This post has been written just after reading about Macedonian food and its vegetarian options on a blog. It was written with hunger and a boring sandwich next by. Plus the sound of dropping rain on my attic big windows. Plus a bit of nostalgia for back home.
“Oh, I’ll slice some more cheese, the plate is nearly empty!(…) would you like some pickled bell peppers with the dish? You can’t have mash and roast beef without pickles! How can you eat them like that? They’re too dry just by themselves, they won’t go down well ! You need to try some pickles! Here, have some pickled cauliflower and gogonele (a sort of unripe green tomatoes which are delicious if pickled)!(…) If you don’t like the taste you can leave them off(…) why haven’t you eaten your pickles? Don’t you like them?? Come on! I’ll give you a second portion of mash and roast so you can finish you pickles!(…) Aaaa, you left the best bits on your plate! If you don’t finish them, you’ll be throwing away your luck (a folk saying is that if you leave a bit of unfinished food on your plate, you’re actually in for some bad luck as the last nibble represents your good-luck in life)!(…) Noooo, you can’t be full already! You’ve eaten like a little bird! And besides there’s pudding! I’ve made the plum doughnuts especially for you! How many would you like?(…) Only one?? Come on, let me give you two, one is next to nothing! You’ll love them, I bet you’ll want some more!” and these kind of conversations could last forever during a meal with Grandma!
Of course you couldn’t win. Nor could you eat it all. Even if you did manage, there was always more to come. You were trying to save up some space in your bursting tummy for the next dish but this could only cause some more concern from Grandma – I mean, why are you eating so little? Are you ill? Or don’t you like it??? But you knew it would have been a sin against God and all the countless saints in the Orthodox calendar that my Grandma bowed to, not to like it! There was so much love and long hours (nor rarely days) of strenuous effort put in those palate enchanting dishes! And we could spend hours around the home table, gulping down, wrapped up in long conversations with family and friends. Life used to glide by so idly in the Romania of those days.
Images of foods from back home are also gliding wistfully through my mind now, as I’m perched on my desk chair in my office in England, eating a vapid stodgy ham sandwich and reading though a colleague’s blog entry on Macedonian food and vegetarianism. I’m taking my lunch break à l’anglais: glued to my computer, sandwich in one hand, typing with the other. I’m the perfect example of efficiency and multi-tasking (especially when the tastlessness of the food allows my brain to focus on the reading). The chewy bun and lettuce squeak into my teeth while they leave a mild but unpleasant taste of the plastic they were wrapped in.
As a result my mind sinks into the “shopska” salad described on the blog and which often we Romanians eat during our sweltering summers. Excerpt that we call it salata bulgareasca (Bulgarian salad) as it’s thought to be traditionally Bulgarian. The image of the juicy tomatoes mixed with the soft salty cheese that we call telemea invades my senses and becomes so tasty that my mouth waters in the next second. I try to ignore the plastic taste of my boring present food and focus on my visions. A heady mixture of flavours and smells, loamy sauces, piping hot pies and other mouth-watering delicacies start dancing in my head.
I can’t stop thinking about the similarities in South East European cuisines. Of course some differences remain but overall they’re all just one big family pot.
I remember just a few months ago a Polish friend from England inviting me for dinner with the promise of a Polish food specialty. My astonishment crept in amusement when that fabled dish arrived, only to discover that what he was claiming to be pure Polish was also pure Romanian, a famous dish that we talk tall to everyone about as being our very traditional plate. We call it sarmale, they call it golabki and it consists mainly of minced meat mixed with rice, salt, pepper and various spices and wrapped in sour cabbage leaves and no matter what others might say I know for sure they’re traditionally Romanian. The Polish must have taken them from us and I could never accept any other version of the story as you should know most South Eastern people are very proud when it comes to their food! They can actually get into long dull debates about what dish or drink is from what country or region, so it’s better to just agree with their version.
We Romanians think that good food requires time so we tend to boil these poor sarmale (and other stews too) for several hours, in a big pot with slices of bacon added and a bit of tomato sauce, pretty much like the Polish would. Only that they add garlic. You might have figured out by now they’re not the lightest dish we have and it’s eaten mainly in winter.
I always manage to puzzle my western friends when I tell them sarmale can be kept (in the fridge of course) for more than one week and they tend to taste better after 2-3 days. We eat them with polenta (or bread) and delicious fatty sour cream as we don’t seem to care much about calories.
Men would usually think the fat burns out easier if they add a mega extra hot red chilli pepper (the sort of thing that would make you weep and sweat instantly and cough in suffocation) and then wash everything down with a snort of palinca, a traditional brandy-like drink, made of plums (or occasionally from apples) and which has the magical power of making you feel winter temperatures like searing dog days of summer.
Sarmale is not the only controversial dish (although the truth is it’s derived from a Turkish meal where cabbage leaves are replaced with vine leaves, it’s lighter and somehow more sourish and Romanians from around the Black Sea region eat it a lot). The origin of the tasty cheesy Burek (also with cabbage or meat filling) is disputed by all Romanians, Bulgarians, former Yugoslavian countries, Greeks, Armenian and Turks.
We also share some things with our Italian cousins and those are not only pizza and pasta which are to be found at any street corner and are a bit like Indian curry to the English. Between you and me, pizza and two – three types of pasta have long been the first and only international food to be found in many countries from the ex-Eastern block in the 90s.
But the dish I want to talk about is called salata de boeuf (Beef Salad) and maybe some of you sense there is a French word in there (boeuf = beef) although if you’re ever in Romania and fancy having this salad…well, don’t expect any meat! It’s not the chef who’s being cheap, it’s just that this salad must have been invented on the 1st of April because in 99% of cases it is just… a pure vegetarian feast! Home-made creamy golden mayonnaise is the secret ingredient that binds all the boiled, diced veggies – potatoes, carrots, pees – together with black olives, pickled red peppers, gherkins and small boiled pieces of egg white. We got it from France at a time when we very much thought French manners and language and food were way too cool not to be adopted in our Latin country (and so it seems the Italians thought the same although the ones I spoke with don’t appear to recognize the French origins of this salad).
So, what’s particularly Romanian then? I’m not really a food historian, hence it’s hard to say but I believe there’s something special about our soups and ciorbe (a type of sourish soup and another Turkish word). Maybe because I like and miss them so much. Maybe because they’re so many and tasty and my nose and lips can still recall their sapour.
Clear or thick, very light or very heavy, with big chunks of vegetables and meat or just a few herbs and leaves, they can be sour, salty or sweet. Or in between. Mixed with two pops of egg, sour cream or bors (a souring liquid made of fermented wheat bran). Eaten simple or with bread.
Bread. There is almost a mystical approach to bread, pies and other doughs made of wheat and bran in this traditionally agrarian and Christian Orthodox country. We eat bread with almost everything. And we bake a lot of pies, cakes, pretzels and in betweens. Warm, puffy, drizzled with honey or with all sorts of sweet sauces, jams and creams or just salty, crunchy and cheesy – these sinful pleasures can make your clothes shrink in just a few days. And we like so much sharing bread, pies and other foods with visitors that they might leave with a few extra kilos. Needlless to say that in our love and veneration for our late friends and relatives we have invented coliva, a sweet made for funerals and to honour the dead….
But I noticed I’ve knocked down the last bite of my bland sandwich and I can’t even recall its taste. There are other flavours wafting in my mind. I philozophise that food is such an open border for a place. Cuisine is part of a country’s cultural landscape. So what does it say about Romania? Maybe it hints at the fact we’re Latins in the Balkans, East Europeans in a big agrarian country, with teeming fertile lands, cold winters and a warm heart (warmed up even more by a bit of palinca or wine)…You know what? It might be time for me to book a holiday flight back home.