13 years ago I volunteered and worked in Romania for a month. I stayed in a tiny little town called Lupeni. (It doesn't make many maps it's so small.) What I was doing there is a story for another post and time. Today we're going to talk about food, specifically my love of Romanian food.
Back in Lupeni I discovered two dishes- sarmale and papanoci. (sar-maul-eh and poppa-nosh). These were my two most favorite foods, and I ate them every chance I got in Romania. My "bunica" made them for us. Bunica means grandma, old lady, or babushka. Everyone has a bunica.
It's been 13 years since I had good sarmale and papanoci. I've tried many times to make them on my own, but it's never been as good as Bunica made it.
So you better believe I was looking forward to having it again when I got back to Romania!
In our first town, Baile Herculane, one of the first things I did was ask our hotel if they would be serving us either dish. They were impressed I knew Romanian food, and said they would try, but it never happened. Hotel Afrodita did serve us some awesome food, but it was mostly just nice hotel food, but nothing truly amazingly Romanian.
It's hard to be disappointed in really awesome food, so I wasn't too sad about the lack of authentic dishes.
Not to mention, I accidentally got the restaurant to serve us free Cokes for a few meals before the hotel caught on and made us pay for them. (How does this happen? Easy. I went up to the restaurant bar, and asked for a Coke Zero. Which reminds me, did you know Coca-Cola Light (which is served instead of Diet Coke in most other countries) has been replaced by Coke Zero? This was new to me. I quickly adapted to it. Turns out I like it. Who knew?) I tried to pay for it. The bartender didn't speak much English. And by that I mean, he was very pretty to look at, but spoke absolutely no English at all. This has a lot to do with why I re-learned how to count and all my numbers in Romanian. Bet ya didn't know I know a good 20 words in Romanian. It's a pretty easy language to learn if you know any of the other Romance languages, especially French. But I digress. So the bartender said since our meals were covered, my Coke Zero was too. At least, that's what I gleaned from our miming. I did this for 2 meals before other people caught on and started to get free drinks too. That lasted another 2 meals with 30 people getting free drinks before the hotel caught on. After that we had to pay for our drinks. A 1-liter Coke Zero was roughly 50 cents, so not exactly a hardship, you know?)
We were in Herculane for 5 days, and then moved on to the town of Timisoara. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I LOVE Timisoara. It's a beautiful, charming town. We stayed in a nice little hotel right off the town square. We ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant (which was very small), but our other meals were provided by the festival. We ate at a small school a few blocks away with the other performers. The food was... pretty typical cafeteria food. Just cafeteria food with a Romanian twist to it. In other words, a hunk of bread, gassy water, meat, with a side of meat. And sometimes a dish of pickled cabbage.
It was perfectly good food. But I wanted food like Bunica made it!
And what was I supposed to do with a beautiful, charming town square with a dozen restaurants just feet away from my hotel? Closer to me than the school? And I hadn't spent more than $3 a day in over a week! With plenty of Romanian lei in my pocket, and in a town that actually takes credit cards, I went off in search of sarmale and papanoci.
I tried looking at the window menus of three different places with no luck. After going on a big walking tour of the city with the whole group-
Sarmale isn't on their menu. And he did have me put a deposit down on the meal, which I felt was completely fair under the circumstances.
So one hour later, I rounded up a few Clog Americans, and we ate at one of the best tables in the restaurant.
But then came the papanoci!
It's rich, it's heavy, and oh is it good!!!!
I can promise you not one tiny bit was left on our plates.
I even went back the next day with some other friends from our group to get the papanoci again.
I admit I was a bit nervous to take a group of soon-to-be-friends that I barely knew to try a food I feared I had over-hyped. But I'm happy to report that no one seemed to think I oversold it. They all loved it. In fact, word got around to several people in our group about our foodie excursion, and more than one group of people went in search of it the next day.
It was a meal 13 years in the making. And totally worth it!