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Inside the Culinary Traditions of the Roma people

Inside the Culinary Traditions of the Roma people

One of the better way to explore Roma culture is discovering their traditional food. How could a nomadic people build its own traditional cuisine?

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Once a year, the main street in the town of Lendava, Slovenia, just beside the Hungarian border, is dotted with bubbling cauldrons stirred with long-handled wooden spoons that resemble broomsticks. It usually happens in August and it is not an annual witches’ reunion, but Bogračfest, a food fair featuring the regional specialty, a hearty and warming stew made of three types of meat (beef, pork and game), potatoes and flavored with paprika. It is a dish associated with the Prekmurje region of Slovenia, but also with Roma culture that has been a strong influence on the area since the Romani people settled here, back in the 18th century.

The Roma, the traditionally nomadic ethnic group that originated in ancient India and has spread throughout Europe since the 14th century is a rich but also mysterious one. The Roma people have traditionally lived on the fringes, often by choice. But one of the ways that their culture can most easily be presented to the wider public is through food.

Traditional Roma food restaurants

In Slovenia’s second-largest city, Maribor, there is a restaurant called Romani Kafenava, specializing in the food of, and run by, Roma. The food looks and tastes amazing, but certainly qualifies as exotic.

It borrows elements from throughout the Balkans, with a strong Turkish influence. The inviting menu includes goulash, both meat and potato-based, savory pies filled with cheese or meat (which recall burek), stuffed peppers roasted in a clay pot, lamb roasted pod peko in a closed clay vessel (like Moroccan tagine, but a tradition found in Croatia and Serbia), stuffed cabbage leaves (popular throughout the Balkans, called sarma), a minced meat rolls (that recall cevapcici) and baklava for dessert. But we also get some curiosities that intrigue, like preste, which translates as pretzels but is actually more like savory breadsticks with a yogurt dipping sauce, which they offer for breakfast. Thus, the menu will not be too wild for folks from this part of the world, but each dish looks (and tastes) just different enough to make it feel distinctive.

The Roma dishes

While the ancient origins of the Roma people hail from India, none of the traditional Roma food go back that far, as they have lived in Europe for more than five-hundred years. They are, rather, a collective of gathered techniques and ingredients from throughout the Balkans, the territory of the nomadic peoples for many centuries past. Their food is also, often of necessity, inexpensive to prepare and uses portable ingredients. Thus, beef and pork are rare inclusions, while chicken and lamb and goat or wild birds and game are the preferred proteins. Potato and peppers, cabbage and rice are often the building blocks around which dishes are made. The favored spices are paprika and garlic. And it makes sense for people of a nomadic tradition that means that traditional Roma dishes were favored to be cooked over embers or an open fire, like stews and soups prepared slowly in an iron cauldron.

Rabbit stew is a favorite, which fleshes out the rabbit meat with innards and bacon and onions, to make the dish stretch farther to feed more folk. The fancier version of this stew is served in a pastry crust, though the traditional version is just eaten with a spoon. A meal built around rabbit meat is called xaimoko. Perhaps the most striking specialty associated with gypsy cuisine is baked hedgehog. Yup, I didn’t know you could eat them, either, but apparently they are tasty when wrapped in clay and baked in a fire. This technique was a popular and portable way to cook meat, and wrapping a chicken in clay, and baking it covered in embers, was likewise traditional in Roma cuisine.

Depending on where people settled

There are a variety of fried bread dishes, including xaritsa (fried cornbread), pufe (fried wheat bread) and bogacha (baked bread). The best-known dessert is pirogo, a sort of sweet noodle casserole (think of Jewish kugel) packed with raisins, cream cheese, and butter.

It's quite clear that traditional Roma food differs depending on where the people settled in Europe. While they were primarily nomadic from the 14th century until the 18th, from that point on they tended to lay down roots, and so adapted and absorbed local ingredients, traditions and eating habits from their localities, integrating them with their own practices. Thus a Roma restaurant in Slovenia will have a different menu from one in Budapest, though there will be overlap, and the emphasis on foods that can be trapped or foraged, as opposed to pastured livestock and cultivated agriculture, remains, as Roma have rarely been stationary farmers with tracts of land.

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