The question “What’s Romania’s cuisine like?” is not an easy question to answer, because Romania’s cuisine is the product of a whole series of historic, geographic, and religious influences. The result is a rich variety of specialties – from the tasty, hearty, and nutritious dishes of the peasant and shepherd, to the gastronomic, French influenced, delicacies of the 19th century nobility.
The ever-popular Romanian Polenta can be traced back some 2,000 years – to the period in which Romanian lands became a province of the Roman Empire called Dacia. Roman soldiers stationed in Dacia were fed a staple dish they called Pulmentum, a sort of mush made from grain, which the local Dacians adopted. Much later, du ring the 16th and 17th centuries, the Turks introduced corn brought from the New World by Venetian merchants. It was mainly the Northern Italians and the Romanians, who planted the corn and began to make pulmentum from corn meal – because it tasted so much better. It became known as Polenta in Italy and Mămăligă in Romania.In Romanian villages, it remains to this day both a tasty and nutritious part of the daily diet, but it now also features on the most sophisticated of menus.
Conversion of the Dacians to Christianity began around 350AD, and by the end of the first millennium, Dacian Christians adopted Byzantine Orthodox rites. In the old days, monks were sent to Greek seminaries. They brought back with them a taste for Greek cooking, and adapted recipes to locally available ingredients. These found their way into the Romanian cookery. The Eastern Orthodox Church has remained the principal church in Romania.
Another source of Romanian specialties was the ever present street vendors. Most were from surrounding countries and prepared foods typical of their homelands. Romanians became accustomed to tasting many varieties of food in this way, and adapted some of these dishes. The Russian invaders, the German and Hungarian ethnic groups in Transylvania, and the Turks, all made their imprint on the Romanian cuisine.
By the mid-nineteenth century, it became fashionable for the ruling families and nobility of Romania to send their children to Paris for a good education and “proper up-bringing.” As a result, French became the language of the “upper-classes,” and French cuisine was introduced. French chefs came to Bucharest to open restaurants, cafes and pastry stores. Bucharest became known as “little Paris.” And thus by the turn of the century, native Romanian dishes, Eastern and Western influences, all were blended, so much so that origins were lost and a true Romanian cuisine emerged.
One of the ever popular and loved Romanian dishes are the Mititei – The Wee Ones They are in effect delicious little skinless sausages invented by accident.
Mititei have been associated with Romanian cuisine since about 1865-1866. In Bucharest, on Covaci street, a popular inn named “La Iordachi” (At Iordachi’s), was well known for its delicious sausages. One night, so the story goes, the kitchen ran out of one kind of beef sausage, so they mixed left-over ingredients, rolled them into small sausage shaped patties, and grilled them on charcoal without the usual casing.
Their regular customers loved them so much that they began to ask for more of “the wee ones without skin,” and with time they became known as “mititei,” or “the wee ones.”
With 550,000 acres of vineyards, Romania—the 9th wine producer in the world, according to United Nations-Food and Agriculture Organization—has a great many vine-growing/wine producing regions. The cultivation of the vine in this region started earlier than in most of Western Europe. In the region which is now Romania, the Kingdom of Dacia was already well known for the quality and abundance of its wines.
After Dacia became a province of the Roman Empire, coins were minted depicting a woman to whom two children were offering grain sheaves and grapes, symbolic of the province’s wealth. Over the centuries the wines of Dacia have been popular in the duchies of Venice, Genoa, and later in the Vatican.
Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia, was profoundly impressed by the fine wines of Cotnari, which he drank in the town of Iaşi during an official visit to the Moldavian capital in 1711. These wines have been known since the middle ages as the “Pearl of Moldavia” or “Flower of Moldavia.”
A hundred years later, Napoleon I appreciated the quality of those same wines during the campaign against Russia in 1812, when he received from Moldavian horsemen many “big round bottles with narrow necks” as he passed through Poland at the head of the French armies.
Many gold medals and grand prix have been won by Romanian vineyards in recent decades. To give you just a few examples:
Romania came in third for white wines and second for red wines at the prestigious Wine America 1993 International Wine Competition at the New York Hilton.
In 2010 Romanian wines won 11 medals at Mundus Vini International Wine Awards in Neustadt, Germany.
But on with the food: here is a recipe for Mititei : one of the most typically Romanian dishes of all:
LITTLE GRILLED SAUSAGES
Mititei (The Wee Ones)
1 Kg. medium-lean ground beef
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 tbsp. water
3 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tsp. bicarbonate of soda
2 tsp. dried thyme
2 tsp. crushed hot red pepper
2 tsp. hot Hungarian paprika
2 tsp. caraway seeds
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. fresh ground black pepper
Makes 4-6 mititei. (For finger food, should make 8–10)
Preparation time: 45 min. Cooking time: 15 min.
■ Place ground beef in a bowl, and add all the ingredients in the order listed. Mix well and then knead mixture with your hands for not less than 5 min., wetting your hands frequently. This is important because the water from your wet hands mixes with the meat and helps keep the mititei moist. Place mixture in a bowl, cover with a plate or foil, and refrigerate at least 5 hours or overnight.
■ By tablespoons, with damp hands, make small meatballs. Then roll between your hands into sausages about 4″long and 1″ thick. (Note: For finger food, 2 in. long sausages should be about right). Cut off edges to form little cylinders. This will prevent sausages from swelling up while grilling.
■ Grill or barbecue mititei turning them frequently to cook evenly*. While they cook, baste frequently with water or beef stock to keep them moist. They should be ready in about 10-12 min. Don’t overcook them.
■Serve with baked potatoes or french fries and salad as a main course, or serve them as part of a Romanian appetizer table They are also very good eaten cold next day with French mustard.
*Use tongs, not a fork, to turn the mititei, so as not to pierce them. This will keep the juices in the meat.
Nicolae ‘Nick’ Klepper is the author of Taste of Romania: Its Cookery and Glimpses of Its History, Folklore, Art, Literature, and Poetry, available from New Hippocrene Original Cookbooks at £14.50.