In my previous posts (here and here), I’ve talked about the good, the bad, and the ugly in Moldovan winemaking — probably with more emphasis on the ugly than the good. But what about the food? Is there a good reason why you probably can’t name a single Moldovan dish, or have I found some hidden gem? Here’s a sample of Moldovan food, as served in some of the better restaurants in the country.
As in many former Soviet republics, if you’re an aspiring restaurateur who wants to open a high-end joint in Moldova, you typically pitch Italian or French cuisine instead of the local grub; or, at least, claim to do so in your advertisements, even if neither you nor your cooks have ever set foot in Western Europe. I suspect that many locals would dismiss my restaurant picks as tourist traps, where waiters in ridiculous costumes serve overpriced everyday dishes and bored fiddlers play “Ochi chyornye” for patrons that don’t quite get that Chișinău “isn’t part of Russia anymore”. And the locals would be partly right, except that there aren’t any reasonable alternatives (don’t worry, I’ll talk about the unreasonable alternatives in another post).
Unbeknownst to you, you actually are familiar with the most popular Moldovan dish. It’s called grătar, and this just designates a piece of meat (or sometimes vegetables) grilled with approximate skill, almost always overcooked “to be safe”. The only assurance you’re really getting is that your meal will be consumed with moderate enjoyment. In many places grilled meat can be nearly the only option on the menu, especially outside of the capital.
Restaurant Orasul Vechi, for an exemplar, serves some above-average meats such as the veal shashlyk and the steak below:
Of course, what can one possibly eat with grilled meat, but grilled vegetables? So far, on the heels of my Caucasian trips, I don’t feel too disoriented. I could have eaten more or less the same in a caravanserai in Baku!
Here’s something a bit different: cârnăciori. I remember we weren’t too thrilled by these sausages, but my opinion deteriorated even further when I read this recipe — boiled frozen vegetables, microwaved frozen sausage. Go Moldovan cuisine!
Mămăligă, a kind of polenta, is a very common garnish, generally served plain next to some vegetables. Vatra Neamului also serves another side dish called alivancă, in which the cornmeal is mixed with cheese and then baked, making the whole thing more interesting.
We also tried an eggplant caviar, made with eggplant, tomato, and onion if I remember correctly. I don’t want to repeat myself, but these two appetizers, though prepared slightly differently, could have appeared on nearly any menu in Azerbaijan. Here’s a very good underlying reason for the similarities: the Principality of Moldavia was a tributary to the Ottoman Empire from 1538 until the Treaty of Bucharest of 1812.
Another traditional dish is plăcintă, a kind of pie with a thin layer of dough. Typical fillings include cheese or tvorog. This bears strong visual resemblance to Georgian khachapuri.
All the dishes so far have been very traditional. Restaurant Pani Pit offers some more original dishes that are worth trying. Such as this baked eggplant filled with tomatoes and brynza:
Or this goose breast in a cherry sauce, served with vegetable skewers from the grătar. I remember the menu being quite large, with several other interesting options. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that service in Moldovan restaurants is very slow. I assume most dishes are cooked to order, completely from scratch. Meals can easily take close to two hours. In general, if you’re on a tight sightseeing schedule and need to eat lunch fast, the best (only?) option in Chișinău is… McDonald’s.
If you’re touring the wineries, it’s worth checking out their meal options. The prestige tour at Cricova costs about $30 more per person than the equivalent without food, but you’ll get a ridiculously copious lunch that will give you an overview of Moldovan cuisine and taste pretty good. Start with a vegetable and cheese salad:
Then try the cheese invirtita (as seen on this Moldovan postage stamp), a kind of roll where the cheese filling is wrapped in a thin layer of dough, and the sarmale, little cabbage rolls in tomato sauce (not pictured).
In summary, Moldovan cuisine — like Romanian cuisine, of which is it mostly a subset — clearly shows Turkish, Ukrainian, and Russian influences. It’s heavy on the grilled meat; there are also some subtle regional differences. As much as I love grilled meat as a rule, my advice would be to stay away from the grătar dishes as much as possible. Just as in many countries that belonged to the Ottoman Empire at some point but don’t have much of a Turkic population remaining, the tradition of eating kebabs and other grilled pieces of meat lingered on, while the skill to prepare them seems to have left with the erstwhile invaders. Anyway, sooner or later in your traveling folly, you will find yourself outside of the capital, and then grătar will be your only option. Sometimes you will have the choice between grilled pork and potato chips. Sometimes you’ll wish you’d picked the potato chips. So enjoy the stuffed eggplants, goose breasts, and cheese invirtita while you can!