A guide to good grub
This issue of OZB seems an appropriate opportunity to look at food in Bucharest both in general and from a vegetarian/vegan point of view. In addition they’ll be a few words on how to tell your Gulie from your Gutuie, the difference between Vișine and Cireșe and some mention of Leurdă, Lobodă and Leuștean.
By Giles Eldridge
I think that, with regards eating in Romania, there are two basic expat assumptions: the lack of available differing cuisines/restaurants and that being vegetarian is problematic. Here, I’d like to offer an explanation, dispel these myths and look to the future.
Let’s start with a true but, I hope, rare incident that occurred during a visit to a restaurant in Sulina in the Danube Delta a couple of years ago. I was with friends from Romania, England and the US. A waitress came to our table and my English vegetarian friend requested a number of classic Romanian meat-free dishes from the menu; salată de vinete, fasole bătută, that sort of thing, but when he had finished speaking the waitress refused to continue taking orders because he was not eating meat! We insisted that between us we were intending to eat and drink rather a lot of food, including meat and fish, but she maintained her position and finally instructed us to leave! To this day I still can’t quite believe that this happened. We went to the place next door and all was good. I’d like to think there must have been a reason for this seemingly irrational action, but I suspect it was a hangover from former times, to do with spending money and not sticking to the cheap dishes, a sort of minimum purchase requirement. Obviously this is an attitude well past its sell-by date now. Some customs and approaches take a generation to die out, it’s true the world over. However, with the exception of that weird but ultimately funny Sulina experience, I think avoiding meat in Romania is now very easy.
Eastern Inflences and the Elephant
Bucharest might not yet have the scope of cuisines found in other capitals, but there are good things to be found and celebrated. There is the view that the national cuisine is mainly meat based and limited and that foods from other countries are not widely available here. Whilst there are aspects to both these observations that are true, the situation is not so simple and if we look a little more closely, we can find some fantastic food out there and appreciate why things are the way they are. In many ways, Bucharest is a vibrant capital city, so the situation, in 2018, regarding restaurants, can seem strange, especially to those coming from cosmopolitan cities like London or New York. The main reasons are the rather tired elephant in the room, a communist history, plus, looking further back, Romania is a country that has absorbed influences rather than acquiring them. Bordering or nearby countries such as Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Italy and Hungary, have all left some gastronomy, such that there are regional food specialities to be found throughout the country, such as Hungarian Goulash in Transylvania or Roman Plăcintă in Moldavia.
One shouldn’t demand that a place be the same as other European cities, especially when its history is so different, even compared to other former communist cities. This is partly because Romania has maintained its rural identity, probably more so than anywhere else in Europe and this is why there is so much unspoiled wilderness and wildlife here.
Bucharest was once a wealthy capital, before the second world war. This status was halted and reconfigured under the new regime from 1947 onwards. Thus, although large, Bucharest lost its former cosmopolitan grandeur. Our elephant wanders back into the room to explain the obvious; communism forced people to live in a certain way. People did not travel for over 40 years from 1947 – 1990s. This produced a certain sensibility that is also historically reflected in attitudes towards food; holding onto the tradition and not developing the international. It’s difficult for a populous to acquire new tastes if they are simply not there. However, there is another side to this. During the ’70s and ’80s Arab countries were favoured by Ceaușescu for their anti-imperialist (anti American) stance and movement between Bucharest and Beirut was eased, particularly for Lebanese students studying in the Romanian capital. This bit of communist heritage is responsible for some of the city’s best restaurants, namely Lebanese/Middle Eastern: El Bacha (also has Greek menu), Coin Vert, Piccolo Mondo, Tulin, Moudy’s Kitchen and Damascus Palace plus plenty of others. The same cannot be said for Chinese cuisine, although there are some similarities in historical politico-cultural relations. Prior to ‘89 the Nan Jing Chinese restaurant was without doubt the best Chinese restaurant in all Romania. This was an easy claim to make since it was also the only one. Others followed after ‘89 and are still distributed throughout the city. These are generally only average in the main, although I think there is a place for Old Skool ‘90s like Qian Bao in Dristor and Marele Zid (The Great Wall) near Obor, which are good. These days there are some very good and quite authentic newer restaurants such as Bejing Garden and Shanghai Garden, both of which indicate a relatively new positive direction.
Bejing Garden Qian Bao dish
Of course there are many good Romanian restaurants such as Zexe, La Copac, Caru cu Bere…etc. Then there is a welcome newcomer, Kāne at Ștefan cel Mare, which fashions itself as a seasonal bistro preparing exclusively, locally produced ingredients with a small but perfectly formed menu.
The other wholeheartedly good cuisine in Bucharest is Italian with restaurants like Grano, Il Peccato, Horoscop, Belli Siciliani (The only Sicilian in Bucharest), Cucina Borghese and so many more. In Bucharest, Italian cuisine is the basic default choice for good eating out.
Zexe – Grădina Icoanei
Eating De Post in Bucharest
So, onto the other aspect, that of not eating meat. The idea of being vegan or vegetarian is not necessarily appreciated in Romanian culture, outside of Hipster Bucharest. However, in a religious context the idea of not eating meat and dairy products is in fact fully understood, since it is an integral part of “fasting” during large chunks of the Romanian Orthodox Calendar. At certain times of the year it is true to say that huge quantities of meat are devoured, around Christmas and Easter, but prior to these two religious times there are lengthy periods of vegan “fasting”. In addition to these times, some people will also observe a similar weekly meat and dairy free diet on Wednesdays and Fridays and during the first two weeks of August, meaning that for many people they are practically vegan for half the year. To accommodate this religious cultural feature, restaurants develop special “fasting” menus in the 40 days prior to Easter and Christmas. The Romanian for fasting is de post. So if you go into a restaurant anywhere in the country and mention this you will be fully understood without question. There will be no “oh, so you’re vegetarian, you can have the fish or chicken” and you won’t get that sorrowful look, as though you’ve just told someone that you have six months to live, like you get in France. The point is that everyone understands that for some of the time many people do not eat meat or dairy. Of course there is also the fashionable, raw-food, vegan thing currently at large with the likes of Little Tyke and Rawmazing: the idea of differing diets is catching on in Bucharest.
The food markets
The main way that Bucharest comes into its own is with its food markets and these fresh food markets need to be championed and used: Piața – Obor, Gemeni, Doamnei, Râmnicu Sărat, Metache, Norilor, Floreasca, Țăranului and so on. There is one in virtually every corner of the city. I suggest you find the one near you and shop local. As well as the usual abundance of fruit, vegetables, meats and cheese etc. there are local ingredients that are maybe not so familiar. These food markets therefore become an opportunity to break habits and buy the things that locals cook with. Here are a few examples: gulie (kohlrabi) is a winter vegetable that can be prepared, for example, by shredding with some sfeclă roșie (beetroot), olives and olive oil for a coleslaw. Gutui on the other hand are quinces. Here they are much larger than the ones in the UK and can be simply poached with star anise. The hard fruit becomes soft and turns a fabulous golden pink. Prior to use in the kitchen, the Romanian tradition is to store gutui on a sunny window sill and allow the fragrance to fill the room. During the Spring/Summer season, cherries can be found in huge quantities. There are two basic types, vișine (sour and good for cooking) and cireșe (sweet). Țelină is celeriac and is easily found during the winter season. It is best simply chopped up with carrot, parsnip and boiled to produce a simple soup, not unlike French vegetable consommé with tremendous sweetness and flavour that becomes a Romanian speciality with the addition of herbs such as leurdă (wild garlic leaves), loboda (the dark purple leaved pigweed) or leuștean (lovage).
So the raw ingredients are there for sure in abundant seasonal glory in the markets and as for native and international restaurants alike, I would say that a huge leap forward has been taken during the past three years or so. Appropriately, this shift has occurred in places like Shift or Simbio; both catering for hip, well-travelled, young clientele with demanding and cosmopolitan tastes. Places like these have developed with sound ideas about the design of interiors alongside inventive but often actually quite simple dishes.
The future looks good for eating out in Bucharest. Customers are demanding more diversity and restaurants are responding. I am therefore very optimistic about food in the capital. The local ingredients are fantastic, restaurant environments are beautiful, inside and out and the potential for diversity and scope is endless with a new vanguard of cooks, entrepreneurs and customers.