Rolled-up leaves stuffed with rice, papery phyllo pastries layered with nuts and soaked in syrup — the cooking of the Balkans owes as much to the Ottoman Turks as it does to the Germanic and Slavic tradition.
The Ottomans, descendents of nomadic tribes from the steppes of Russia, ruled the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean for five centuries, reaching into Europe as far as the walls of Vienna. Nowhere is their influence more evident than in the cooking of the polyglot nations of Eastern Europe, where soups and stews still carry their Turkish names and city walls are marked with the scars of siege.
Although I have traveled through the region on several occasions both before and after the fall of the Iron Curtain, I had found culinary information hard to come by under communism — not least because of serious shortages and the imposition of rationing on staples such as bread. So when, this year, I was offered a late-summer trip as a visiting lecturer on a river cruise ship on the Danube, the invitation was irresistible.
Our journey started 100 miles or so inland from the Black Sea, at the point where the Danube empties itself into the wetlands that form its estuary. Some 180 of us, keen to make the most of the tours on offer, loaded ourselves onto shallow-draft riverboats to make our way down a man-made canal through a vast marshland dense with willow thicket and reeds. Our local guide, Iuliana, explained there had been very little rain this year and this was not good for the birds — or for the fishermen who scratch a precarious living in the region.
Every now and again we passed a fisherman casting a line from the muddy bank. “He is Russian. They are refugees from religious persecution,” said Iuliana. “The men have long beards, and the women have red hair and round faces and freckles. They are Romanian citizens, but they speak their own language and they don’t like to socialize even when their children are at school with us.”
Is their cooking different from that of ordinary Romanians? Iuliana shrugged. “They don’t invite us into their homes so we don’t eat together like we do with the Wallachians, who live to the south of us and are Turks and keep Ramadan.”
Romanian sour soup a traditional dish
So what does Iuliana’s mother like to cook?
“When there are many of us we like to eat sarmale, which is cabbage leaves stuffed with meat and rice and comes from the Turks. And cheese strudel, which is the German name for a pie. For every day, she makes çiorba, sour soup, which can be made with anything at all — meat, fish, chicken, vegetables — but the best is meatballs with rice, which is the same stuffing as the sarmale. Under communism, we were told to plant rice in the delta but it didn’t grow, so now we import it from China. The çiorba she makes with borscht like the Russians, which is a soured liquid we make with wheat bran and yeast and is special to this part of Romania. I will ask if they will prepare a çiorba when we take lunch in Bucharest tomorrow.”
The next day, after a tour around the exterior of Nicolae Ceaucescu’s enormous baroque palace, the tour buses deliver us to the Hotel Phoenicia, a vast, modern building on the outskirts of the city. In the days of the communist dictatorship, only the tourist hotels were permitted to offer hospitality to visitors, so the buffet lunch with its potato and pasta salads, though far more generous than anything I had experienced before, had a familiar feel.
As promised, at the far end of the table was a white china tureen full of a straw-colored broth in which were floating bite-sized meatballs flecked with grains of rice. Beside it was a bowl of soured cream and a pile of what looked like dark red cherry tomatoes but upon closer inspection were revealed to be chilies.
Iuliana sampled a spoonful of the soup and smiled. “This is good. It is traditional. It is made with borscht just like my mother.” She ladled out a bowlful, added a dollop of soured cream and handed it to me along with one of round, red chilies. “This is very hot, very juicy, very sweet. You take a bite whenever you like. Good for protecting the stomach.”
No stomach protection was necessary, and the çiorba was indeed as good as promised. The flavor was surprisingly mushroomy, umami-laden, with a touch of sweetness and just a little sharpness, as if someone had added a glass of rough country wine.
Borscht for Soup
Makes 4 pints
You can find commercially prepared borscht sold in concentrated form as a soup base in Polish and Russian delis. To prepare your own, all you need is wheat bran, water, a little yeast and patience.
8 ounces wheat bran
1 teaspoon instant yeast (half a packet)
2 tablespoons cornmeal
4 pints water
1. Combine 2 tablespoons of the wheat bran with a cupful of warm water and add the yeast. Leave to froth for a couple of hours, then drain and reserve the bran, discarding the liquid.
2. Put the remaining dry bran and cornmeal in a clean bowl. Boil the water and pour it into the bowl. Mix and leave to cool until tepid, then stir in the yeasty bran.
3. Cover with a clean cloth and set aside for three to four days in a cool place, stirring regularly, until delicately soured. Strain into a clean glass jar, store in the refrigerator and use as required.
4. To start another batch without yeast, reserve a cupful of the strained-out bran and proceed as above, adding the yeasted bran to the new batch at the stage when the bran-and-water mixture has cooled to tepid.
Meatball Sour Soup With Chili and Soured Cream
A çiorba, or sour soup, can also be sharpened with dash of vinegar, a squeeze of lemon juice or a ladleful of pickle brine or sauerkraut juice.
For the soup:
350 grams (about ¾ of a pound) of finely ground beef
2 heaping tablespoons round-grain rice
1 small onion, grated
1 medium egg, forked to blend
1 cup chopped dill or fennel tops
1 cup chopped parsley
2 pints strong beef bone or chicken broth
1 cup shredded lovage or celery leaves
1 pint wheat bran borscht or plain water plus 2 tablespoons wine vinegar
Garnishes for serving:
Fresh red chillies
1. Work the ground meat with the rice, onion, egg, half the dill and half the parsley until well-blended and smooth. Roll into balls about the size of a walnut.
2. Bring the broth to a boil and gently slip in the meatballs. Return the pot to the boil, turn down the heat and leave to simmer without bubbling for 30 to 40 minutes, until the meatballs are tender and cooked through.
3. Strain the borscht into the broth (or add the extra water and vinegar), reheat and bubble up for no more than 2 minutes.
4. Finish with the shredded lovage and the rest of the parsley and dill. Ladle into bowls and add a dollop of soured cream. Serve the fresh red chilies separately, one for each person.
Top watercolor: The round, red chilies traditionally served with Romanian sour soup. Credit: Elisabeth Luard