A few years ago, my verrah own mother came to visit me here in Romania. And despite trying and eating homemade foods here as well as at “proper” sit-down restaurants, she kept returning over and over again to the fast food.
It’s easy to understand why, even if the food isn’t of the highest quality nor is really cheaper than other places to eat. It is, however, convenient.
Although a few major, international fast-food chain restaurants (like the Mec and KFC) exist here in Romania, the fast majority of fast-food is sold at corner “mom and pop” operations with no corporate name, image, logo or marketing involved whatsoever.
Note: as mentioned earlier, a meal eaten from an int’l chain is actually quite expensive. Un-named Romanian fast-foods are much cheaper (and better, in my opinion) by far.
Which reminds me: dear foreigners, most workers at international fast-food chains (McDonald’s, etc) do not speak English. I know it’s disconcerting but so it is.
Since Romanians use the English word (fast-food not mancare repede) on all signage, a fast-food is really easy to spot for the foreign traveler. Most fast-foods consist solely of a sidewalk, walk-up window. Occasionally some have an interior restaurant where you can sit down, but the menu is roughly the same either way.
What’s for sale varies slightly by city and by region, but below is the core menu:
Shawarma (technically shah-warm-ah but often just shwarm-ah) – Because this is an Arabic word (and Arab food), it has a wide variety of spellings, especially ones which more phonetically resemble the pronunciation, such as shaoarma, etc.
This is a large hunk of mixed meat that sits on a thin, metal spike that rotates in front of a heat source. As the outer layers get cooked, the restaurant worker shaves them off with a knife into strips, which are piled together in a sandwich.
Technically the meat can be anything (including blends of different meats) but in Romania it is often pork. If it solely made of chicken it is sometimes sold as shawarma de pui.
(Doner) Kebab (keh-pop) – Essentially exactly the same as shawarma except it may be of higher quality meat. Sometimes can even be composed partially or entirely of lamb meat, which is considered “more authentic”.
Schnitzel (shneet-zell) – Again because this is a foreign word (it’s an Austrian dish), it has variable spellings to more accurately reflect Romanian pronunciation, such as șnițel.
In all cases, this means some kind of meat that’s been dipped in egg, breaded and fried. Usually this means pork in a Romanian fast-food as well. If it is solely comprised of chicken, once again it is sometimes differentiated as schnitzel de pui.
Cascaval Pane (cawsh-ka-vol pon-eh) – Similar to snitzel above, this is a thick slice of cheese that’s been dipped in egg, breaded and fried. Since this is a name derived entirely from latin, the spelling is thankfully always the same.
Note: Apparently only in Cluj but nowhere else, this is often shortened to simply cas pane (cawsh pon-eh).
Hamburger (hum-boo-ghare) – Again, a foreign word so occasionally spelled in various ways.
Theoretically this should always be a slice of beef but it isn’t always so. Beef in Romania is of fairly low quality throughout and so your expectations of what this should be might be contrary to what a hamburger is in Romania.
If it helps, think of it more as a slice of beef SPAM rather than a juicy, All-American “God Bless Texas” burger.
Cheeseburger (cheece-boo-ghare) – This is sometimes written as Hamburger cu Cascaval meaning of course, a hamburger with cheese.
Same as hamburger above except with a slice of low-quality individually wrapped cheese “singles”, sometimes not even melted, added to the sandwich.
Gordon Bleu (gore-dawn blue) – This one always makes me smile because in English it’s known as Cordon Bleu, both languages of course butchering the original French.
In Romania however, this is a snitzel sandwich (see above) that’s been filled or wrapped with cheese and a slice of ham.
A very important thing to understanding Romanian food is that all of the items listed above are sandwiches, that is to say, they consist of a bun holding the “filling” and some condiments.
In Romania the word for sandwich is spelled in several different ways but it is always pronounced send-veesh.
All sandwiches also come in a “platter” variety, which is called la farfurie (lah far-foor-ee-eh), literally meaning “for the plate”.
Before I explain what all that means, let’s go through the process of ordering a sandwich.
You: O shawarma, va rog.
Quite often, there is a choice of bread to be made and if there are, the worker will quiz you. Here are a few common ones:
La chifla? (lah kee-fluh) – This means in a “regular”, round sandwich bun.
La lipie? (lah lee-pee-eh) – This means the filling is placed into a kind of flat bread and rolled into a kind of cylinder, sometimes called a “wrap”.
Paine araba – The same thing as lipie and pronounced pwee-nay ah-rob-ah, although occasionally it may be closer to true Middle Eastern “pita” or flatbread.
Prajit(a)? (prah-zheet ah) – This means “toasted”, as in the sandwich is put in a kind of George Foreman grill and squashed but the entire sandwich gets quite crispy and crunchy.
This may also sometimes be referred to as la toast or toastat. I’ve also occasionally seen it referred to as presat.
After you choose your bread style, the worker will start getting busy making your sandwich and then tell you the price and you pay, using Standard Romanian Money Touching Rules, i.e. don’t touch their hands ever, if possible.
It’s very important to understand that, in almost all sandwiches, the worker will add the filling you ordered (i.e., shnitzel) and some french fries (UK: chips) automatically to the bread.
For some reason, this bugs some foreigners so if you do not want french fries added to the meat/filling inside your sandwich, you have to pipe up and stop them.
The phrase for this: fara cartofi (furrah car-toaf).
Then you get to choose your toppings. Often the worker will prompt you (because frankly, they’re sick of making sandwiches all day) and just say de toate (day-twat-tay)?
This means “with everything” and can often mean a ton of different condiments, so unless you’re sure what all of the toate are just pass on this option.
The most common:
Ketchup – Pronounced the same as English more or less, this is far sweeter and yummier and “thinner” than mainstream American ketchup.
Normally just saying “ketchup” will get you what’s sometimes specified as ketchup dulce or “sweet ketchup. The other kind of ketchup, ketchup iute (yoo-tay) means “spicy” or hot ketchup, although the truth be told this is often extremely mild and only slightly hotter than regular, “dulce” ketchup.
Maioneza (my own ehza) – Obviously mayonnaise. If you can see the receptacle holding the mayonnaise and notice it has a more “custardy” look to it, perhaps with a slightly yellow tint, you’ve hit the jackpot because this means it is homemade.
(Salata de) Varza (sah-lotta day var-zah) – Usually means a kind of “salad” of finely shredded cabbage that’s been dressed with oil or pickled.
Castravete (Murati) (cah-strah-vet-eh moo-rots) – What in English would be called pickles, as in cucumbers that have been pickled.
However there can be a few other exotic choices as well:
Mustar (moosh-tar) – Regular, yellow mustard. Romanians rarely eat mustard on anything but mici and sausages.
Tzatziki (tsot-tseeky) – A thin, white sauce made with cucumbers, garlic and yog(h)urt. Because this is from a Greek word, there are other various spellings as well to look more phonetic.
Sos cu Usturoi (soze koo ‘ooster-oy) – Garlic sauce.
Porumb (poe-roombh) – Kernels of corn, quite sweet.
Rosii (roh-shee) – Slices of raw tomato.
Sfecla Rosie – (sfeck-lah ro-shi-eh) – Beets, quite often pickled.
I must say right here that in 99.9% of all cases, at a “mom and pop” Romanian fast-food, whatever toppings/condiments you see offered are included with the price of the sandwich. Very rarely do you have to pay for any normal topping, even if you want a little extra.
However, in all international mega-chains like McDonald’s, etc, those bastards make you pay for every deviation from the menu as an extra charge.
Once you’ve communicated (or pointed your finger at) your toppings order, the worker will slop each of these on your sandwich in progressive layers.
If you’re at a walk-up window, you must next communicate how you wish to have your sandwich packaged.
La mana? (lah muh-nuh) – Literally “at the hand” this means you plan on eating the sandwich immediately. It will be put in some kind of paper envelope or outer layer and exactly one napkin will be wrapped around that on the outside layer.
La pachet? (lah-pock-ette) – Literally “at the package”, meaning wrapped up as a “to go” or “take away” sandwich. Or in simpler terms, if you’re not going to eat the sandwich immediately, ask them to give it to you la pachet.
Amazingly, shockingly, astoundingly difficult as it is to believe this, in almost all cases “la pachet” does not cost you any extra money! Surprising, isn’t it? I know.
At this point, the worker hands you your sendvis and off you go on your merry way, plowing your mouth headfirst into a tremendously large serving of hot, steamy goodness on a bun. Clearly none of the these foods are in any way low in fat or calories but they can be quite tasty.
Another quite surprising thing is that most fast-foods in Romania serve a very generously sized sandwich, as in sometimes freakishly huge. Cluj, bizarrely enough, has some of the tiniest average sandwich sizes I’ve ever seen in Romania.
But wait a second, remember all that la farfurie stuff I mentioned above? Well, I had to tell you about how to order a sandwich in order to explain what “at the plate” means.
Sandwich = Bun/Wrap that is filled with main filling then topped with condiments.
La farfurie = A plate where the bun/wrap is separate from the main filling which is separate from the condiments, which tend to be solely the big four listed above (ketchup, mayo, pickles, cabbage).
Usually the portion of the filling is larger and so the price for the la farfurie variant is therefore higher.
Wait even one more second, aren’t we talking about walk-up windows? Yes, we are but nonetheless, a lot of Romanian fast-foods will literally plop all of the toppings and filling on a plastic “picnic” style plate and give you a plastic knife and fork to eat it with as well. And amazingly, yes they will even wrap this up even further if you want it la pachet or to take with you somewhere (for free!).
Not every single fast-food has both variants but if they do, it should be written on the menu somewhere. Occasionally they’ll ask you from the outset if you want it un sendvis or la farfurie.
A few other things you can get at most Romanian fast-foods that aren’t sandwiches or la farfurie.
First though, it’s good to know o portie de (oh portsy a day) meaning “one portion of…”
Aripi de pui (Eye-reap day pwee) – Fried chicken wings, just like your sweet old granny made ever’ Sunday after church!
Cartofi Pai (car-TOAF pie) – French fries or, in UKEnglish, “chips”. Unfortunately, it is considered normal practice to serve them at room temperature. The only way to get fresh hot fries/chips is just to be there fortuitously when they make the next batch.
Note: Usually the price listed is per 100 grams so you can order as much as you want.
Cartofi Prajiti (car-TOAF pra-zheets) – Exactly the same as above. Pai simply means (in the shape of a) straw and prajiti means “fried.”
Salata de varza – Exactly the same as above in the list of toppings. Romanians enjoy cabbage quite a lot, as do I ;)
But yo, homey, wait even yet one more second, what about mah drink?
In the Romanian language, all soft drinks are generically called suc (soooook). In all fast food situations of the “mom and pop” variety, all items are sold separately, including the drink.
If soft drinks are served, they will be listed on the menu with their price. In every local fast-food, these will always be bottled drinks, consisting of your standard hyper-galactic corporation’s choices, namely a cola, a diet cola, a fizzy orange drink, a fizzy lemon one, a tea-flavored non-carbonated one and both “flat” and “sparkling” water.
Due to the Romanian Iron Law of Cold Drinks, be aware that these bottled drinks may or may not be any colder than room temperature and are only rarely likely to be quite cold indeed. Ice, in all “mom and pop” operations, is virtually unheard of.
And there you go! Now you’ve snarffled your snout in the greasy trough of tasty, hot eats during your visit to Romania, so all is well in the world, except that sometimes about 20 minutes later you get a couple of extremely fierce burps. Finger licking good though, nonetheless ;)