Note: This is not intended to be a definitive guide to Romanian food, but merely an introduction to what the visitor to the country can expect when eating in a fairly standard Romanian restaurant. As such, do not expect every dish, cheese or dessert the country has ever produced to be included. For a look at Romanian alcohol: beer, wine and spirits, take a look here.
Let’s face it, few people travel to Romania for the food. As with much of the Balkans the vast majority of what’s on offer is a localised - yet often vastly improved - version of Turkish cuisine, with Hungarian and Germanic influences clearly discernable in Transylvania.
That is not to say that Romania does not have an identifiable cuisine, however, for it does. And much of it is excellent. An example of top Romanian fare is the classic sour soup, ciorba. Made of borş (a sour, honey-coloured liquid made of wheat and cornflour), the tradition of making sour soups is Ukrainian, but was perfected in Moldavia and later Muntenia. In theory anything can go into a ciorba, though the most popular are ciorba de legume (made with vegetables), ciorba de vacuta (made with beef), ciorba de burta (made with tripe), ciorba de perişoare (made with pork meatballs), or borş de miel (made with lamb, and popular at Easter). While you will often see ciorba de pui (ciorba made with chicken), chicken is more popular in clear soups, served with dumplings (galuşte), carrots and parsnips.
At more formal meals a number of cold appetizers – known as gustare reci – will usually be served before the ciorba. These include cheese, olives, spring onions, salami, tomatoes and boiled eggs. Sometimes there may also be a platter of warm appetizers (gustare calde), such as carnaţi de pleşcoi (mutton sausages), ficaţei de pui (chicken livers), ciuperci umplute (stuffed mushrooms), or mici. These are spicy little sausage-shaped meatballs made of mutton, beef and pork.
While main courses are often the biggest disappointment of a Romanian meal (usually little more than gratar si cartofi prajiţi - a grilled piece of meat, usually pork, with fries), there are far more tasty options in good restaurants, such as the celebrated sarmale (cabbage or vine leaves stuffed with mince and rice), or tocaniţa (stew, usually beef or pork). If you see ciolan afumat on a menu, it is worth trying: smoked pork knuckle served with beans or cabbage and very good indeed. Mamaliga, a Romanian version of polenta made of cornmeal, whose stodginess has long been compared to the Romanian temperament, was for many years after the revolution considered peasant food: it is now making a comeback and can be found on some of the menus of some of the best restaurants in the country. It is worth noting that while Romanian pork is superb, the country's beef is not great (most good restaurants import their beef) and lamb - while often very good - is usually found only at Easter.
Though Romania boasts a not insignificant coastline along the Black Sea, the standard of its fish and seafood - specialist restaurants excepted - is poor. Only carp (comically called crap in Romanian) – a fatty fish, usually served grilled or fried - and farmed trout (păstrav; almost always served grilled) are regularly available on restaurant menus. There is an increasingly large number of seafood restaurants in major cities, however, although much of the fish they serve will be imported, and priced accordingly. On the coast, however, you will find places serving a much better selection, particularly good fresh mussels (midii). Look out too for hamsii: tasty, deep fried anchovies.
Romanians also have a wonderful tradition of producing and eating fish roe, known as icre, usually mixed with garlic, onion and sometimes even mayonnaise and served as a delicious salad. Romania also produces decent caviar, although there is currently a moratorium in place on farming sturgeon in Romania.
Sweets in Romania are sweet indeed. Pancakes (clatite) served with chocolate or jam and covered in sugar are a popular dessert, as are papanaşi: deep fried doughnuts filled with jam, or sometimes cottage cheese. Local ice cream (îngheţata) is good and ubiquitous. Look out too for Romanian cakes (prăjituri), usually made with lashings of fresh cream.
As a final word on Romanian food, a note about some strange culinary habits which you may come across in the country's restaurants. For some unexplained reason Romanians usually serve their fries covered with grated cheese. When ordering you can avoid this by stating 'fara branza pe cartofi prajiţi, vă rog.' There is also a local habit of throwing creme fraiche (smântana) on everything, especially in ciorbe and soups. Again, a simple 'fara smântana vă rog' will suffice. Most bizarre of all however is the Romanian tendency to cover perfectly good pizza with ketchup.