Romanian Cultural Practices: Beverages


After writing a big long post on food, now time for one about consuming liquids in Romania, especially the traditional cultural practices you will find here.

Cold Drinks

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, in general, Romanians believe that drinking a liquid that is quite cold is bad for your health.

I did an informal survey with some people I know, including one who is a bartender (here in Romania) and my amateur research found that while a small, select minority of people do drink cold beer, the vast majority of drinks consumed (alcoholic or not) are either hot or at room temperature.

Also, as mentioned, this means ice is often a rare commodity and consumed quite infrequently, making it hard to get and potentially expensive.

While certainly Americans are prolific consumers of ice and cold drinks, interestingly enough ayurvedic medicine also recommends only the consumption of warm or hot liquids. Deepak Chopra in particular thinks it’s an issue of health to not drink cold liquids.

Soup

There are essentially two kinds of soup in Romania, ciorba (chore-buh) and supa (soup-ah), both of which are extremely nutrient-rich, “thin” mostly liquid broths with only a small percentage of solid ingredients.

The main difference between them is that a ciorba is usually going to have a sour component while a supa doesn’t.

In Romanian culture, it is extremely traditional to eat a small bowl of soup right before digging into the main course of the day (usually lunch). In fact, almost all full-spread dinners at a Romanian restaurant come with a soup first.

Interestingly enough, even in the west there is a great deal of support for the health benefits of eating a thin, hot soup before a large meal.

Even more traditionally is to down one shot of tuica neat, as an aperitif and then eat a bowl of soup and then begin feasting on a large, home-cooked meal.

I can tell you from long personal experience that aperitif + bowl of soup + full meal = delicious and have “converted” many people to this style of dining, which is of course meant to be a lengthy and languorous affair, not “grabbing a bite” on your hurried way out the door.

Mineral Water

In Romanian there are two kinds of bottled water consumed everywhere: apa minerala (ah-pah me-knee-rahl-ah) or mineral water, and apa plata (ah-pah plah-tah) or “flat’ slash “regular” water.

I think the global brand-name most associated with “mineral water” is Perrier, which many people don’t like because it has a “bitter” taste they’re not used to.

In Romania, the terms are a little confusing because there are actually four kinds of water with two different names.

Technically speaking, “mineral water” refers to water that has certain minerals (duh) dissolved into it. However, what’s less clear is that it can be carbonated (with bubbles) or also non-carbonated.

Similarly, “flat” water or “regular” water without any dissolved solids can similarly be carbonated and made “fizzy”, although this is less common in Romania.

In general however, apa minerala is going to be carbonated mineral water, while apa plata is both “flat” and without trace minerals.

Every bottle has an informative label on the side where you can see the composition of the dissolved solids, which are easy to parse out even if you don’t speak a word of Romanian.

This country is blessed to have many springs of unbelievable delicious spring water, both “flat” and carbonated, mineral waters. These are sold all over Romania under different names, some of the most famous are:

  • Borsec – Considered the “gold standard” in Romania, this water has a harsher “bite” to it than many foreigners prefer. Often purchased purely for prestige purposes.
  • Dorna – A mediocre but acceptable water. The company is owned by the regional Coca-Cola firm so it is found everywhere that Sprite and Coke are sold.
  • Roua Muntilor – Literally meaning “Mountain Dew”, this water has a light, refreshing finish to it.
  • Harghita – Since most of Romania’s best springs are found in Harghita County, this is one of the sweetest, most refreshing brands out there.
  • Izvorul Minunilor – Or “The Spring of Wonders”, this water is largely unpopular but personally my all-time favorite. To me it tastes exactly like 7-Up if you add a slice of lemon to your glass.

What’s interesting about all mineral water, carbonated or not, is that it is an excellent source of a lot of key minerals, especially calcium. One glass of ordinary mineral water can give you roughly half the equivalent of a glass of cow’s milk and mineral water is also an excellent source of magnesium and iron.

If you go to a hipermarket or perhaps a “natura” or healthfood store, you can often find a “medical” version of mineral water where the dissolved contents are far higher, with quite large doses of calcium and other minerals. This is often sold as a kind of health tonic to treat a number of ailments.

With so many varieties of mineral water available in Romania and knowing all of the health benefits, I definitely recommend trying different brands until you find one you like.

That being said, conventional folk wisdom in Romania (especially amongst women) is that drinking carbonated water makes you fat.

Drinking Liquids While Eating

I did some scanning around and it seems most western health experts think that drinking water (or other liquids) while you eat your meal is good for you. I’ve seen many places talk about it specifically as a dieting aid, to wit that you will feel more full and eat less if you drink water with your meal.

Romanians in general rarely consume any liquids with their meal at all. It’s not that it’s forbidden on the table or something but the average Romanian will not drink anything while he/she is eating.

Personally I was raised to always have a large glass full of some kind of drink and to consume it with almost every bite. I saw on the internet that I’m not the only person who used to find it almost impossible to eat at all without some kind of drink.

After doing it “both ways”, I can say that I highly recommend the Romanian style of abstaining from liquids while eating. I found out, to my surprise (although it seems self-evident now) that it was hard to eat a lot of “junk” food without a drink at hand because the food was far too salty, over-flavored or otherwise hard to consume on its own.

You can also taste your food a heck of a lot better without diluting it by drinking and you truly know when you’ve hit your “pleasure spot”.

And last but not least, it’s hard to overeat almost anything without chugging down liquids simultaneously. Sweet foods become cloyingly sweet and salty foods become unbearably sharp once you’ve eaten your fill and not flushed down bite after bite with your drink.

Give it a try and see what you think!

Tea

In general, hot teas are considered a kind of remedy for colds and other common ailments. There will always be a “nature” store in any town which not only sells a wide variety of herbal teas but can “prescribe” one for you if you tell them what illnesses you are suffering from.

In a restaurant it is likely that the only tea on hand will be a fruity, sweet herbal tea that is not caffeinated. In posher or fancier places you might be given the choices of either green or black tea.

In the very largest cities, there are places called ceanarie which have a full spread of teas.

During summer especially, a lot of women in Romania consumed chilled, pre-made tea “drinks”, especially by Nestle or Lipton. These are actually tea-flavored, sickeningly sweet beverages but they’re quite popular here, especially with Hungarians, primarily because they’re not carbonated.

Note: It is impossible to buy “iced tea” almost anywhere made from actual brewed tea leaves.

Coffee

Romanians drink a heck of a lot of coffee (cafea) and you can find it for sale nearly everywhere. With a few exceptions like Starbucks, coffee in Romania generally is one of three kinds:

  • Ness – This means “instant” and is made by mixing hot water with a powder. It is extremely cheap and usually served in a small, plastic cup, heavily laced with sugar.
  • Filtru (feel-true) – This means “brewed” and is the middling level for coffee, more akin to a typical American style than a heavier, more intense European style. It is made by allowing unpressurized hot water to drip or flow over the ground beans. A cup of cafea filtru will rarely cost more than $1 USD.
  • Espresso – Although the name is Italian, in Romania an espresso is actually comprised of a lot more water, which would technically make it a doppio but it is never referred to as such. A common variant in Romanian is the espresso lung (or sometimes cafea lunga) meaning “long” and has more water mixed into it. Even at the most expensive places, it is unlikely to cost you more than $3 USD for a cup of coffee.

If you’re at a walk-up window selling coffee at the train station, it’s most likely going to be cafea ness.

If you’re at a sit down restaurant (or cafe) however, simply ordering a coffee will get you an espresso.  Please be aware that there is no “x” in this word and is pronounced es-press-oh ;)

Note: Some restaurants actually have an item called an “American coffee”, which is a larger cup of coffee that’s much weaker due to the amount of water added to it.

There are also two pseudo-coffee drinks worth mentioning:

  • Frappe (frap-pay) – Generally speaking, a blended concoction of instant coffee, milk, sugar and other flavors to make a kind of weak coffee “milkshake”. Almost never homemade.
  • Cappuccino – Nowhere near to what a proper “cappuccino” should be, in general in Romania these drinks are nothing more than a regular cup of coffee with some cream dolloped on top and perhaps a sprinkling of cinnamon. Only at higher-end places can you find a true cappuccino.

Note: While you will always be served hot coffee in a restaurant or cafe, many Romanians habitually brew coffee at home (or at the office) and let it sit, growing cold. They will rarely, if ever, re-heat coffee and consume it “cold” or room temperature. Beware of being offered a cup of coffee in someone’s home or office that’s cold and not fresh!

Drinking Vessels

Romanians and Europeans in general have a preference for using a “proper” glass, i.e. coffee in a mug, wine in a wineglass, beer in a stein, etc. That being said, there is almost no use of plastic drinking cups, except for small children.

Depending on where you go, you might see some traditional Romanian glasses, made to look like little brown, wooden barrels. A larger, similar version of the barrels are usually used as a carafe for wine.

More rarely, you may be given ceramic vessels for drinking in certain traditional settings as well.

Milk and Drinkable Dairy

Romanians in general, and women especially, drink a tremendous amount of dairy. While UHT milk can be found, most milk sold in Romania is fresh, either whole milk (3.5% fat) or skim milk (1.5%).

Milk is almost always sold in 1 liter containers, usually a kind of waxy, stiff cardboard but sometimes in a bag. Yes, I know it’s weird to buy a “bag of milk” but it exists here, so hush :P

A kind of “drinkable yogurt”, often sold under the brand-name Activia is marketed as a cure for “digestive troubles” and is mostly consumed by women.

There are other more common dairy drinks such as lapte batut (literally “beaten milk”) and sana, both of which are essentially higher-fat drinkable yogurts (sana usually being sweeter than lapte batut).

Buttermilk is known as zer but is considered a waste product and therefore rarely consumed or sold. You truly have to “know a guy who knows a guy” to get this but most pharmacies will sell you a souring agent that you can mix into regular milk to make your own buttermilk at home.

Cheers

And last but not least, in Romania the tradition when “toasting” alcoholic beverages is to clink your glass with every single other person’s and then say “noroc” (no-roak), literally meaning “luck”, and is the equivalent to saying “Cheers” in English.

It is considered bad luck to clink glasses with someone who is drinking a non-alcoholic drink, so don’t do it. Only say “noroc” and bump glasses with people consuming alcoholic drinks with you.

22 thoughts on “Romanian Cultural Practices: Beverages

  1. You forgot the “Turkish-style coffee” and the “pot-coffee” that a lot of Romanians still drink. Turkish-style is the one that you can get when you go to the seaside – it’s brewed on/in the sand. The pot-style is the one that a lot of Romanians drink at home. It is a coffee that you make in a teapot, either by adding coffee to a teapot full of boiling water or by boiling coffee in said teapot.
    Also “Frappe” – the good kind – has ice-cream in it, apart from milk and instant coffee. It’s more of a dessert than a drink.
    “Zer”, as someone else already said, is whey, not buttermilk. Zer is still consumed by a small category of people, being considered very healthy. I haven’t had that since I was a little girl, mostly because it’s very hard to find. Activia is a foreign brand (by Danone, if I’m not mistaken) and it’s consumed mostly by women who want to be trendy, because marketing says that Activia will reduce most digestive problems that women are confronted with – personally I think it’s crap, just like most UHT products you can find on the market. That’s no longer milk – it’s some white liquid that vaguely resembles milk. It reminds me of the stuff I got in Texas in plastic bottles. Most milk sold in the supermakets is the same, only bears a vague resemblance to what we know. If you want true milk, go to the peasants or to the farms.

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  2. Awesome post with a teeny-teensy bit of a caveat. Lapte batut is buttermilk. Zer is whatever’s left from making cheese – whey basically.

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  3. When I was in Romania during the heatwave in the summer of 2007, I was told that hot beverages (and hot food for that matter) cooled you off. However, the only time I felt cool and comfortable during my whole trip was when I got a mango smoothie in Bucharest. Another beverage anomaly: Orange Fanta served for breakfast and called “orange juice.” The only time I had real orange juice during my trip was at a McDonald’s. Also, despite the belief that hot beverages cool you off, I saw a lot of people scrupulously demand that their water be very cold. One time my water (that I was drinking) was taken away from me and put in the refrigerator until it was acceptably cold enough to drink. Don’t tell anyone, but I took it back out of the refrigerator when no one was looking.

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  4. “considered bad luck to clink glasses with someone who is drinking a non-alcoholic drink”

    This might be one of my most-enduring Romanian ingrained behaviors, as instilled by my parents. Americans don’t do this and I frequently find myself in awkward situations where I have a glass of water and have to decide whether it’s rude to not clink glasses with everyone else or “it’s wrong” to clink glasses. Of all the silly things to worry about, jeez…

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    1. How nice to have a bff and since you were both 4 years old? That’s something very rare these days, I hope you will be there for each other for many years to come. Happy Birthday Nana!

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  5. :O Whooooops! :P
    I’ll just pretend I meant to write it shorter because I was doing it in text language… *shifty eyes*
    ;D

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  6. Guess whaaaat! :D
    I did a video for my Romanian sisters (friend-sisters) in la limba Romana and some random commented and saiiid ‘your accent is perfect’ :))) Wooohoo I’m so happy. Sunt fericit :)
    Just had to tell someone! :))

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