Ahhh….. years ago, when I first came to Romania (and I myself was an omnivore), I coincidentally met and recognized a woman although we’d never met before – she was the sister of someone I knew in America and the resemblance was quite striking.
She spoke English very well and we began to talk and somehow we got on the topic of being a vegetarian in Romania. In those days, she informed me, it was quite difficult, especially in winter as fresh fruits and vegetables were hard to come by.
Now it is my turn to be the “weirdo” and yes, sometimes I get very strange reactions to being a vegetarian in this country (see here for more of that). However, a lot of people are visiting this country who have “special” diets and what follows is my guide on how to survive (and thrive) here without consuming animals or animal products.
This means not eating meat but still consuming dairy and eggs (or perhaps even fish).
At just about any fast food, there are a number of vegetarian options. One is known as cascaval pane (shortened in Cluj to “cas pane”) which literally means “breaded cheese”. It’s a thick slice of cheese, breaded (which includes eggs) and fried and served on bread, often with homemade mayonnaise (made from eggs), although the toppings are chosen by the customer (you).
Other fast foods have different sandwiches with the word “vegetal” in their title, meaning “vegetarian”. Examples include “hamburger vegetal” and sometimes just “sandwich vegetal” (sometimes written “sendvis” or other ways) and refers to a slice of processed vegetarian material on bread with the toppings of your choice, which again may include mayonnaise made with eggs. Without the mayonnaise, these sandwiches are usually vegan.
Mamaliga (see my article here) is usually served with cheese and/or sour cream. Very rarely it does include meat but this will be listed on the menu if it’s the case.
Romanians are avid consumers of pizza (which varies in quality from utter crap to fantastically delicious) and most restaurants have a “vegetariana” option, usually the contents of an entire garden’s worth of vegetables on top (including peas and corn).
The plain version of pizza, ie sauce, cheese and nothing else is known as a “pizza margarita”. Technically speaking, a “margarita” should include oregano on top as the third ingredient but it rarely does.
Most pizza places also have a mushroom (ciuperci or often the Italian word funghi) choice which is vegetarian. Beware though that another common pizza is sunca si ciuperci (ham and mushroom) so avoid that one.
Another vegetarian pizza is quattro formaggi, from the Italian meaning “four cheeses”. Unless you’re eating at a quality place, avoid this as often this is an overpriced rip-off and not worth it compared to the margarita option.
Potatoes – Romanians love potatoes (as do I!) and serve it in a variety of ways, almost always vegan. That being said, watch out for some of the baked varieties (ie. cartofi taranesti or “country style”) as cooks here have a tendency to add lots of MSG (known in Romanian vernacular as vegeta).
Stuffed mushrooms (ciuperci umplute), a common and much beloved side dish, these are usually filled with cheese and baked. Delicious!
Orez si ciuperci, a common side dish meaning “rice and mushrooms”, this too sadly often is flavored with MSG.
Salads (salate) – With a few exceptions, most salads here in Romania are made with mayonnaise and meat so you’ve got to read through the ingredients carefully before ordering.
That being said, two very famous (and delicious) Romanian salads are always vegetarian – salata de vinete (eggplant salad) and salata de ciuperci (mushroom salad), both made with mayonnaise. I hated eggplant my entire life until I tried some salata de vinete, which is usually eaten as a spread on a single slice of bread. As for the “mushroom salad”, it is extraordinarily tasty and I’ve never known anyone, foreign or Romanian, who didn’t rave about it.
Other vegetables “pane” (breaded), especially dovleac (a local squash) and conopide (cauliflower). Sliced and fried and quite tasty. Otherwise vegan except that eggs are usually used to stick the breaded coating to the vegetables in question.
Honey in Romania is absolutely the best I’ve ever tasted, cultivated in the “old ways” and sold freshly harvested in the piata. Other bee products include the honeycomb, wax, pollen and royal jelly.
If you do eat fish, there are a wide variety of grilled fish dishes usually available as well as salata de icre, a form of spreadable caviar often eaten with bread. That being said, other forms of seafood are rare.
This means that you neither eat meat nor any products coming from an animal (dairy, eggs, etc).
My friend, if you are vegan, you have hit the jackpot when it comes to Romania. This is because the Romanian Orthodox church encourages a twice-yearly dietary change known as the post (literally: “fasting”). If you’re Catholic, think of giving up chocolate for Lent and it’s roughly the same thing.
In the period before Christmas and Easter, all of the faithful are encouraged to eat de post, which is 100% vegan with the sole exception that fish is allowed. Therefore, whether at a restaurant, fast food or grocery store, anything that is labeled as de post is 100% vegan (unless it has fish, which is easy to avoid).
The rest of the year it’s a little harder to get de post products but they can be found. Some examples:
Maioneza de post – Largely a chemical compound, it looks, smells and tastes almost exactly like regular mayonnaise but is 100% vegan. On the other hand, a number of Romanian cooks at home can make a much tastier and healthier version, often from crumbled puffed corn (pufuleti).
Cascaval vegetal – A solid slice of faux “cheese” that is 100% vegan, often used to make sandwiches. Some pizza places offer some or all of their pizzas to be made with cas vegetal, rendering them completely de post.
In any fast food, especially during the two fasting seasons, it is possible to get a completely vegan sandwich (anything labeled “vegetal”) if mayonnaise is skipped or else is of the de post variety.
Not to be missed is sarmale, one of Romania’s signature dishes, these are stuffed rolls made with cabbage leaves. The standard variety is made with meat but it’s usually easy to get the vegetarian version, stuffed with rice and mushrooms instead (orez si ciuperci).
Fasole (beans) – If you’re American, think “pork and beans” but it is easy to find (esp at grocery stores) a vegan version, again labeled de post. In fact, most large grocery stories have a whole section of shelving with de post products.
This includes zacusca (from the Russian закуска), which is about 500 times tastier when made at home than the varieties you can find at the store. This is always, always vegan and very popular even with the most ardent meat eaters in this country for a simple reason – it’s freaking incredibly delicious.
Salata de ardei copti – Meaning “roasted bell pepper salad” it is the divine result of roasting peppers and them steeping them in oil and vinegar. Not to be missed!
Meaning people who do not eat food that is cooked in any way. And yes, I do know raw foodists in Romania (a prominent one can be found here).
For the best choices, you want to visit the piata (open-air market) and save money and load up on fresh fruits and vegetables. Selections are a lot fewer in the dead of winter but these days plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables are imported from warmer countries, including bananas, oranges, tomatoes and lemons.
Salata de cruditati – Literally meaning “raw salad” it is a combination of raw vegetables, sometimes dressed with oil. The ingredients are usually listed on the menu.
Salata de varza (cabbage salad) – Easily my all-time favorite Romanian food, it is usually just shredded cabbage that is salted and (usually) either lemon or vinegar has been added. This too can easily be found in the piata and bought by weight.
Salata de varza murata – Same as above except the cabbage was pickled first. Quite sour for some tongues, it is an absolutely delicious side dish.
Muraturi – Just meaning “pickled vegetables”, most commonly cauliflower, gogosari (a kind of bell pepper), carrots and sometimes beets. This is a very common side dish and can be found homemade (at the piata or someone’s home) as well as on the menu at restaurants.
Pickled vegetables are amongst my very favorite Romanian foods. The last time I flew into this country, I proceeded straight to a restaurant and ordered a platter of muraturi. Yummy!
“Fresh” – It’s usually easy to find stores in Romania (including at the malls) which sell the “fresh” (literally that’s the term), meaning fresh-squeezed and unprocessed juices. “Un fresh de portocale“, for instance, means a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice as opposed to the bottled, pasteurized variety.