Saturday, May 21, 2011

Zarzare and Șuncă

Most of the food here is extremely similar to food in the U.S. and the rest of Europe. At our host family, we've had fried chicken, steak, pork chops, green salad with oil and vinegar dressing, apples, oranges, french fries and mashed potatoes. The emphasis is much more on meat, potatoes and cheese than our diet in the U.S. It is especially focused on salami, bologna, hot dogs and cheese; often what we get for our breakfast and lunch.

Despite the similarities, I have had a few new experiences in my three weeks here. On our first Sunday with our host family, we ate an excellent lunch of ciorbă (a slightly sour, meaty soup), followed by a large meal of pork chops and what is called orez pilaf (very similar to risotto). As we were finishing the meal, our host mom, Mioara, started telling us about a traditional grilled meat dish called mici (pronounced meech). Gabriel, our host father, told us that we'd get to try it at his son's place during a barbecue. Then they started to get up from the table and usher us along. He meant the barbecue was right now!
Photo by Gabriel Radic

It turns out that this was a major holiday in Romania similar to the U.S. Labor Day, where families get together to grill. It also turns out that their son, Robert, lives next door. So we walked outside, stuffed from rice, chops and soup, over to Robert's place for some mici. Needless to say, we found room for it and it was delicious. Imagine a meatball, but rolled out into the shape of a hot dog or sausage. There's no casing, but something in the recipe allows it to stay together. This time I asked what kind of meat was in it, and I think it was goat and pork. Sarah gently reminded me that maybe I shouldn't ask next time, because I might not want to know the answer.

Last weekend, I went on a walk to a beautiful monastery, called Mânăstire Dealu. We had the honor of joining in a junior high school field trip. There were two Romanian teachers of English, about fifteen Peace Corps Trainees and about 35 Romanian students. It is spring here in Târgoviște, and many of the Romanians were picking this small fruit from trees along the side of the road. It was a little bigger than a peanut, but soft and green. They were popping them like candy, but I was warned strongly to take a very small bite if I wanted to try it. They are called zarzare. Under-ripe as they are this time of year, they are one of the most sour and bitter things you can imagine. I found it not entirely unpleasant, but I stuck to a single berry. 

Sarah has been a bit sick as of late, with a very bad cough. Last night she skipped dinner entirely, so I was called from the couch at about 6:30 to "Hai să bea whisky." I joined Gabriel and Robert at the kitchen table for a shot of some nice Scotch, and munched on sunflower seeds. Gabriel and his son started a long, animated conversation in rapid Romanian. I was very happy if I could pick out a word or two. At one point Mioara tried to teach me how to open the seeds, and in broken Romanian and plenty of playacting, I attempted to explain that I have driven across the U.S. many times, spitting sunflower seeds out the window. That was my sole contribution to the conversation and it played for a big laugh.

Before too long, though, we got a plate of what looked like raw bacon placed on the middle of the table. Since I'm fast becoming a pro in situations like this, I kept my game face on, waited, and watched. Sure enough, Gabriel got a look of delight on his face, said, "Yum! Șuncă!," grabbed a piece and popped it in his mouth. Following suit, I did the same. On the șuncă, there was about a half inch of pure white fat and then a thin line of something clear. The clear line was harder to chew, but Gabriel had not spit anything out, so I soldiered on. Now that I knew what to expect, I found that it was quite good. From what I can gather, this is the wikipedia entry for it:

We weren't quite done with the oddities for this meal. Next, there was a call for usturoi and ceapă from Robert. Finally some words I know! But these are not usually things I would expect as side dishes. Usturoi is garlic and ceapă is onion. Out they came, perfectly raw. We skipped the ceapă and went straight to the garlic. Everyone got a clove or two, and you simply dipped them in salt and munched away. Frankly, I have always wanted to do this, but it is entirely socially unacceptable in America. This is my kind of country.

After a dinner of steak and french fries, I noticed Mioara was cooking more. I took a peek and noticed some small whole fish that she was dredging in flour and frying in a pan. I asked if these were for tomorrow, because I couldn't imagine that we would eat more. Note to self: if you are full, don't ask about what's being cooked because even if it is for tomorrow, you'll eat it now. The fish ended up on the table as a sort of dessert. I asked what type of fish they were and gathered that they were caught by a friend from a nearby river. Nobody here had a name for them, except "sweet fish." They were tasty, but a ton of work to get past all of the bones. Thankfully my experience taught me to wait for Gabriele to eat one first, and he stopped at the head.
Photo by Kristie's NaturePortraits:

If this is what I've experienced in three weeks, I can't wait to find what awaits me over the next two years!


  1. This morning I was reminded of our Farmers Markets meals--its all about the food....whatever it is. Hope Sarah feels better.

  2. is this a food blog? Are you a foodie or something?

    Kidding. I love reading about the food and all your adventures! Keep posting.

  3. I'm not quite sure my palette is as open as yours, but a great read none-the-less! Where there's food there must be drink! Beer, wine, vodka, cider, mead? BTW, apparently Boulder has its own distillery now: 303 Vodka. I'd send you a sample, but I'm pretty sure it would eat through any container I could ship it in :)

  4. The local drink is called țuica, made from local plums and usually home distilled. The word for țuica is "tare," which means "strong!" The wine here is also quite good. There's also lots of local beer, but nothing like home.

  5. How did the raw garlic & salt sit with your (still?) American stomach?

    More about Mânăstire Dealu!

    Hope Sarah's feeling better.

  6. Jorge is getting super jealous of your food experiences. Can you please send us some of that pork fat and maybe also some sweet fried fish from the river? :)