’s kind of traditional, but it’s new at the same time. I love to order the fish dishes there. Fish is a big section in every Romanian menu. It’s part of a meal, so you can eat it between the ciorbă (soup) and the main course, since so many dishes are always served on a Romanian table. I love the saramură at Zexe, which is a very salty brine dish served with carp fish, catfish or sturgeon (when they legally have it because it’s now endangered).
Romania Loves its Pickles
We have a tradition of pickling, mostly by fermenting in brine or just salt. We eat pickles with everything and they would be on a table from the start of a meal. They go very well with all the charcuterie that we make in Romania. There’s a take-away sandwich bar called Pickles and most of the menu items there have fried gherkins, pickles or kimchi in them. They have a sandwich called Kimcheese made with cheese and kimchi that’s absolutely amazing.
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