If there is one national “comfort food” in Romania, it has to be the dish sarmale, inherited from the long centuries of Turkish rule.
Simply put, sarmale (sar-mall-eh) are cabbage leaves which are folded around a special filling into little “packages” and then (further) cooked.
Because this is a Balkans-wide dish, there are as many variants of sarmale but the Romanian version generally has two different methods.
Method one is using (pre)pickled cabbage leaves. That is to say, the whole cabbage leaves were previously allowed to ferment in a similar way that cucumbers are pickled.
Method two, assuming you don’t have/want pickled leaves is to briefly blanche the cabbage leaves and then add bors (boarsh).
This sounds a little bit like the Russian soup borscht but in Romania it has nothing to do with that. Bors is instead a liquid concoction you can buy here that is very sour. It is essentially “pickle juice” made from fermenting sugar beets.
Either way, the dish sarmale is never complete without some kind of souring agent, as it adds a nice tang to the filling.
Again, the filling varies from household to household and region to region but generally consists of rice, tomato (paste) and some kind of minced meat, often pork.
The filling is cooked and prepared and then spooned into cabbage leaves, which are tightly rolled and placed in a dish. The dish is then (partially) filled with liquid and cooked further, sealing in all the juices and goodness.
When served (piping hot is best), the most common thing to do is add a dollop of sour cream right on top just before eating. And yes, the most popular side dish to accompany some delicious sarmale is the other Romanian classic, mamaliga.
Do you want to try to make sarmale at home? Well it’s doable but it’s a lot of work. Usually these are saved for special occasions (especially Christmas) so you’re in for a real treat if someone makes you homemade sarmale. In fact, this is probably your only chance to get some in Romania as they are rarely sold in restaurants.
The problem, of course, is what to do if you have neither pickled cabbage leaves or bors for sale down at the corner store. It looks like juice from sauerkraut is a good alternative or else a spoonful of vinegar.
There is also a vegetarian version called sarmale de post, eaten during the Lenten season (see more here) wherein the filling is chiefly composed of rice and mushrooms.
The heartiness of the cabbage roll and the rice and meat (or mushroom) mixture give every sarmale a solid weight and a good, warm feeling in your belly. Do not miss out on this national treat!