Flavours of Transylvania
You couldn´t imagine the times my whereabouts were met with utter surprise: "You mean, Transylvania is an actual place?".
I used to say I´m Romanian but after a couple of people understood "Armenian" instead, or embarrassedly looked at me not knowing exactly where Romania is, I´ve started saying I´m from Transylvania. Which is totally true and awesome. Sure, we get associated with vampires and hear countless silver crosses and garlic jokes, but I am really proud of being Transylvanian so I decided to write an article about the food in our region. Next article might be about vampires if you´re lucky.
Lying at the bottom of the Carpathians, Transylvania is an utterly green area with endless hills behind which small villages appear with their colourful houses and fortresses. Being surrounded by mountains and situated in Eastern Europe, Transylvania can get quite cold in winter and as a consequence the food here can be quite greasy and the alcohol quite strong. It´s a diet that would not work in a more exotic country like Portugal and yet, one that I dearly miss, especially when I am sick. Romania - a Latin nation with a Slavic cuisine. Transylvania - an area of legends and folklore where Hungarian and Romanian cultures and cuisines meet to bring out the best in both worlds.
Let´s start with starters. Romanians from Transylvania basically worship meat and you´ll notice this because pretty much every family has an entire pig chopped in their freezer. People usually buy one and have it raised in the countryside, and then before Christmas they slaughter is making all kinds of sausages and salamis out of it. As such, Christmas time in particular brings you all sort of pork assortments on a plate. Then there´s the cheese. Romanians being pretty big on cattle, we devour huge quantities of milk and cheese, some of the most popular kinds being telemea (a light white cheese that can come with various levels of saltiness, depending on its preparation), caș (a semi-soft white cheese that is usually unsalted), urdă (made from the whey of sheep, goat or cow milk), branză de burduf (made with sheep (or occasionally buffalo) milk and with a strong flavour and slightly soft texture) and cașcaval (a yellow cheese made of cow milk, sheep milk, or both). Fun fact: on my last trip to Romania I discovered a new cheese, the Nasal cheese. This cheese is allegedly unique in the world due to the particular conditions existing in the cave where it is made. It is made in very small quantities and is just divine! Other starers Romanians love: ouă umplute - devilled eggs. Made with mayonnaise, mustard, paté, mayonnaise and did I mention mayonnaise? - these eggs are a delicious starter that should be consumed with care as they can be very heavy too. It´s probably the mayo. Then there´s the salată de vinete (roasted eggplant salad), zacuscă (eggplant and red pepper paste) and icre (fish egg paste). Finally, there´s the salată de boeuf. A salad with chicken, potato, pickles, carrots, pickled peppers and surprise, surprise - mayo. Sure, it´s a bit deceiving to call something this heavy a salad, but I could literally have it every other day if it wouldn´t take so long to boil the potatoes, carrots and chicken.
Next up - soups. Not any soups, but sour soups, or zamă/ciorbă as the Transylvanians like to call them. Fun fact #2: According to Wikipedia in 2013, 18 percent of respondents in a national poll in Romania declared ciorbă their favourite dish. The most popular sour soups are the ciorbă de burtă (tripe soup), ciorbă de fasole boabe (bean soup), ciorbă de văcuţă (beew soup) and ciorbă de perișoare (meatball soup). A Hungarian soup we also love in Transylania is of course the gulaș, which we sometimes also turn into a stew. We also have actual soups (supe) in Transylvania but we only use the term supă for noodle soup or supă de găluște.
The most popular main dish you´ll ever hear about in Transylvania and Romania at all, is definitely the sarmale. They say they came from Turkey and it´s highly probably that indeed the Turkish did some sort of cabbage rolls before we twisted and turned them to what have become our sarmale. Romania has over 30 names for sarmale and infinately more recipes for them. From the roll, which is most often cabbage but can even be a wine leaf, to the filling which is usually with rice and minced meat but can even be done with pumpkin seeds, sarmale came in as many shapes and colours as us humans do and Romania wouldn´t be the same without them. The second most popular dish you´ll hear talking about is mămăligă. It´s a simple porridge made out of yellow maize flour, that one can combine into a divine dish with cheese, sour cream and sausage. It+s fast to make and cheap and as such - hugely popular. Other popular main dishes include all sorts of stews, barbecues, steaks and lots and lots of potatoes. Common meat you´ll find the Transylvanians love: beef, pork, sheep and poultry. Side dishes other than potatoes can be risottos (called pilaf in Romanian), beans and veggies.
And speaking of barbecues, we cannot forget to mention the most popular Romanian sauce - the mujdei. Here comes the garlic, as expected. To obtain mujdei, crush garlic cloves into a paste, add salt and oil. This is the most ancient recipe you´ll find. The one make nowadays is with greek yogurt, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. If you´re wondering about the proportions - all you have to insure is that you add all the available garlic and you´ll be fine. :)
Finally, desserts. Now this is definitely not my area of expertise as I don´t have much of a sweet tooth. But amongst the sweets you can encounter in Transylvania are gogosi (fluffy doughnuts with no hole), scoverzi (bigger and odder shaped doughnuts with powdered sugar on top of them and no hole yet again), plăcinte (pies, both sweet and savory, with apple, pear or cheese), langoși (a Hungarian type of doughnut often served with cheese and sour cream) and papanași (yet again a fluffy doughnut served with cream, jam and sometimes ice cream).
The flavours of Transylvania (be they garlic, sour cream, egg, sausage or smoked everything) always go best with a glass of vișinată (sour cherry liqour) or ţuică (a plum spirit with 24–65% alcohol). Other popular drinks are definitely Transylvania´s white wines which are maybe the thing I miss most from home, not counting family and family dogs.