By Ilinca Maria Prundea
As a Romanian foodie, I’m proud of our country’s wide ranging traditional cuisine, from delicious pork meat rolls with rice and vegetables (“sarmale”) to freshly baked eggplant salad (“vinete”). Unfortunately, in my travels across Europe, I’ve found that the culinary stereotype that outsiders mark Romania with tends to gravitate closer to the former example of sarmale along with a host of other fatty meat dishes and carb heavy sides like “mamaliga” (polenta for our visiting readers). There’s certainly garnishings of truth to this quick judgement. During Christian holidays especially, Christmas and Easter being the creme de la creme standouts, we Dacian descended Romans – with our blend of slavic meat soups, German love for heavy carbs, and Italian-inspired flavorings and fusions – are guilty of binging pretty hard at the dinner table.
But what short time visitors to Romania may not realize is that prior to the holiday inspired foodie indulgences, many Romanians engage in a period of vegan fasting, known locally as “Mancare De Post,” or fasting food. Don’t confuse the alliterative similarities to fast food though: the diet de post is healthy as can be. The aforementioned salata de vinete is just the tip of the iceberg lettuce. Fasole batuta is a delicious bean based creme enjoyed best with caramelized onions served on toast as a light lunch. Even a simple fruits and vegetables brunch spread of pickled peppers, local cucumbers, hummus, and Romanian tomatoes, which I’ve heard from many world travelers are amongst the juiciest in the world.
Although the rationale for eating de post is one rooted in biblical references that have translated over the millenia into Romanian Orthodox cultural traditions, the notion of taking a break from meat for a week, even up to a month, is a great choice for your body and overall health. Lowering or cutting out pork from your diet does wonders for staving off high blood pressure, high cholesterol, various cancers, and diabetes, to name just a few common ailments. Unfortunately, while following the de post diet for several weeks is a great choice, following up with this healthy eating habit with a multi-day binge of fatty foods, red meat, and sweets during Christmas, New Years, Easter and other holiday gatherings essentially cancels out all of the good work you’ve done for your body. For older people especially, binge eating large quantities of fatty meats, particularly after a weeks-long vegan diet, can be seriously dangerous. Deaths amongst older Romanians often rise during holidays centered around huge meals, usually the results of overeating.
It isn’t a simple problem, but there are simple solutions. For one, reducing red meat intake over the holidays is essential. The same goes for hard liquor consumption, which can be harder to do during those dark winter months, but necessary for jumping into the springtime with a fresh start. Adopting a vegan de post diet full time is a big leap, but there are baby steps you can take the ease into a healthier diet. One example is to replace pork with chicken or other bird meat in traditional recipes. My aunt in Ploiesti makes a tasty variation of sarmale with turkey and it offers a unique and mildly healthier option to the Christmas dinner table. A colleague recently adopted the de post diet full time and has replaced meat sarmale with a tofu variety that still offers the same great texture and flavor of the traditional food. Lastly, maintaining a consistent exercise routine during the winter months is a key way to avoid the excess weight that most of us will pick up on the dark road from fall to spring.
Every society experiences tension between an older generation maintaining tradition and a younger generation attempting to bring about change. But when it comes to food, we can maintain all of our traditional meals and still do well by our bodies by offering small ingredient substitutes and keeping an eye on moderation and consistent cardio throughout those tempting holidays.
Ilinca Maria Prundea is a fifth year medical student at Bucharest’s Carol Davila Medical University and has researched heart disease and colon surgery in Leipzig, Germany.