Day 72: Romania
Tonight, I’m eating dinner at a house I’ve been to quite a lot: Mr. Meatball’s parents’. While Meatball and I were in college, an impressive amount of time was spent eating, drinking and just plain hanging out here. It is a welcoming, warm and very happy place. The first time I went over there in the evening, it was around 11 PM, I walked through the front door, and his Romanian mother Mary (real name, not biblical) appeared in front of me, asking if I was hungry. I had already eaten dinner, and refused rather casually. “Come on,” she said, “you want a steak?”
“No, no please. I’m fine.”
“Come on. Have a steak.”
“No, please. You don’t have to do that. I’m not even hungry.”
“You want a steak? Have a steak.”
Somehow, twenty minutes later, a juicy steak appeared in front of me. I can’t decide what’s more uncommon, finding someone who will cook you a steak at 11 o’clock in the evening, or finding someone who actually has an extra, uncooked steak in their refrigerator at 11 o’clock in the evening. When you buy steak, you plan on cooking it, right? Anyway, as you can probably guess, I ended up going over there about four or five times a week while I was in college. So when Mr. Meatball and I were discussing Romania for the Personal Food Project in Blog Form, we planned on going to a restaurant with his mom. But I probably should have figured that it would end up with Mary and Meatball’s grandma cooking a massive Romanian meal for me and ten of my friends.
I arrive a little early with Mr. Meatball so we can talk a little about the food before all of the alcohol finds its way out in the open (there were apparently quite a few bottles of alcohol purchased for tonight). So we end up, as we often did years ago, leaned up against a counter in the kitchen, talking about food. Mary and her mother discuss food history with us, all while putting schnitzel in the oven to keep it warm and trying to decide what would be the best way to add the requisite sourness to the popular Romanian soup, ciorbă. “Should it be through the pickling liquid from the cabbage, or the powdered borş?” asks Mary. Borş, by the way, in Romania, is not the same as borscht. It is in fact a fermented wheat bran that’s very commonly used in Romanian food, but is also quite difficult to find in the U.S. other than in this dried, powdered form. “The borş is more traditional,” says Mary, “but we’re not sure if the dried version is very good.” So we try both and conclude that the pickling liquid works much better. We continue talking as sweet Romanian red wine and Romanian moonshine (tuica) make their way out for tasting. “The moonshine is most similar to Slivovitz,” says Mr. Meatball, referring to the plum brandy. I glance over at the schnitzel, another regular occurrence in my years of visiting this home, and do everything I can to not do what I always did, which is to grab said schnitzel, hold it with a napkin, and stuff my face with it.
The other guests begin to arrive, representing a long list of Man Bites World regulars. Bosque is back, after a hectic couple of weeks that saw a lot of lay offs at his company and a lot of new responsibilities for Bosque himself (he also brought a bouquet of flowers, just like his mother taught him). Folk hero Jason Bernstein was too busy to pick up beer for his famous parings, so instead he sent “Danielle” out with a grocery list, who in turn arrived with a bag of fancy beers. Ellie, whose folks hosted the outstanding Russian dinner, is here today with two friends, as is Air Bear, who has been MIA for over a month. Shana is here as well, GirlfriendBites is coming along a little later and all of a sudden it looks like we’ve got a party on our hands.
The table is soon covered by Russian bread, two cheeses, cucumbers, radishes, olives, icre (fish roe salad) and salata de vinete cu ardei copti (eggplant salad with roasted peppers). “There are a lot of eggplant salads in Russia, Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, but none are made like this,” says Mary. “These are roasted by burning the outside of the skin over fire, like with peppers.” The powerful cheeses, dense bread and creamy icre are a delightful start to the evening, but my favorite would have to be the velvety eggplant salad, spread on a slice of Russian rye with a thick hunk of roasted red pepper on top. Three distinct ingredients which are used to being served with other foods, putting their differences aside and joining as one. “This part of the meal should be had with the moonshine,” says Mary, so shots are poured, then handed out with warnings of high alcohol content. Everyone looks down at their alcoholic beverages, now quite scared for their own well being and we all say “Noroc!” (Romanian for “cheers”) as the clear liquid, which is made in almost every home in Romania, makes a bee line to the backs of our throats. Are we burned? Are we dying? “Actually, that’s really good,” say Bosque and I simultaneously. So obviously, more shots are poured.
I head outside to get some pictures of Mr. Meatball grilling mititei, the delightful beef minced meat sausages which I’ve also eaten here many a time. Mititei literally means “very small”, and these short, fat and juicy fellas sure fit the bill. He finishes up and we all head inside for bowls of ciorbă, the sour soup with cabbage, beef, chicken, tomatoes and potatoes. The sourness really elevates the soup to a wonderful level, adding a layer above the comforts of a simple rustic soup and making it something really special. This dish is popular in Romania for a reason. Next up is the mititei, served with a creamy vegetable salad comprised mostly of peas and leading to another discussion over United States of Americans obsession with putting lettuce in everything. “You see? This is a salad!” says Mary. “Salad does not automatically mean lettuce.” A lot of things you’d call salad in Russian cuisine, for example, most people in the U.S. would call “dip” or “spread”. But what if you don’t dip any bread in it or spread it on anything? Well then it’s a freaking salad, isn’t it? Once that was cleared up, I allowed myself to cut into the marvelously spiced, soft, juicy and red-in-the-center mititei. We’ve had similar versions of this sausage many times for this project, but none come close to comparing to these. “Other ones are too dry,” adds Mary as everyone at the table who has had the other versions nods in agreement.
Now it’s schnitzel time. Juicy, breaded pork, fried until golden and eaten just as is. “Schnitzel is not a Romanian dish,” says Mary, “but it’s eaten in just about every home in Romania.” It’s served with sarmale (stuffed sour cabbage), mămăligă (polenta) and a spoon full of sour cream, making for a pretty delightful plate. The sarmale puts most other versions to shame, but that may be due to eating from the second of the two batches served, which includes my dear, sweet love: bacon. The mămăligă has an absolutely delightful crust, caused from browning the bottom in a pan, and has made me want to start cooking lots of thin, crispy sheets of polenta for dinner parties from now on and taking soft polenta out of the equation forever. All in all it’s a damned spectacular meal that has warmed every last part of my body. And the beer pairings are, of course, perfect.
Now GirlfriendBites appears, proving that she knows when to make an entrance, arriving just in time for coffee, tea and dessert. Prajitura cu visine, a soft, fluffy sour cherry pound cake topped with powdered sugar, has a nice level of tartness that really compliments the sweeter elements quite well. A soft, nutty and creamy dessert log is on the table as well, which I, for some reason, only got around to having a couple of bites of, but which got high marks from the rest of the crew. The camera is passed around, cavorting ensues, a good time is had by all and yet again, I am humbled by the hospitality of others. Mary, I am indebted to you, as well as a long list of other delightful people who have done so much for me in these past few months. A great meal hosted by a wonderful woman who is quite dear to my heart, all while surrounded by some of the best friends a guy could ask for. Once again, I feel pretty damn lucky.
And tomorrow? It’s only the most massive, daunting and ambitious day of Man Bites World yet: China. Brace yourself.
Food Breakdown: Moonshine, wine, beer, coffee, tea and a whole lot of appetizers, secondi, entrées and desserts.
Distance From My House: 4.8 miles