Food and capitalism
Romanians appreciate the European Union for the money it sends to Romania and for the way it puts pressure on politicians not to mess up. When it comes to daily life, many Romanians are not so happy about the massive inflow of Western European culture. Beside other traditions, the new approach to food is seen as a major disadvantage of EU membership.
Romanians pride themselves in growing tasty, natural fruits and vegetables. They look down on anything that hints to genetic modification or industrial processing. It`s something they are not used to, and for now, they are not willing to get used to either. `European` would be a label that makes any industrial product look better than it it, but food is a clear exception to that rule. European food is thought of as having little taste and containing much less nutrition than Romanian alternatives.
`Men only cook for women when they have a motive to impress them`
More so than in Western Europe, Romanian cuisine is still very much influenced by the seasons. Importation was rare during communist years and most agriculture took place in the open air. The only way to have access to fruit and vegetables from another season was to preserve them for consumption at the time they were harvested. Many Romanian house mothers are still very apt when it comes to making jam out of fruits, pickling cucumbers and processing vegetables into a variety of sandwich spreads. The younger generation has the comfort of supermarkets, conservable vegetables, microwave meals and fast food. They are hesitant and unwilling to adapt to the new style, but dense working weeks are pushing them towards a less natural approach to food.
During recent years, busy working weeks have converted dinner into the day`s main meal. Lunch was traditionally more important, but busy work schedules only allow people to spend time on eating in the evening. Sunday may be an exception, but every other day is likely to have dinner as the main source of nutrition.
Bogdan (31, photo) relies on his girlfriend for his daily evening meals: `That is quite common in Romania. Even when man and woman arrive home from work at the exact same time, the man will watch television while the woman is cooking. I guess it dates back from the time when men were doing physical work, so they needed to take a rest when they came home.` Bogdan is expecting a good meal tonight: `We will probably start of with Ciorba, some kind of combination of soup and stew, then potatoes and meat. It`s spring so we will have something with green leaves. Probably some kind of vegetable salad with tomatoes and cabage. We don`t really do deserts, just some home-made orange juice and that will be it.`
Bogdan rarely gets served microwave meals and only goes to restaurants on special occasions. He explains that eating out is gaining popularity, but mostly among the higher middle classes, because it is a hobby that many Romanians cannot afford to practice frequently. `Maybe if you take a girl out for the fourth time or so. She would probably find it a nice treat. Then afterwards you can teach her to cook`, Bogdan says while laughing.
Ciprian (24) also counts on his female companion to do the cooking. `I only cook when she`s not at home. Tonight, we will have chicken soup, followed by plain potatoes. Desert will be the strudel we just bought.`
Adrian (29) and Madelina (23) are in Sibiu to spend a quick weekend in the mountains. They are expecting to join a collective dinner made up from traditional food. Adrian says: `We are going to make a big fire and then probably roast pig legs and beans, which is typical for this region. Families in this part of Romania have the tradition of ritually slaughtering a pig at Christmas and eat the meat until the Easter fasting period starts. There used to be hardly any vegetables in winter in the old days, so the traditional winter meals are high in fat and not particularly healthy.`
Adrian and Madelina do not follow the traditional role patterns when it comes to cooking. `I enjoy cooking and I work from home, so it`s easier for me than it is for her. I cook and she does the dishes. We like to share domestic tasks by who prefers to do what.`
According to George aka the Transsylvianian dentist (30), serving pasta is not yet very common in Romania, and the same goes for rice: `I would consider pasta to be an acceptable alternative to potatoes, nothing much more. Most Romanian meals still have potatoes or polenta as their basis. However, preferences are different across the different regions. In the South, most Romanians prefer to eat lightly, while people in the North West like to have very consistent meals. They decide on their menus accordingly so dishes that are popular in one region may not be appreciated as much in other regions.`
When I speak to Adriana (31) in the late afternoon, she tells me that she will not be anything until the next morning: `I am a member of the local Baptist Church and I try to take the Easter fasting serious. The situation is a bit complex: we should be celebrating Easter this weekend, like most of the Western world does. But since we are in Romania, our church has decided that we celebrate along with the rest of the Romanians. Anyway, I try not to eat at all on Wednesdays and Fridays, and only vegetables on the remaining days. During the last week before Easter, I only drink juices. I see it as a way to control my desires. I`m don`t think of it as a sacrifice, but I do see it as a mean to feel closer to God.`
Adriana`s favourite food is Mexican rather than Romanian: `I guess if you want to speak to a typical Romanian, you`re talking to the wrong person. I do also have a favourite Romanian dish though. That would be Sermala: cabbage leaves stuffed with rice and meat, cooked in an oven and served with vegetables. It`s the typical Romanian dish for almost every single celebration.`
Opinions about fast food range widely. Adriana will not have it unless she is on the road and in a hurry to get somewhere. Some others are big fans of Fornetti, small, puff-pastries filled with anything sweet or salty you can think of, usually available day and night, just like Kebab and pizza. Marela (18) likes the taste of McDonalds and at the same time hates to have to wait for her food. Silviu (30) prefers to spend his money in a different way. `I can have a nice steak in a traditional restaurant at the price that would only get me a Big Mac at McDonalds. For me, that`s an easy choice.`
Regardless of personal preferences, many Romanians are starting to cut down on time spent in the kitchen or around the table. Having time for cooking is becoming a privilege accessible to fewer and fewer people. Three-stage meals are being streamlined to all-in-one dishes.
Supermarkets, food conservatives and an increasing range of restaurants are pushing Romanians away from traditions that survived the communist times, but may in the end have to surrender to capitalism.
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