When I was doing my MA in London, I met a girl whose last name was Mihai. Her first name was very Romanian sounding as well.
“Hi, I’m Suzy.” I smiled “My mother is Romanian.”
She answered me in English, “I don’t speak Romanian.”
“What?” I balked. She was as Romanian as they get, I would have guessed she was Romanian even without hearing her speak or knowing her name.
As I got to know her better, she took the liberty to advise me “You know, you aren’t really Romanian, it’s only your mother after all and you have a Greek passport, just tell people you’re Greek.” (Obviously this all happened way before the current financial crisis) As if admitting to be a Romanian or even part Romanian was tantamount to saying “I like to pick my nose in public.” And that people were going to give me wide berth once they knew.In spite of her advice, whenever I meet someone and they ask me where I am from, I hit them with the “I was born in Kuwait, my father’s Jordanian, my mother’s Romanian and I was raised in Greece.”
I am surprised by how many people don’t know where Kuwait is (over Saudi Arabia, invaded by Iraq in the first Gulf War, a country which in August can reach temperatures of 55°C). And since the Middle East is like the dark side of the moon for most Western people (although I find overall perception of Arabs is improving since the start of the Arab Spring), the part they latch on to is the Romanian part. (And Eastern and Southern
Europeans are now more than ever becoming the new target for xenophobia, see Simon Kuper’s article ‘Meet Europe’s New Scapegoats‘)
“So Romanian huh? They have a big problem with orphans? And stray dogs? And prostitution? And corruption?” I am assaulted by a barrage of negative associations and I understand why Romanians often skirt around their nationality but it also really bugs me. Enough already!
There is a little bit of that going on in Berlin, sometimes when I am introduced to someone new at a party, the next comment, whispered with a shifty look is “She / he is East German.” “And?! So Freaking What! What exactly does that mean? Hide my silverware?
The reason I bring all that up is because Romanians have some fantastic dishes. It’s true you should never, never give them a vegetable because they will boil it and stew it until it’s unrecognizable. And they know of only one herb, dill, which they put into almost everything. Oh but they make a fish roe salad (‘salată de icre’ also known as taramosalata) which is mental. Or cabbage rolls (which uses pickled cabbage) stuffed with pork, in a tomato sauce, with dill (of course), often served with mamaliga (soft polenta) and topped with smântână. I see smântână translated as sour cream and sure, the two are certainly related but they are NOT the same thing at all. Or Papanasi, a donut made with unsalted cheese served with a loose compote of sour cherries and more smântână. Best fried dessert EVER!
And I know precisely, none of these recipes. My mother never cooked Romanian food and when I ask my grandmother how much salt to put in the pickling liquid she says “Well it depends on how salty your salt is.” Alrighty then…That leaves me with Salată Bulgărească which despite its reference to Bulgaria is one of the most eaten salads in Romania.
It’s not a sophisticated salad, by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, with a favouring for the ingredients to be stacked one on top of the other, it looks positively seventies. Especially when topped with a sprig of curly parsley or a solitary olive. The whole thing is topped with finely grated Telemea which is effectively Romanian feta (the Bulgarians have one too called Sirene).
You don’t pre-dress this salad. Rather, you help yourself to the sunflower oil (I use olive oil) and the vinegar so rough it catches you in the back of your throat and sends fumes up through to your nostrils. You eyeball the quantities which means that sometimes you get it spot on and other times not. I love the liquid that pools at the bottom of the salad bowl. It’s almost as good as the salad. Like a vinegary gazpacho, slightly gritty with floating pieces of Telemea. Although you should know, I used to drink pickle juice out of the jar so clearly I have no aversions to vinegared things.
Bulgarian Salad (serves 1)
1/2 a cucumber cut in half lengthwise and then in half again lengthwise and sliced
2 large, 4 small tomatoes, sliced so they release their juice
1 small white pepper (they have these in Germany and lend a lot of authenticity to this salad) or 1/2 a yellow pepper
1 hard-boiled egg, sliced
1/2 a head of lettuce, sliced into finger width ribbons
a slice of ham sliced into ribbons
some dill if you’ve got some growing in your window boxes
50g of Feta, finely grated
a few olives
1. Start with a layer of lettuce. Followed by the cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes. Salt and pepper the vegetables lightly as you go.
2. Add the ham and egg layers.
3. Top all with a snowy mountain of feta and throw on the olives.
4. Serve with vinegar and oil.