A Healthy Diet of Bread, Onions, and Liquor

On the plane from Bangkok to Bucharest, Romania, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, a new mantra: “I’m trading rice for bread”. Trading ginger, fish sauce, and coconut for new flavors. How will I sustain myself without the richest broths in the world? What will I eat, if not fresh mango? Would my digestive system even work properly without thrice daily portions of rice?

Every culture seems to have a “fast food”, cheap on-the-go snacks for people without a lot of time to eat. In America, chain restaurants or vending machines fill this role. In southeast Asia, street stalls serving hearty and healthy bowls of soup or takeaway packages of curries line the street (which in my opinion is superior in every respect).

When I arrived in Bucharest, I looked for their fast food: bread. Their bakeries have windows facing the street, and the cashier quickly grabs your order, slips it into a bag, and takes your payment. Most contain a sweet jam, or a combination of meat and cheese. People walk the streets with various pastries and sandwiches in hand, bundled up against the cold.

Bread is a utensil, used to transfer food from your plate to your mouth. Bread is a sponge, wiping each plate clean before the dishes are even started. And bread is the ubiquitous flavor, the base of the meal, the necessary component. I quickly learned that “please set the table”, in a Romanian home, implies a series of steps: shake out the breadcrumbs from the tablecloth, set the plates and utensils, and then cut the new bread.

To draw from recent months: as rice is to southeast Asia, bread is to eastern Europe. I am in for quite the change of cuisine.

Bread, bread! There was a basket full of bread on the table every meal. In one home in which I stayed, I was the designated bread cutter- a lofty title.

To celebrate Mucenici, a Christian holiday in Romania that also celebrates the beginning of the growing season, Liliana, one host, and I made pastries. The dough is rolled into thin strips, baked in a figure eight shape, and then covered in honey and walnuts. They say that when you feed someone on this day, you are also feeding your ancestors. If so, I was so well fed, Liliana’s ancestors must have been stuffed!

In Romanian cuisine, in addition to the base of bread, onion and garlic are always present. A balanced meal contains one or the other. Many Romanians believe that cooking garlic or onion is somewhat toxic for the body, and so these members of the allium family are usually eaten raw, on the side. I’ve seen few tables in Romanian homes that do not have a basket of bread and a bowl of raw garlic or onion.

Ceapeă, meaning “onion”, was one of the first Romanian words that I learned. (“Pass the ceapeă!”) Spring onions, garlic, and red or yellow onions are continually passed around during a meal. Romanians love the flavor, and many of the traditional dishes are meant to be eaten with it. Romanians even have a hidden treasure, off the tourist track- an onion monument, dedicated to the ceapeă, located in northwestern Transylvania.

One day, while working on an apple orchard in Transylvania, the family welcomes a friend for lunch. During the meal, he asks for a few extra onions, even though there is a bowl of cut onions on the table. I watch, barely keeping my mouth from hanging open, as he expertly peels them and chomps into them, apple-style. He devours two raw onions in a matter of minutes.

I say nothing at the time, listening to the rhythm of the larger conversation in Romanian between the rest of the family. But after the meal I ask quietly, “is that… typical?” My question is greeted by laughter, and we all joke together. While that man might have been exceptional, it is true: Romanians see onion and garlic as an entire food group.

Ciorbă, a sour soup popular in Romania, is one of my favorite Romanian dishes. The sour flavor comes from a fermented wheat sauce, or a special type of sour plant. With some cream and a side of bread, it is the perfect lunch.

Every visitor to a Romanian home will remember slanina (the meat on the left hand side) Slanina is pork fat that is salted for a month before it is smoked. The fat comes from a Romanian variety of pig, and there is allegedly no cholesterol- only good fats. The flavor of slanina is like nothing I’ve ever had, a sort of combination of bacon and cheese. It is typically eaten with bread and onion or garlic- a classic Romanian combination.

During my months in Romania, spending time with two open and welcoming families, I ate like a queen. Romanian cuisine features excellent soups, dried meats, and fresh dairy products. Even in the early spring, there are still root vegetables and canned foods leftover from the fall. Meals are long affairs, always full of conversation and laughter.

But although the bread and onion may feed a people, liquor truly sustains them. Eastern European liquors vary by the region, but northern Romanians prefer țuica, a type of clear fruit brandy. Tuica is drank in tiny glasses, sipping slowly on one shot at a time. It is strong and… effective. While it certainly does keep you warm, it may also lower your work productivity, as I found out after many a lunchtime glass.

Luckily, there was always bread and onion to sober me up.

Me with some of the family that hosted me in Transylvania. We spent many nights sitting around the dinner table drinking țuica and exchanging stories.

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