keeping traditions; in the kitchen: lessons on sarmale

For my final English class with my beginning group, we took a Romanian recipe for sarmale and translated it into English and had some major conversations about food.  I used the excuse that I’m becoming a Romanian woman (M? fac românc?) and every Romanian woman needs a good sarmale recipe.

Quick aside: Sarmale is traditional Romanian food that’s seen in various forms across Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean.  It’s a meat/rice filling stuffed into cabbage leaves or grape leaves or really anything.  In Romania, it’s usually served with a tomato broth sort of sauce. It’s tasty.

I thought that our English class was the end of my sarmale lesson, but I was wrong.  Sunday evening, Carmen called. Was I free Monday afternoon to learn to make sarmale with her mom?  Hell, yes, I was free.  She told me to not bring anything but a bowl.

Monday, I met Carmen at 3:00PM and we walked to the apartment she shares with her mom, Maria.  It is impeccably clean with the teeniest galley kitchen ever.  But we stuffed ourselves in there with the door closed (curent!!) and started the process.  Carmen made sure I took diligent notes and pictures of various steps.  We made sarmale, stuffed peppers, tomatoes, and squash, and a sort of meatball.  As it all cooked, we ate borscht with hribi (a forest mushroom), peas, and I sampled the meatballs. It was great fun — cooking, chatting, looking at pictures, hearing stories —  but by 11:00PM, with the sarmale finally done, I was a tired gospondina!

As I was preparing to I leave, Maria asked for my bowl.  I gave her my bowl and she shook her head, “This bowl is too small.”  She loaded ALL the sarmale and stuffed veggies, ALL the meatballs, frozen roasted peppers, and some cake into various recycled containers and handed them to me.  Confused as to why I was getting all the bounty, I asked why they weren’t saving any for themselves.  They are fasting for St. Peter and Paul until the end of the month and so aren’t eating meat.  They made sarmale just for me (and meatballs for the veggie-hater, David).  Not to share, not for themselves, but for us and for me to have the experience.   I was simultaneously honored and humbled and incredibly welcomed.

For more pictures from my time with Carmen and Maria, look here!


  1. Gretel
    June 22, 2010

    Hey, did you bake the oala full of tomato broth? I’ve always cooked it all stove-top in a big soup pot, and that’s what my hosts did for Easter too. Anyway, rock on you gospodina, you.

    • veronica
      June 23, 2010

      Once we filled the oala with sarmale and other goodies, we filled it with a broth of water, herbs, and homemade tomato paste. And then the oala went covered into the oven for several hours. They said that I could cook them stove top, but that since the water simmers off, they can get dry. The oala they used reminded me of a crockpot type set up. OH and a good trick is to line the bottom of your oala with cabbage leaves & parts (that you were going to discard) to keep things from sticking to the bottom!


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