BUCHAREST, Romania — Of all the obstacles that Romania’s communist dictatorship put in the way of foreign journalists trying to cover the country, the daily quest for decent food was one of the most exasperating.
By the late 1980s, the hardline regime of tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu strictly rationed most basic foodstuffs. There were a few dreary restaurants — for those who could pay — but their fare was extremely limited and often so unappetizing that I, for one, usually left whole meals untouched. I remember one time lugging a backpack full of groceries from Budapest, intended as gifts, that I ended up devouring.
But that was 20 years ago, when Romanians endured Ceausescu’s despotic rule, the most suffocating in all of the Eastern bloc. Today, of course, Bucharest’s shops are chock full and there are restaurants of every kind. I returned to Bucharest open-minded and determined to make up for the past: Romanians rave about their traditional cuisine and I explored it by eating at a different locale every day for a week.
The first stop for gastronomy in Bucharest is the centrul istoric, the historic financial quarter, one of the few parts of downtown Bucharest that Ceausescu didn’t get around to leveling. During communism, it fell into disrepair and became a kind of ghetto where many Gypsies lived. Today bars, cafes and restaurants, including Hungarian and sushi spots, line its quaint, cobbled lanes.
The lively hubbub coming from an alleyway rathskeller called Curtea Berarilor tempted me inside. The dimly lit place resembled an Old World tavern with its thick wooden tables and low ceilings. It was packed with a congenial student-y crowd, and I soon learned why: For about $14, a table could order a “rack” of beer, namely 11 good-sized steins delivered by the barman on a long, thin wooden plank. The pub features the draft beer “Timisoreana” from western Romania.
In contrast to the time when foreigners were unwelcome in Romania, today the country bends over backward to accommodate guests from abroad. This includes translating menus even when the proprietors’ English might be rudimentary. Perched on a bar stool at the Curtea Berarilor, I wondered what a dish described as “pork bone + beans + pickles” might be. So I ordered a portion, along with just one frothy draft beer. What arrived was an absolutely massive piece of smoked pork (with no bone) surrounded by steaming hot, baked white beans — and a plate of pickles. I happily made my way through about a third of the hunk of meat and half the beans before giving up.
A Bucharest favorite, especially for lunch, is the small chain City Grill, which offers traditional homecooking at reasonable prices. The menu includes a plethora of Romanian standards: hearty soups, stuffed peppers with sour cream, pickled salads, spicy sausages and lots of polenta. For centuries the Romanian peasant has lived on a dish called mamaliga which is corn meal, first boiled then baked, with sour cream and a salty white cheese. Every Romanian household serves it, which is why (yes, this is counterintuitive) in the past it was impossible to get in restaurants. My ground pork and rice stuffed in cabbage leaves (sarmalute, a dish known across the Balkans) came with a side of boiled polenta. It was excellent with the savory stuffed cabbage rolls, a refreshing alternative to the potatoes or rice one would expect elsewhere.
Another regional speciality is tripe soup, made from the mixed innards of cattle. Romanians crave it and claim it cures hangovers like nothing else. I steered clear of this kind of thing, even though the waiter at one al fresco restaurant energetically insisted that I try it. But I decided to be adventurous in another way. The menu at Restaurant Crama Blanduziei was a train wreck of mangled English including such translations as “fried brain in egg,” “foul liver in a pan,” “garlic juice” and “boneless chicken pulps in a pot.” I went for the “ram pulp pastrami” having no idea what to expect, though fairly certain it wasn’t innards. It turned out to be cured lamb, I think, thinly sliced and cooked on the open grill outside. The meal came with a big mound of polenta and picked red peppers. All in all, quite delicious.
I left Bucharest with a good feeling about my culinary mission. It certainly banished those bad memories from the days of the dictatorship. And although I may take a week off from polenta, I’m intending to surprise my next dinner guests with corn meal mush Romanian-style.