Romanian Food: Folk Culture at Heart
Always hot on the trail of folk culture and traditional cuisine, Irish Buzz takes a trip into the world of Romanian food. A place where the authentic still abounds.
Romanian food is a fusion of flavors, traditions and influences. Understandably so, for historically it has found itself flanked by the tastes of the central European heartland to its West and those of the sprawling Russian and Ottoman Empires to the East. It is a culinary crossroads. And just like traditional Irish food, this has naturally bred a certain flexibility when it comes to Romanian recipes, making for a dynamic, down-to-earth cuisine.
Yet neither basic nor overly simple, Romanian food continues rather as an honest expression of true folk culture. Something ‘real’, made by the people, for the people. With the fuss and fake of what is rigid or unnecessary left aside, in favor of unpretentiously engaging the process at hand: enjoying good, life-sustaining food.
Romanian Food as Folk Culture
It is perhaps this aspect of Romanian food that impresses most, the role it still plays as a genuine, mostly unadulterated enactment of folk culture. It is hearty, it is fun, it is authentic. It doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is. Because, put simply, that which it is impresses greatly.
Sturdy winter dishes akin to Irish dishes like Dublin Coddle or cooking up a hearty beef stew on the stove. Yet also delicate, very Mediterranean dishes built on eggplants, peppers or young cheeses, for the summer months – when it is just too hot for anything heavy.
Romanian food has it all, so why bother dressing it up?
Would presenting time-proven Romanian recipes as suddenly chic change what has taken millennia to develop?
What would halving the portion and doubling the size of the plate achieve?
That’d be more about ego. Dining at a fancy restaurant for the sake of feeling that you’re dining at a fancy restaurant. An ethos far removed from true folk culture.
That’d be about marketing.
Rustic Romanian Food
Just like the traditional Irish dishes we present on Irish Buzz – or, for that matter, our guest posts from fellow foodies on things such as Polish bread or making homemade sausage in the Rockies, Romanian food skips the pretentiousness. For it is part of the national folk culture, part of the people.
The country may have its problems, but from the perspective of the English-speaking world, Romania does hold appeal. As somewhere that has traveled a different path, distant from our experience and removed from societies where it seems every thing, person and concept is now so tightly defined, marketed, put in a box (literally) that we’ve lost a great deal. Not least the notion of natural, innocent enjoyment. To the idealizing outsider, Romania, and especially Romanian food, is sure to stir up envy.
It is now more expensive and painstaking than ever to eat healthy (and well) in much of the developed world. This is of course part of greater shift in our societies. And as we continue to ‘advance’, many parts of the developed world are sacrificing the power of folk culture. Its power to guide and bring meaningful context to the ultra-homogenized societies taking shape.
If, that is, said folk culture has managed to survive the decimation of the past decades. For it has long been so. What has changed now is that we are realizing the sheer extent of what we have let slip from common use, and the astounding rapidity with which we are losing what remains. So high-paced is the latest era of mainstreaming, so profound the rupture in our practices and chains of demand and supply, that it has shocked people into embracing the old ways, food culture especially.
Realizing what hasn’t been handed down to us and, as equally worrying, what has replaced it, there has been a movement back to the roots of good, traditional food. While undoubtedly of merit, this itself can be seen as a direct response to the vast body of knowledge we, and especially the last two generations, have managed to discard and forget in such a short period of time.
What joy then to be a foodie in Romania. Where ‘farmer’s markets’ are still just called ‘markets’ and placing the word ‘artisanal’ before the cheeses, breads of oils you eat daily would seem remarkably redundant.
Folk Culture vs. Marketing
We live in a world where the old adage ‘You can’t tell a book by its cover’ is becoming more the exception than the rule. A century of mass marketing has taught us exactly which buttons to push, and so we push them.
You want to sell a crime novel? Here’s your cover. The target audience of your romcom is white females 25-65: here’s the precise color, composition and design of the promotional material. In fact, this streamlined process is likely what has brought about the romcom in the first place. We know which exact shades will attract a certain demographic, the exact key phrases that will tip the balance in a particular customer choice.
But in this world of niched niches and ever-stricter categorization, you sometimes come across a work that so naturally spills into other genres that its appeal is instant. The novels of Pat McCabe springs to mind, feeling more like comic books than critically acclaimed literature. The Matisse Stories by A. S. Byatt is another good example, the short stories appearing to have been first painted for the reader and only later converted into book form.
So it is with Romanian food writer Irina Georgescu’s dazzling new work Carpathia: Food from the Heart of Romania. From page one, you are lured into what ostensibly is a cookbook, but which might just as easily be a fairy tale, or a mixed media collage. It may not begin “A long long time ago..”, preferring instead to dive straight into the smells and tastes of one of Europe’s most rustic cuisines. But the effect is the same: you marvel at ancient farmhouses dotted across Transylvanian hills, smell the cramped kitchens of Communist Bucharest, are instantly transported by Ms Georgescu’s personal narrative and refreshingly straightforward approach to food.
Your curiosity piqued, you continue further, into a magical place far beyond the pages of a (cook)book. The physical appeal and style of the publication only adding to this enchanting effect.
Carpathia: Food from the Heart of Romania
Seeing you approach, the locals come out to greet you, all too willing to parade before you a diversity of Romanian dishes in their diverse splendor. Excited and desirous, you soak it all in, captivated.
What follows is a whirlwind of delectable Romanian recipes, from across the country, each delivered in straightforward manner and bearing Irina Georgescu’s gentle reflections on what they have meant to her. As well as the role these living artifacts of folk culture (still) play in the story of a people. A people you sense Georgescu, long expated in the UK, might well miss dearly.
Honored to be brought along on this trip of nostalgia, you feel the pride she takes in presenting the best Romanian food recipes, the culinary ways of her people, to a broader audience. And pretty soon, your senses are reeling from the sheer richness of what is laid before you, from Romanian desserts and starters, to everything in between. With compulsory tribute also being paid to the more liquid manifestations of folk fare.
Romanian Dishes Hailed
Carpathia’s showcasing of Romanian dishes has met with critical acclaim since its launch, winning Irina Georgescu much admirers, the iconic Nigella Lawson among them. With pieces from the Romanian food expert featuring in Wanderlust Magazine and the UK edition of National Geographic Traveller. And rightly so. The scope of this work goes far beyond that of a cookery book – this is what makes it of importance.
The author identified the gap that existed in terms of what was available to those members of the English-reading public wishing to embrace all the heart-warming Romanian dishes she has loved so well. In this sense, Carpathia is the culmination of the first phase of Georgescu’s mission to bring the uncharted cuisine and history of Romania to a wider audience. A journey embarked upon several years ago now, through the precursor to her new personal brand IrinaGeorgescu.com.
Along the way, she has succeeded in producing what amounts to a cultural artifact rather than a mere cookery book. At a critical time juncture, when, like much of the former Communist bloc, Romania is witnessing massive upheaval. As older generations pass on, many regions are naturally losing practical know-how, not just regarding Romanian dishes, but folk culture of all types. The lights of ancient beacons go out and the torches pass to a new generation.
But with chroniclers like Irina Georgescu on our side, there is much hope of preserving the ways of the past.
Irish Food Traditions
In terms of Irish food traditions and the folk culture that continues unabated in our traditional kitchen, Romanian food provides an intriguing basis for comparison. Like most of Europe, Romania was touched by the Celtic Empire, so Irish and Romanian dishes and culinary ways share notably similar traits. The important, almost sacred role of the pig and the communal system of slaughter and sharing being one – although this of course is also seen in other parts of the continent.
A more specific link to Irish food traditions which crops up in Irina Georgescu’s book is the Romanian custom whereby unmarried girls would eat salty garlic bread before bed. Laying an invitation as this will for their prince charming to come during the night. He who they are to marry valiantly entering their dreams to quench their thirst.
Leave out the garlic and you have the Samhain ritual carried out with bannocks that’s still enacted in Ireland come Halloween (albeit these days with a mite of skepticism as an additional ingredient). Romanians do their rendition exactly one month later, on the night of St. Andrew’s Day (30 November).
As we have seen in our comparison of Irish recipes and the Serbian bread česnica eaten on Christmas Day, the symbolic role of bread in Irish food traditions also has direct counterparts in other parts of Europe. In this case, its fortune-telling function, played in Irish cuisine by our ancient Irish Tea Cake. More a Slavic(-region) rather than a Serbian bread, Romanian food also boasts such a Christmas bread, with Carpathia including a beautiful recipe for what they call Colac.
The Romanian equivalent of the Serbian bread, brought to Irish Buzz by fellow foodblogger Jelena from Apple Green, also makes an appearance. Called Mămăligă, in Romania this cornbread is traditionally sliced with a piece of string and the pot it has been cooked in drank from (if your aim is to mend a broken heart).
A quirky folk twist here is that should the top of the bread crack, it means you will make a long journey. At the other end of the Celtic Empire, Irish baking often calls for cracking open the top of our bread…to let the fairies out (so away on their voyage they may wander?).
Various other Romanian dishes have a parallel in Irish cuisine, potato bread, nettle soup and various porridges among them. But although both countries can lay claim to a Celtic past, one is wary of drawing too fine a parallel, beyond their being folk dishes from places where economic conditions demanded maximum utility from what was available.
We could go on, drawing connections between things like the identical patterns used in treasured Romanian folk clothes and those weaves still handmade on the islands off Ireland’s West coast. But much more fruitful to turn to the particular expressions of folk culture at hand, the Romanian recipes themselves.
After all, if folk culture is worth a jot it’s for the practical contribution it makes to our lives.
Presented below are a couple of Romanian food recipes courtesy of Irina Georgescu. They are not, however, take from her monumental Carpathia. To get your hands on even one of those select beauties, you’ll have to pick up a copy through the UK distributor or any Waterstone’s outlet.
All other parts of the world and the kindle edition are covered by Amazon – or by simply requesting Carpathia at your local bookstore. Unless, that is, you are lucky enough to be in the land of Romanian food itself..
Depending on how rich and famous Irina Georgescu will surely soon become, we hope to perhaps take up some of her time on a future collaboration with Irish Buzz. The ANTIblog concept of elevating and learning between fellow humans informing any such endeavor. We wish her the best of luck with Carpathia: Food from the Heart of Romania, may the book-buying public realize what an opportunity it presents.
Chisăliță – Romanian Plum Soup
- 1 lb (450 g) Plums
- [1 tsp Honey – you may prefer it without]
- 24 oz (1 l) Water
- 2 black Cardamon Pods – Remove seeds from pods and Grind with a Mortar and Pestle
- Dollop of Oil
For the eggy bread:
- 1 Egg
- 1 Tbsp milk
- 1-2 slices of good Sourdough or Cornbread
- Icing Sugar to dust
- Halve the plums and Place them and the Water in a Saucepan. Bring to a boil and Lower the heat. Add the Cardamon Pods and leave to Simmer until they’ve turned all soft, almost to the point where you could mash them.
- For the smooth version, Run the cardamon through a Sieve then Return the sauce to the pan. Add 1 Tbsp Polenta Flour (cornmeal) and Stir for 2-3 minutes, until it thickens.
For the eggy bread:
- Beat the Egg and Mix with the Milk. Now Dip the slices of Sourdough/Cornbread into the Egg Mixture and, after Heating the Oil in a Shallow Pan, Fry both sides of the bread until golden.
- Set aside on a paper towel. Before serving, Dust the bread with Icing Sugar (regardless of whether it melts, the flavor will remain).
Serve the Chisăliță on top of the bread or Slice the bread into small triangles and Dip them in the sauce.
Salad with Crispy Fried Polenta
- 1 ½ cups Broad Beans, shelled
- 1 cup (120 g) coarse Polenta Flour
- ½ lb (230 g) Cherry Tomatoes
- ½ cup (50 g) Cheddar Cheese, grated
- ½ tsp dried Thyme (or ¼ Sprig fresh Thyme)
- Pinch of Salt
- 1 ½ cups (360 ml) Water
- 3 Tbsp Olive Oil
- 1 Tbsp Vinegar
- Bring the Water to a boil and gradually Add the Polenta, making sure to Whisk continuously.
- Bring to Medium Heat and continue to Stir for a further 5 minutes. The polenta should become quite firm.
- Spread the polenta out on a Baking Sheet in rectangles approximately 2 inches (5 cm) thick. Allow to cool, then Cut into strips; they’ll look like fish fingers. A Palette Knife works great.
- In a Salad Bowl, Slice the Tomatoes and Stir in the Broad Beans. Now Mix together the Salt, and Vinegar, then Add the Oil, Stirring well until it emulsifies.
- Heat a shallow Frying Pan, Adding a thin layer of oil. Proceed to Fry the polenta strips for about 4 minutes per side – until their hue is a golden one.
- Add the polenta slices to your salad, Drizzling the Sauce on top and Mixing carefully.
Further Praise for Carpathia: Food from the Heart of Romania
“..I have been so grateful for Irina Georgescu for taking me to Romania through the pages of her wonderful book, Carpathia. Every page is imbued with generosity, the spirit of community, and the flavours of a rich and varied culture: it makes for an uplifting, inspiring and gorgeously transporting read right now.”
Nigella Lawson, culinary legend
“An absolutely beautiful book showcasing Romanian food as a wondrous amalgam of Europe’s diverse cuisines. Real, delicious and accessible – I will be making everything from the placinta to prajitura, cremsnit to cataif!”
Helen Goh, co-author of Sweet with Yotam Ottolenghi
“I couldn’t be happier to see one of my favourite cuisines being represented by a voice as warm and thoughtful as Irina Georgescu’s. Carpathia is full of delicious and interesting recipes and photos that will tempt you to travel to the Carpathian Mountains immediately.”
Olia Hercules, author of Mamushka and Kaukasis
“There is something to learn from a book like this, written so beautifully by someone who is fascinated by the cuisine of their homeland and takes the time to document and share it with the world…The use of herbs and flavours in the recipes is a masterclass.”
Dr Joan Ransley, co-author of Cooking for the Sensitive Gut
A beautiful book full of life and flavour; I not only want to try so many of the recipes, I now want to visit the country that inspired them.”
Mark Diacono, author of A Year at Otter Farm and The New Kitchen Garden
≺ Fancy more folk culture in your life? Discover the ancient world of the Celts – through the drink they drinketh and the food they foodeth! ≻