You do not need to be an expert to guess the origins of many Romanian traditional dishes.
Besides visiting the country’s major attractions, a journey to Romania should definitely include an authentic culinary experience. We can say that Romania is the perfect place to illustrate the famous saying that the best way to one’s heart is through the stomach.
The local cuisine is moreover the expression of the country’s tumultuous history and the agrarian society.
The geographical position of the country, at the crossroads between the Orient and the Occident, facilitated the forming of colorful gastronomic culture. We received culinary influences from the Hungarians, Austrians, Russians, Greeks but most of all, Ottomans, nowadays Turks (the Ottoman Empire dominated the Romanian principalities for more than 4 centuries).
The Turks are responsible for the Romanians’ passion for sweets such as the baklava, the Turkish delight, or different dishes such as ciorba (a sour soup), sarmale, ciulama (a creamed dish), pilaf (rice with vegetables), eggplant salad.
From Austria, we got: the schnitzel, the strudel, and the pretzel; from Hungary: the goulash, the paprikash, and many pastries; from Bulgaria: the zacusca (eggplant salad cooked with onions, tomato sauce, and green peppers).
Romanian cuisine has many common things with the neighboring countries, but there are also some regional variations. For instance, the Hungarian specialties are popular in Transylvania, where the dishes are some of the heaviest. In the Danube Delta, you should try fish soup, which is usually served with bones. The “bors” soup is the most popular in Moldova, in this area being also the tastiest. In this article, you will find out which are the best Romanian traditional dishes, their stories, and where you can try them.
Before continuing reading, be sure that you are not hungry as you will not reach the end of this article. 🙂
So, please sit back, relax and let us tickle your taste buds!
A complete meal for Romanians consists of 3 courses:
1. First course
For the first course, Romanians can choose between 2 options: cold and warm appetizers or soups.
The Appetizers usually include plates with different types of cow, goat or sheep cheese, salami, pastrami, fried sausages (pork, beef or lamb), seasonal fresh vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers, green pepper), olives, eggplant salad (most of all during the summer season), eggs’ fish salad, stuffed eggs.
But, probably the rock star of the first course is the soup. For a Romanian, not a day goes by without having soup.
The Romanian soup can be found mainly under 2 different names: “supa” – soup (from the French word “soupe”) and “ciorba” (from the Turkish word “çorbası”). The last one is a bit sour, while the soup is simple or cream soup.
The Turks called “çorbası” what the Romanians now call “ciorba.” Actually, the ciorba was adopted by most of the people dominated by the Ottomans: the Bulgarians, Serbs, Croats, or Albanians also have their own variants.
Because they were easily digested, the “ciorba” soups were first prescribed for the recovery of the sick or injured, being considered efficient cures. Soon, the Romanians became big fans of the broths as it was affordable to cook them.
How can you turn a soup into a ciorba? Before finishing the cooking, you add some vinegar, or lemon juice, mashed sour cherries, or borsh. The last one is a liquid ingredient used in Romanian and Moldovian cuisine to make traditional sour soup. Sometimes, the name of this ingredient gives to name of the dish “borsh.” This liquid consists of wheat fermented in water – a slightly yellowish, sour liquid, which can also be drunk as such. Lovage and parsley are also important for the final touch of the soups or ciorba.
The word borsh is also used in Ukraine and Russia, but it has a different meaning: the traditional Ukrainian borsh is a beetroot soup. In contrast, in Romanian cuisine, the word “borsh” is fermented wheat.
Nowadays, one can find in Romania perhaps the most diverse and interesting options of soups and ciorba in Europe:
- vegetable soups,
- meatballs ciorba (with many vegetables and minced pork meatballs),
- dumplings soup (the dumplings are made of semolina flour; the soups have many vegetables like onion, potatoes, green pepper, celery, carrots, parsley),
- chicken soup,
- beef ciorba,
- noodles soup (the noodles are made simply from wheat flour and eggs),
- smoked meat and beans ciorba (at some restaurants it can be served in bread instead of a regular bowl),
- cabbage ciorba (more popular in Transylvania region),
- smoked meat ciorba,
- tripe soup,
- fish ciorba (the best one is made in Danube Delta with fresh fish; after being cooked, usually, the fish is taken out from the broth and brought to the table on a different plate next to the broth)
- pork legs ciorba
In some parts of the country, sour cream can be added to the soup (which makes the dish even heavier but indeed tastier) and, on the side, a simple or pickled hot pepper. You can eat the soups with a slice of bread, some polenta, or just as it is.
When you order this dish at the restaurants, kindly note that the portions are usually big (around 400gr or 500gr per portion).
2. Main course
The second course is invariably a meat-based dish, a perfect illustration of the Romanian motto: “The healthiest vegetable is the pork.”
Most of the representative Romanian traditional dishes are based on pork, but Romanians also consume beef, chicken and fish. Lamb is popular moreover on Easter and pork on Christmas. In the past, the peasants used to grow their own animals in their courtyards (pigs, chicken, ducks, turkeys, cows). Curious is the fact that they did not use to eat that much meat and their diet was based much more on vegetables and different stews. The poultry was more useful for the eggs but also for the meat and feathers, the cow was much too valuable for the milk and not necessary for the meat, the same with the sheep and goats. The pig, on the other hand, was fed very well all year round and on Christmas, it was sacrificed. The meat was used to cook different festive dishes but it was also preserved accordingly so that the family could consume it even weeks after the pig had been sacrificed (smoked sausages, smoked lard, smoked pork legs, smoked meat, etc.). Most of the time, the smoking process took place in the attic of their homes. Even today, Romanians living in the countryside grow their farm animals and use their products to feed their families. Today pork is more common. We find the meat at the supermarket or the farmer’s market so we do not have to wait for Christmas to enjoy the pork-based traditional dishes.
Sarmale – this is a typical Romanian dish prepared especially during the winter. Any proud Romanian will argue that sarmale is a traditional Romanian dish. Actually, it was imported from the Turks. We could say that we adapted the dish, and we made it ours.
Sarmale consists of minced meat (pork) rolled in cabbage leaves or vine leaves (depending on the season). They are cooked in a big cauldron together with some tomato sauce and water for several hours. Sarmale can be cooked on the gas cooker, but it is more delicious if cooked in the oven. Sarmale is served next to polenta, sour cream, and a fresh or pickled hot pepper. Again, the portions are quite big, and if you consider eating the dessert, you might want to skip the soup.
- “Tochitura” is another typical dish. The main ingredient remains the meat (pork, beef, chicken) cooked with onion, potatoes, green peppers, carrots, tomato sauce, and spices. It is like a meat stew with polenta, hot pepper, or pickles (cucumbers, peppers, white or red cabbage, green tomatoes, or cauliflower).
- Cooked cabbage and beans stew can be served as they are with some polenta or bread and pickles. They are popular dishes during the Orthodox fasting periods. But, if you add some smoked sausages on the side or fried pork, prepare yourself for a feast.
- Chicken dishes – chicken creamed stew or the chicken cooked in the oven and served with potatoes and garlic source.
- Pork ribs served with potatoes and pickles are also very appreciated
- Fried fish within cornflour crust – very, very popular, most of all in Danube Delta. It is a straightforward dish served with polenta, garlic sauce, and maybe some zest of lemon.
- The shepherd’s bulz – this is indeed a heavy but so delicious dish in which the star ingredients are the polenta and the cheese. Basically, it would be best if you had fresh polenta shaped into balls and then stuffed with cheese (so-called “branza de burduf,” which is sheep-milk cheese matured in a pine bark). Finally, the polenta balls are grilled on hot charcoal. In restaurants, bulz is usually baked in the oven and served with some sausages and a fried egg.
- The skinless sausages aka “mititei” – for Romanians, there is no holiday without the skinless sausages. They are indeed sausages without skin (prepared after a special recipe: different combinations of pork, beef, and lamb and, of course, many spices). Because there are small sausages, Romanians called them “mititei, “literary meaning “the little ones.” They are grilled and served with mustard and a cold Romanian beer on the side. Some prefer to add some French fries and some pickles. At the restaurant, usually, customers order the number of mititei they wish to eat. As a tip, 3 pieces should be enough. 🙂
The story of the Romanian polenta “mamaliga”
Polenta or “mamaliga” (the Romanian word) is considered, along with the skinless sausages and the sarmale, a traditional Romanian dish. Unfairly despised, being considered a peasant food, the mamaliga has an important supply of vitamins and minerals.
Mămăliga is essentially a porridge with a thick consistency and is a dish prepared long time ago.
Initially, this dish was made from millet or other cereals and had a more aqueous consistency. Being easy to prepare, cereal porridge has an old history, being a substitute for bread for the preparation of which you need an oven. In the form known now, it appeared in Romanian in the mid-17th century, when corn began to be cultivated in the Romanian countries, replacing the raw material of mamaliga prepared until then from millet.
So, the history of the mamaliga is not older than 300 years. The Larousse Dictionary of 1873 attests the existence of the mamaliga. According to the definition given, it was ” boiled corn flour in the principalities of the Danube”. It is possible that this dish was more common at that time in Wallachia and Moldovia and less in Transylvania.
I hope you are still with us, as we reached the most important part of the meal: the dessert.
When it comes to dessert, there are even more regional variations in Romania. The dessert is mostly based on cheese and fruits and not that much on chocolate or cream.
- Papanasi – these are by far the most popular dishes all over the country. Quite tricky to prepare, you can find few traditional restaurants that can make really delicious papanasi. They are doughnuts with cheese in the dough (fried or cooked in the oven) served with fruit jam and sour cream. It is a bitter-sweet combination that will warm your soul, for sure. Usually, a portion of papanasi consists of 2 doughnuts which is enough for 2 people and too much for 1 person. We recommend ordering this dish at the beginning as it takes some time to be ready for you.
- The sweet bread – known in Romania as “cozonac” and in Bulgaria as ”kozunak.” It is usually prepared for Easter in Bulgaria and mostly for every major holiday in Romania. It is a sweet bread into which milk, yeast, eggs, sugar, butter, and other ingredients are mixed and allowed to rise before baking. It can also be prepared by adding lemon zest to the dough mixture and, depending on the region: raisins, walnuts, Turkish delight, cocoa powder, vanilla, or rum flavors. If you tasted before the Italian Panettone, well, you need to know that it is very similar to the basic cozonac, the most visible difference being their shapes.
- Plum dumplings – are more common in Transylvania. The dough is shaped like a ball and stuffed with a plum. The dumpling is boiled or cooked in the oven and then sprinkled with sugar, cinnamon, and mashed walnuts.
- Apple and cheese pies – being such a basic dessert, each restaurant has its own recipe (in some parts is served with ice cream, in others with vanilla sauce)
- Crepes with different stuffing (mostly fruit gems, honey and mashed walnut, cheese, chocolate, etc.) – the gratin crepes are by far the best ones.
Romanian cuisine varies according to the season. Even at the restaurants, the menus are adapted to use fresh products from the country. Women, most of all in the countryside, pickle many vegetables and fruits, freeze fresh vegetables and meat.
This is a habit kept for years, and it was handy during the communist times when few ailments were found in the grocery stores.
Also, there is this fashion of buying moreover “Made in Romania” labeled products.
In the case of the people from the countryside, most likely, the chicken in the pot did not travel beyond the limits of the courtyard or the neighbor’s garden. Even the residents of the cities have relatives who provide them certain products.
Romanian traditional restaurants
Well, there are so many places where you can try the Romanian traditional dishes. In all big cities, you will find good Romanian restaurants. In Bucharest the most known are: Caru Cu Bere, City Grill, La Placinte, Hanul lui Manuc, La Copac, La Mama, Casa Doina, Vatra, Lacrimi si Sfinti, Hanul Berarilor, La Ciorbarie (here they cook a great variety of only soups and ciorbe) and the list can go on.
Some tips at the restaurants:
- Have a look at the portions of the dishes you wish to order. In Romania, the portions are usually quite big, so it is preferable to share with a second person or skip one of the courses.
- Unfortunately, the serving lasts a little longer in the Romanian restaurants as the menus are quite rich, and the food is actually cooked, not semi-prepared. Soups are served the fastest. So, you will need to be patient; you will not regret it.
- A small tip for good service is appreciated. 10% is the norm. It is not included in the receipt.
- You can pay by card (Visa or Mastercard) in most restaurants, or you can use only RON (Romanian currency) for the cash payments.
Of course, there are many other options in other cities of Romania or even villages.,
During our long tours, we combine the visit of major attractions with small culinary experiences. Our local tour guides know what to recommend, and if you are interested, you can even dine with the locals and enjoy some delicious homecooked meals. The small group Countryside of Romania and Treasures of Romania Tours should be just perfect for a complete travel experience to Romania.