There’s a lot of debate about whether we, Romanians, have some real, unique, traditional food or rather we have taken some recipes from around our borders and we added or subtracted one or more ingredients only to present a new interpretation of that dish.
I personally consider that we didn’t really invent a lot but for sure we contributed to the culinary stage with some damn fine adjustments.
But if we are talking about uniqueness then something pretty special that you can find around our parts is the fish recipes that we get from our fellow “Lipoveni“, the people that first started to inhabit the Danube Delta. These people came from Rusia in the 17th and 18th century as a reaction to the changes that the Orthodox Church was imposing at that time. Hard people, they wanted to keep their religion and traditions untouched but while doing that they were taxed to their skin. 17th century Rusia was something like 20th century Iraq from the “power of religion” point of view. So they left Rusia and a lot of them, especially the ones coming from the area of the rivers Don and Dniepre, decided to settle in the area of Basarabia and Danube Delta. Most probably they were fishermen, people used to the roughness of the water, even in the coldest of times, so they found the land virgin and ready to take them in. With the exception of the Sulina branch, which was supporting the river navigation, all of the Delta was most probably wild. But also generous.
So I guess that even if we have pretty unique recipes in the Delta, for sure the basics of it are brought here by these fellows and they were enhanced for some other couple of hundred of years until they’ve reached the spectacle they are today.
Nothing more famous than “Borș de pește”
It may be that you are on the Romanian seaside but you would really love to have some Delta style fish soup. That special broth, containing water from the Danube (if you want to get totally traditional) in which fresh vegetables are boiled, together with at least 5-6 types of fish and green things are added at the end of it all in order to spice up the concoction. So that it gives that special fishy flavour (and that’s not a bad thing), they would boil the heads, tails, roes and other parts of the fish that you wouldn’t normally use in the second course. Pretty much nothing of the fish is wasted except its intestines.
It was Sunday and we were leaving for home from the seaside. My bowels were really singing the song of the hungry mouths and I could’ve really gone for some of this traditional fish recipes. Even though we were around the water (except the sea all our seaside area is filled with lakes) I can tell you that the area around Constanța really lacks restaurants that are up to the job of cooking “Delta style”. As we are always leaving Mamaia through Năvodari small city (more like a village with flats that Ceaușescu really wanted to transform in a town), we decided to try out “Cherhanaua Tașaul“, a fish restaurant that one of our dearest friends told us about.
For sure the places we call “cherhana” make no sense to you but you should know that those are places where fishermen gather the fish and where they sell it. It’s like a “fish collector”, the place where you would go to find the freshest fish, the kind you would get at 6:30 in the morning when the fishermen get back from the lakes.
When a restaurant brags through its offer that it can serve decent Delta style food, I always test it by asking for the “borș” (the word for soup when referring to the fish kind, around these parts). As I’m a regular with at least 3 times/year presence in the Delta since I was something like 15-16 years old, I think I have quite a good experience with the original dishes. And I can tell you that nothing compares to the original. I’ve had the opportunity to be served “borș de pește” (fish borș) from a big cauldron under which logwood has been burning for about 2 hours, deep inside the Delta, on some shore of some canal. While it prepares, people continue fishing and drinking (the main sport in the Delta). I’ve eaten the original, with “fresh” water from the Danube, thoroughly boiled together with all the ingredients listed above and fish from what we managed to catch. In the end, they take out the fish meat from the soup, put it on a platter and serve it separately, not inside the bowl. After you eat the soup, you can attack the fish that goes just fine with the white garlic paste they prepare in the Delta (the God of garlic is in that paste). Think about all this feast, to be served on the deck of an old, small vessel (8-10 people), coasted under the branches of some big willow, protecting us while eating, from the rays of the scorching sun.
At Tașaul they don’t joke about the borș. Though they can’t bring the fish out of the soup as the tradition goes (being a dish only for one person is rather hard) they do serve the garlic paste and bring you the separate platter so you can fish it out yourself. That’s a clear sign they know the business. Though the pictures may not be the most beautiful in the world of cuisine, as the plating is not the thing that counts here, the taste is the authentic one and I would encourage anyone around Constanța to try it. It’s maybe the easiest way to get one while not venturing into the Delta. Some can’t even stand the mosquitos so…
‘Dat Delta feeling
Being the first course and I being pretty hungry, I ate the borș fast. So fast that I had plenty of time to go around and check out the place until they’ve brought the second course. The fact that it is set right on the shore of lake Tașaul, an artificial lake, formed in the communist era when they pretty much flooded a little bit of land while constructing some artificial canal in order to make the area navigable, makes it interesting.
They left some boats to erode here. By accident or by purpose, I don’t know and I don’t care. Personally, I think that some fishermen still use the improvised small port below in the photos. They most probably share the place with the restaurant in exchange for a fresh catch when they return from their morning round. In any case, it gives the place an air of authenticity, while all the decorations they used are also bits and pieces of everyday fisherman life. After all, that’s what’s all about: authenticity.
I’ve taken my time and checked out the wrecks. Somehow I was fascinated for 10-15 minutes by the way the rust attacked the metal and even though the sun was high up in the sky, there were some clouds that dimmed the light just enough so I can take some shots that don’t look totally burnt.
Nets and traps for fish. That’s the main thematic of the place. The things we use in order to catch that daily piece of lake meat.
The second course came pretty fast. Just in time because I was about to get some chained dog pretty pissed off on me. It seemed I went a little bit too far between the wrecks and they were not so unguarded after all.
They’ve convinced me here about their ability to cook as close as possible to the style of the Delta but I already got to order the second dish in the beginning. And being a mussels lover I just had to try it out from this point of view also. While on the seaside, a fish place has to be able to cook decent shells, even if it goes a little bit on the species of freshwater fish. ’tis the season, you know?
They nailed that one as well, no worries there. Good borș and tasty mussels, not an easy to find combination around these parts but it seems that tradition and a place that can run also in extra season (around here that’s something like 8 months) can achieve that. At least in my taste.
If I’d recommend the place? I think that by now you’ve already understood that I would. I would even invite a foreigner to dine here, that’s how far I’d go with the place.
Though I had big prejudices before actually trying it (heard so many good things about it from too many people that somehow I would’ve expected the ironic resolution) I have to say that “Cherhanaua Tașaul” is the correct place to go and discover what Romanians understand through the expression “a modern fish menu with traditional flavours“.