Moldovan Impressions: The Food, Part 1

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.

Chisinau - Restaurant NationalAs 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:

Restaurant Orasul Vechi - Veal Shashlyk and SteakOf 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!

Restaurant Orasul Vechi - Grilled VegetablesHere’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!

Restaurant Orasul Vechi - Cirnaciori

More grilled food, this time from restaurant Vatra Neamului, including mititei, ground meat rolls that will remind any Azerbaijani of lyulya-kebab.

Restaurant Vatra Neamului - Grilled MeatMămăligă, 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.

Restaurant Vatra Neamului - AlivancaGoing back to the appetizers, the stuffed pepper piqued my interest. The filling consisted essentially of ground pork, and the green pepper was coated in some sort of crispy batter.

Restaurant Vatra Neamului - Stuffed PepperWe 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.

Restaurant Vatra Neamului - Eggplant CaviarAnother 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.

Restaurant Vatra Neamului - Cheese PieAll 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:

Restaurant Pani Pit - Stuffed EggplantOr 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.

Restaurant Pani Pit - Goose BreastIf 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:

Cricova Winery - Lunch - Vegetables and Brinza… and a plate of cold cuts, such as chicken sausage and boiled pork:

Cricova Winery - Lunch - Cold Cuts… plus a plate of grilled zucchini, green peppers, eggplant caviar and tomato spread:

Cricova Winery - Lunch - VegetablesThen 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).

Cricova Winery - Lunch - Brinza RollsAfter all this, to really make sure you won’t leave hungry, Cricova serves you a pork steak. I’m amused by the would-be eggplant-brynza-tomato napoleon on the side.

Cricova Winery - Lunch - SteakThere was dessert too, but I stopped taking pictures (and I don’t think the dessert was particularly Moldovan).

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!

7 thoughts on “Moldovan Impressions: The Food, Part 1

  1. Moldovan food is the best food but homemade,,not from restaurant,belive me,you should try homemade stuffed papper and pacinta its yamyyyyyyyyyyyyy

      • Hi,for now I can share only Stuffed Peppers
        Serves (8-10)
        10 bell peppers (any color-red, green, yellow)
        2 lbs. ground beef
        2 cups rice, uncooked
        2 cups water
        1 medium yellow onion-finely minced
        1 cup grated carrots
        2-3 cloves garlic, minced
        1 Tbsp. tomato paste
        1 tsp. ground black pepper
        1 tsp. sweet paprika
        1 tsp. ground cumin
        Salt to taste
        1 bayleaf
        3 Tbsp. olive oil
        2 cups marinara sauce
        1 cup Sour Cream
        Fresh dill
        Rinse peppers and cut stem and top off, removing the seeds from the inside.
        In a large pot heat the butter and oil over medium-high heat. Add onions, carrots, and garlic and sauté until softened, but not browned, 2-3 minutes. Add ground meat and mix well; Sauté for additional 3-5 minutes. Add uncooked rice, tomato paste, bay leaf, salt, black pepper, paprika, and cumin mix well. Pour water and bring to a boil and then quickly lower to a gentle simmer. Stir occasionally for about 7-8 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave untouched for 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer mixture in to a big bowl, mix well and let it cool.
        When cool enough to handle, fill peppers with rice mixture, mounding top slightly, and place uncut side down in a large baking pan. (Can be made up to 1 day ahead to this point.)
        In a bowl mix Marinara Sauce and sour cream, pour it over the peppers, cover with foil and bake at 375 degrees for 90 minutes. Half-way through baking (at 45 minutes) remove the foil, spoon the sauce from the baking dish over the peppers. When they are ready, place peppers on a serving platter, spoon sauce on top from the baking pan, sprinkle with fresh dill and serve.

  2. I thought a lot about what you wrote here. I am not from Moldavia, but from around the corner.
    In such countries, eating out is seen as a way of trying out new things, not as a routine or an ordinary thing, since people still cook a lot in their own homes. So they rarely eat out (only on occasions). No one could expect such restaurant, with “traditional” cuisine, should thrive – unless they’re targeted to foreigners or to business lunches (hence, the wineries with rather peppery prices).

  3. Pingback: Moldovan Impressions: The Food, Part 2 | Food Perestroika

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