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13 Creative Takes on Traditional Romanian Food

The guy on TV is saying, "you're doing something that nobody else is doing, and that's special!"

I'm watching Guy Fieri take another trip to flavour town with his iconic food porn series, Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives ('Triple D'). A guest on the show, speaking to the head chef as Fieri looms, is raving about the chef's creativity. He is telling the chef how important it is for customers to get something different while Guy, smiling benignly like a peroxide headed Buddha, is no doubt thinking about what a great job he's got, or maybe about how this show will be the death of him.

"Looks like nobody in this country got the memo." I tell my wife.

'Different', as a concept, is rarely revered in Romania. More often than not, it is vilified. On the other hand the 'me-too' culture is just out of this world. When I first moved here, every restaurant served pizza. If there had been a burger joint around at the time, it too would have served pizza. But that's okay, because now it seems as though every restaurant, pizzerias included, also serve burgers. And don't get me started on decor or the plating.

Which is my point exactly.

What's the point of becoming a chef without heavy experimentation? This is most obvious in the West. The amalgam of flavours and culture is so dense that, inevitably,  some of these tastes begin to overlap. It's global fusion cranked up to the max. This is why you see crazy things like waffle bacon sandwiches, deep-fried anything, cronuts, Korean tacos, kimchi pierogies, and, well, I'm not sure if this counts, but there's restaurant in Toronto where Thai and Hungarian food sit side by side on the same menu.

To be fair, I did see some interesting variety at the Untold Festival food stalls and ate very good food (including the best pulled pork sandwich maybe ever). There were even mici burgers, a total no-brainer, but McDonald's Romania still had to think of it first. Sad.

The reality is, there are very few risk takers in the local restaurant biz. Aside from the Canadian run Off The Wall and Nomad (amazing Indian pizza on a naan), or the higher-end Via and Cabinet de Vin & Cocotte restaurants, the typical menus are hardly diverse. But hey, this is coming from a country with one Bagel shop, where you still pay for ketchup and mustard in restaurants (tabletop Heinz is a just a dream here), and where the general attitude about trying something new is, "but that's just not done!"

And that's the problem. It's not done, but it should be done!

For example...

1. Take the uncooked mici, spread the meat on sliced bread and grill face down until done. Top up with mustard (if you must), but try it with sriracha, kimchi, caramelized onions, or grated parmesan -or all of the above. I'd pay for it because I tried it and it's delicious.

2. Speaking of spreads. How about spreading icre, vinete, zacusta, salata de boeuf, tuna, or cream cheese on bagels. Sure, there is that one place in Bucharest that might be doing it, but just one? Come on, it's so simple, so adaptable. It's so Romanian and you don't even know it!

3. Grab a hot dog bun and toss in a couple of sarmale (cabbage rolls), top off with dollops of sour cream. All of a sudden you got sarmale on the go. Simple. Revolutionary.

4. How about lining a couple of mici inside a hot dog bun and topping up with a variety of sauces. It's grilled meat, so pretty much anything will work. Our Serbian neighbours use a cream cheese (Serbian kajmak) and fresh chopped onions as a side for their version of mici (cevapi). Really not difficult.

5. Sandwiches: I could make an entire list for sandwiches alone.

I have to give credit where it's due here because America is not shy about putting absolutely anything inside a bun, or between two pieces of bread - including additional pieces of bread. So then why is it that in Romania, with such a healthy sandwich culture, and 38,691 shawarma shops, only spreads and cold cuts will do?
Here are some different ideas, and I hope the next guy who's thinking about opening a shawarma/kebab shop reads this.

a) Schniztel in a bun, topped with some creamy, mushroom paprikas.
b) Pork stew (tochitura) in a bun with pickles and spicy sauce.
c) Roast (any kind) meat, between two pieces of country-style bread, with lettuce, tomatoes, garlic aioli, and jus. 
d) Grilled cheese with cascaval - or experiment with any other Romanian cheese.
e)  Chiftele (meatballsand tomato sauce in a bun. Pretty much like your classic American-Italian meatball sub. Drizzle with cheese, of course. Also works with fish chiftele.
f) Beef tongue sandwich. Everyone who's tried the dish (done right) knows that there is nothing more tender than beef tongue and that there is no better pairing for it than the traditional carrot and kalamata olive sauce.

Beef tongue sandwich. Not even revolutionary.

Let me make it absolutely clear that anytime a bun is called for, it is as important as the filling; the crust has to be soft enough to chew comfortably, but solid enough to keep from crumbling or the sauce from spilling out. This is a difficult ask in Romania where most sandwich buns are either too dense, the crust too thick, initially frozen (and therefore crumble when heated and squeezed), or too small and inadequate for sandwiches.

6. You can find mamaliga (polenta) on every restaurant menu, but there are about four versions and that's it: plain, with feta or cascaval cheese, with bacon, or some combination of these. What about trying it out with gorgonzola or cheddar? Or frying it and using it as the bottom layer in a saucy ratatouille? I did see a restaurant serve it in the form of thin crisps once, and that was impressive, but with an ingredient like cornmeal the possibilities are pretty much endless.

7. Tapas. I always thought the open-faced sandwich was invented in Romania, but it doesn't really matter where it was invented, suffice to say that it's very, very, very puzzling how restaurant always have Bruschetta, but don't realize that you can just do something called "Vinete Bruschetta" where Romania's favourite eggplant spread (basically, Babaganoush) is topped with chopped tomatoes and parsley. I just thought of it as I wrote the sentence. Why is this so easy for me and so difficult for a local restaurant?
Like at number 2, above, anything spread on a bagel can be turned into tapas. But so can things like mamaliga + (anything), the ever-present mici and fries, chiftele, and all the breaded things we like to make, from the schnitzels to the cheese or courgettes.

Mamaliga Tapas

I don't want to finish this post without acknowledging the people who do experiment and try to add some innovation to their creations. There are people do want to do more with Romanian cuisine, people like Adi Hadean or Nico Lontaras, or my crazy friend Emil, who I should've consulted for this list. There is Mahala in Bucharest -  where I've never been - one of their themes is Romanian food, reinvented. But I also understand it's rather high-end and Romanian food ought to be anything but high-end.

There was an attempt with a fast food joint, a while back, offering traditional Romanian dishes inside specially made, spherical loaves of bread. They got the execution wrong because the bread, tough to chew and unwieldy (each bun weighed a solid pound, at least) was tasked with a practical rather than an essential role, big no-no.

But they tried, and the bagel guys are trying, and more people will try, and eventually we'll get to a place where restaurant concepts and menus are a lot more interesting than they are today. And that might be soon, if you consider that, in 2011, TripAdvisor listed fewer than 100 restaurants in Cluj and now there are over 300. 

I'd also be naive not to acknowledge Romania's cultural reality. We're missing a highly diverse, cosmopolitan culture that can push food trends to the next level. We're still a largely homogeneous population; conservative, traditional, and a bit wary of the unknown. It's going to take a while before we can sell grandma on tuna sashimi.

In the meantime, we can at least enjoy our very own Romanian sushi.


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