You’d miss it at first glance. But if you were to look very closely at my sneakers, you’d see it there – the stubborn streak of rich brown mud which I acquired on a rainy Saturday afternoon in Transylvania. We had spent the morning in the spa town of Sovata, which is also known for its narrow gauge steamtrain, and had now stumbled on the annual cabbage festival in the nearby town of Praid. The unexpectedness, the “real”-ness, the spirit, and the artistic and culinary devotion of this village celebration was one of the highlights of ten recent days in Romania.
When I first told friends and family that I was headed to (and excited about) Romania, the ubiquitous reaction was…”ummm. Why?” Even the front desk staff at my Bucharest hotel was perplexed; “we never met anyone before who really wanted to come here,” they claimed. But Romania had been on my bucket list for quite some time and for multiple reasons. First, as a graduate student of Eastern European studies and International Relations, I was fascinated by the culture, history, and politics of this part of the world. Second, Romania, and especially Transylvania, is quite possibly the last remaining untainted wilderness in Europe. Having recently visited Angkor Wat in Cambodia with its 48 ticket windows, 3-day entrance package displayed in convention-style plastic neck passes, Illy espresso and Havaiana flipflop shops, alongside thousands of tourists posing for selfies, untainted was exactly what I was after. But perhaps most compelling was the diversity of Romania. Due to its history and geographic location, the country is home to a wide array of ethnicities, languages, and cultural differences. And while that’s fascinating to me in its own right, it also means the food is going to be diverse, interesting, and delicious.
The Romanian language itself reflects this diversity. Primarily a Romance language, it also features a fair amount of Slavic, the most obvious of which is the Russian word “da” for yes. Clearly the language was a hodgepodge. But so was Bucharest — drab Communist block buildings and adorable cobblestone streets,
a splendid university, Parisian-style boulevards, even an Arc de Triomphe, a lakeside park featuring an outstanding peasant village museum alongside Zara, Sephora, sex clubs and Starbucks.
As I made my way deeper and deeper into the heart of “România Mare,” I confirmed that “hodgepodge” summed up this place quite well. There are ethnic Romanian villages, Hungarian villages, Saxon (German-speaking) villages, and gypsies. In many places, they are hodgepodged together. A rich history featuring centuries of conquest activity by Ottomans, Russians, Habsburgs, Magyars, and other hungry warriors keeps things interesting.
So it wasn’t altogether strange that we found ourselves in the middle of an entirely Hungarian celebration of brassica oleracea var. capitata, also known as the cabbage. A lowly vegetable for most of us, the cabbage is a culinary workhorse in this part of the world. It’s plentiful, cheap, grows in cold weather and is versatile. It’s actually incredibly tasty when eaten fresh from the ground as a few of us lucky travelers did at the Hora cu Brazi (“dancing with the fir trees”) guesthouse farm in Zărnești.
But until the Praid festival, I had no idea how revered the cabbage could be. Even before reaching the deeply muddy festival itself, the town welcomed us with a lifesize replica of King Arthur and the knights of the round table –constructed from cabbage.
There were cabbage bride and groom couples, cabbage mushrooms, cabbage priests, a cabbage Madonna with child, cabbage nuns, cabbage horses, extended cabbage families, and much more.
Other autumnal vegetables enjoyed creative artistic treatment as well. I awarded the “best non-cabbage sculpture” prize to this eggplant hedgehog, but there were also convincing pumpkin, squash and potato creatures plus a plethora of peppers thrown in for good measure as well.
All this artistic vegetable-ogling combined with the rich, spicy, mouth-watering scents emanating from the large circle of individual booths reminded us that it had been many hours since our early morning breakfast of fresh sheep’s cheeses, eggplant relishes, yogurt and homemade bread. So we sank deep into the mud to seek our prize — Töltött Káposzta – Hungarian stuffed cabbage. But how to choose? Each numbered tent featured a family cooking up huge batches of their own version of Töltött Káposzta.
In most cases, the cabbage rolls were simmering in a massive cauldron over a very rustic flame. And each was a bit different – some filled with rice (traditional), others with barley, most with varieties of pork, all bathed in flavorful sauces redolent with paprika and garlic. One ingredient remained constant: the giant dollop of rich sour cream spooned over the top of the dish.
Now picture the villagers – from the youngest children to elderly people as wrinkled as the cabbage rolls themselves – squelching through the mud with self-satisfied expressions as they balance their hard-won plates of stuffed cabbage to long benches in the inviting center tent.
Washed down with a local beer or wine while listening to the village children, teenagers, and adults playing festive Hungarian music on the bandstand —there is no better way to celebrate an overcast and slightly chilly autumn day in Transylvania.
I wish I could tell you that I used good judgment and called it quits after the cabbage.
But purely out of respect for my new friends, I felt it only appropriate to also order – and eat – langos. Langos is freshly fried bread that emerges from its hot oil bath resembling a big puffy cloud.
Traditionalists eat it with sour cream and dill, although topping options abound
– grated sheep cheese (my pick), onions and garlic, even jam. We can thank the Ottomans for having introduced this treat to Romania when they moved in a long time ago.
I’m back in the US now and craving the stuffed cabbage from that afternoon in Praid. So, into my kitchen I go with newfound respect for this most humble of vegetables. I’ll be serving this recipe for dinner tonight. I may even sculpt an eggplant hedgehog for table décor. But one thing I will not do – powerwash my sneakers to remove that telltale splotch of mud. It will remain as a talisman of my adventures in Cabbageland, where on one very damp Saturday afternoon, I got to feel – and eat – like a Transylvanian.
Töltött Káposzta (Stuffed Cabbage)
Note- Romanians call this dish Sarmale. However since I visited a Hungarian village festival within Romania, we’re going with their title. Stuffed cabbage varieties abound throughout Eastern and Central Europe- other names include holubky (Czech), holishkes (Yiddish), gołąbki (Polish), and balandeliai (Lithuanian). In the German language I grew up with, they are known as Kohlrouladen.
The recipe below is based on one in “Jewish Soul Food, from Minsk to Marrakech” by Janna Gur.
Recipe – makes about 12-14 cabbage rolls depending on the size of your cabbage
1 large head of green cabbage
½ cup rice (I used basmati, any longer grain type will work)
1 pound ground beef (you can substitute ground lamb, turkey, veal, or a mix. Some fat is desirable in the meat.)
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup water
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon Hungarian paprika (sweet)
3 tablespoons neutral oil (I used canola)
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon chili powder
½ head of green cabbage, chopped (c. ¾ pound of cabbage)
14 ounces sauerkraut, strained
2 cups tomato puree (tomato juice works fine as well)
1 cup water
Apple juice (optional)
Sour cream for serving
Egri Bikaver or beer (optional – to drink alongside!)
- To prepare the cabbage for leaf removal: use a sharp knife to cut into and remove the hard center core of the cabbage (as you would an apple before making baked apples). You don’t need to cut all the way down, about ½ way should do it.
- Place the cabbage in a large pot full of boiling water with the cut side down. Cover pot and cook for 15 minutes.
- Remove the cabbage (I used one long handled grill fork and one rounded spatula, but large spoons will work) and place on a large plate or cutting board. Let cool slightly until comfortable to handle.
- Carefully remove the leaves, one by one, and place on a tray or large plate so there is a rounded opening facing you (for stuffing). This means the thick backboney part will be against the plate, exposing the inner part of the leaves.
5. Make the filling by chopping or grating the onions. Then squeeze out any liquid from the onions. Place in a large bowl and add the rice, ground beef, garlic, water, salt, pepper, paprika. Combine this mixture well.
6.Place about ¼ cup of the beef filling into the center part of a cabbage leaf. Start rolling up using the wide part of the leaf. About halfway up, fold in the sides of the leaf and and then continue rolling the widest part until you’ve rolled the entire leaf. This should create a tight package which will hold together while cooking. (be careful not to overfill your leaves – adjust amount according to leaf size- the center filling will increase in size during cooking.)
7. Repeat with remaining leaves. If you have extra beef mixture, you can make little meatballs and add to the pot.
8. In a large-sized and wide saucepan, heat the oil over medium and then add garlic, salt, pepper, paprika, sugar, and chili powder. Cook for about a minute to enable the flavors to meld, then remove from the heat.
9. Add the green cabbage and sauerkraut, and then the tomato puree and water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Once this boils, reduce heat to low and cook for 5 minutes.
10. Place the cabbage rolls, with their seam side down, tightly in the pan. The sauce should cover all the rolls. If they are not covered, add a bit more water, tomato puree, tomato juice, or – my preference- apple juice.
11. Bring this mixture to a boil, then cover the and reduce the heat to very low. Cook for 1-1.5 hours, checking every now and then to ensure there is still enough liquid to cover the rolls. If there is less than half the liquid you started off with, add more apple juice, water, or tomato puree. There should still be sauce left in the pan to spoon over the cabbage rolls when they are done cooking.
12.Serve with a big dollop of sour cream and maybe, if you’re lucky enough to get some, a bottle of Egri Bikaver, Hungarian Bull’s Blood wine.
Jó étvágyat! (Hungarian) and poftă bună! (Romanian) – Enjoy your meal!