There are two roads into the Maramureş region of Romania, one in—one out; then, there’s the mountain and the snowpack which isolates the region for months out of the year. All of this has preserved local culture; in fact, you can visit assured to see the same costumes as folks wore 100 years ago, each village donning its respective colors and designs. Life is a slow pace there; widows wear black for a year, but “good wives” never re-marry taking black as their partner instead. Slow cooking is not a movement, it’s simply cooking: outdoor ovens, earthenware. Folks in Maramureş eat seasonal food and pickle whatever is left before the freeze. They settle in for the winter sewing designs on tunics, sipping tuică and stoking the fire.
This is how Mirela grew up: nestled near the mountain, picking veggies and fruits, eating freshly butchered meat. When fall rolled around, Mirela and her family savored the fresh cabbage and pickled the leftover, so they could enjoy it throughout the year. Mostly, the cabbage was saved for sarmales, which were made only two or three times per year. Forty days before Christmas, Romanians refrain from eating meat, so Mirela’s family had “to find 1,000 ways to cook potato, cabbage and beans” before they could feast on their beloved sarmales. Just before Christmas, Mirela would join her parents and siblings in preparing the holiday feast after her father butchered the pig. Each family member was tasked with a job. Mirela’s mother made the pastries and the cakes which Mirela decorated. Her father, with his patience and focused hand, rolled the sarmales counting each stuffed leaf he dropped into the pot.
Mirela left Maramureş in 1978, bidding farewell to her family and village and mounting a plane that would deposit her and her one year-old daughter in Honolulu. Settled into her seat, garbed in hand-made clothing and barely able to speak English, she had no diapers nor any way to ask for them. The tough transition had begun. Over time, she became accustomed to life on the island, but she quickly gave up meat because it lacked the flavor and quality she knew back home. In fact, she didn’t celebrate he first Thanksgiving until ten years later, finally able to palate turkey.
Today, Mirela has staked her place in US culture, but she still craves her home culture and returns to Maramureş once a year. When she’s tucked into her daily here life, she takes measures to incorporate her traditions into her own family. Her kids and their high school friends piled into the house at the mention of vinete, gobbling it up and returning as adults asking for the recipe. Sarmales, though, seem to be the guest of honor at any family celebration, especially Christmas. During December, Mirela is able to acquire smoked sausage from her local Romanian market, but other times she makes do with Hungarian smoked bacon instead. Romanians don’t measure ingredients and don’t write down recipes, she explains, tossing herbs over ground meat while the eggplant roasts in a cast iron pan. The smell of roasting eggplant “calms [her] husband,” and we can see why. Everything about this tradition invokes a quiet focus, a welcoming warmth.
Mirela and her daughter, Joanne, sit down ready to roll; as Mirela’s father did before, she and Joanne keep track of how many sarmales they’ve rolled, at one point losing track (no doubt because of a camera or a question); rather than just estimate, Mirela counts them all over again. As she rolls “like making a burrito”—not too tight, not too full, she explains she’ll waste nothing, extra cabbage will be made into soup, just like back home. She and Joanne take their time, rolling just enough to allow expansion of uncooked rice, each trying to mimic Mirela’s father’s perfect roll.
Sarmales simmer in the oven over low heat for hours as the house fills with a smoky tomato scent and family members arrive. Finally, it’s time to dive into the pot. There is no refusal; in Romania, Mirela explains, they don’t take no for an answer. Instead, there’s a little game they play: if one is asked once and refuses, she is asked again. If she still refuses, she’s asked a second time and of course refuses. If she’s not asked a third time, she complains, “they only asked me twice.” Even poor folks feed their guests sarmales; they just add more rice than meat but make sure to always have enough to share. Sitting down at Mirela’s table, one experiences the same level of generosity she’s recounted of her people. Plates heap, glasses clink, cheeks pudge. Just as the soft, smoky sarmale stuffed with creamy rice coats the tongue, Mirela’s kindness envelops her guest.
2-3 heads of medium cabbage 800g (28 oz.) ground pork and beef mixture 2 medium onions finely chopped 1-2 garlic cloves finely chopped 200g (7 oz.) white rice 400g (14 oz can) crushed tomatoes 1/2 bunch dill 4-6 bay leaves Vegeta* or sea salt and black pepper to taste Thyme to taste ½ tb. paprika 200ml (approx. 1.5 cups) water or broth ½ lb. sliced smoked bacon ½ lb. chopped smoked sausage
1. Sautee the onions and garlic in 3-4 tablespoons of oil. When onions become glassy, add the paprika and cook for another minute or so, set aside to cool.
2. In the meantime, bring water to boil in a large pot . Cut out the core of the cabbage and when the water starts to bubble, place the cabbage in the water. Remove the leaves one by one as they start to get soft and let them cool.
3. In a large mixing bowl place : the meat mixture, onion mixture, rice, salt, pepper, thyme and water, mix well.
4. Take one cabbage leaf at the time and place a tablespoon full of the meat mixture in the middle of the leaf and roll like a little burrito. Roughly chop the leftover cabbage and place half at the bottom of a Dutch oven, add half of the bay leaves, some of the dill and a few slices of smoked bacon. Set the rolled Sarmale in circles in the pot. Cover them with rest of cut cabbage, bay leaves, dill, smoked bacon, smoked sausage and crushed tomatoes. Add water or broth as needed until the rolls are all covered. Place the dish in a 350 degree oven for about 2-3 hours or on the stove on low heat for 4-5 hours. Make sure the dish is not full to the top before cooking as the rice expands during cooking.
*Vegeta is a Croatian seasoning mixture that includes salt, spices and dehydrated vegetables. It can be found at international food stores and online.