So I guess when I find myself lingering over an internet news story illustrated with a picture of a Big Mac, it’s time to start to talking about food. I’ve managed to steer clear of the subject pretty handily for the last three months, other than giving sidebar compliments to my Stauceni host mom for her “healthy cooking.” It was healthy, primarily, for being composed almost entirely (other than a tablespoon of oil here and there) from items plucked directly from the ground outside her kitchen door. I ate soup (or ciorba, as they call it) for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Cold, lukewarm, and sometimes hot. This had nothing to do with the weather, but rather when she might have prepared it and how long it had been sitting in the beci since then.
Honey, I Shrunk the Plates
You’ve all heard of Super-sizing your meal, right? That’s what we do in America – take reasonably sized things and inflate them to gigantic proportions: cars, houses, airplanes, hamburgers, sodas, boobs, lips, waistlines. Well in Moldova, they haven’t quite caught up yet. Everything is micro-sized. Or maybe it’s actually normal-sized and I’m just myopic in registering things on this scale. Honest to god, their plates are six inches across. They look like saucers. I thought they were saucers when I first arrived and I kept searching through the cupboards for the dinnerware.
Small plates actually equate to small portions – who would’ve thunk? Dietetic problems solved – bingo! One starts to realize how much was being previously consumed after finishing the micro-sized portion and not yearning for more. Now, this can be partially attributed to the relative blandness of the composite ingredients – there are not a lot of fat/carb combinations stimulating the production of insulin and keeping the engine of fork to mouth churning. But I think, for me, the very act of having a smaller portion in front of me (and not being the one in control of the portions or distribution) has changed my experience of eating altogether. Since I actually eat more slowly (the food is just not that exciting) there is time for my brain to register that my stomach is full and I can blithely refuse the second helping that Moldovans are seemingly obligated to offer (probably because their plates are so small.)
While Moldovan cuisine isn’t bad by any means, it isn’t built on a distinctive melding of complex flavors. There doesn’t seem to be the potential for artistry or creativity that propel some other ethnic foods to world-renown status (the French and Italians pop immediately to mind.) I know some of my fellow PCVs would argue this point, but to me one cook’s placintă tastes pretty much the same as the next person’s. I like sarmale, but it’s comprised of basic ingredients – meat of choice (usually pork,) rice, onions, tomatoes, broth, with some dill and bay leaves stewed on the stove for a couple of hours, then wrapped in grape leaves and steamed for an hour or so. Tada.
Their cheese (brinza) is made, oftentimes, from sheep or goat milk and has a very distinctive, shall we say pungent, taste. It doesn’t melt well. Butter is expensive and used sparingly – primarily as a spread (along with mayonnaise and ketchup – yuk!) on white bread. Their herbal potpourri is limited (but maybe that’s because I can’t read all the Russian labels?) Meats – the ones cured from their farm-grown ducks, chickens, pigs and rabbits – are VER Y lean and spare. (These aren’t animals that’ve enjoyed a pharmaceutically-enhanced, hormone stimulated, grain fed existence. A whole chicken here doesn’t contain near the amount of meat that’s in a two-piece lunch meal from El Pollo Loco.) There is no brown/wild /jasmine rice, quinoa, barley, bulgur, faro, millet, or wheat berries to be had. There is white rice, corn meal, and buckwheat, white flour and semolina pasta. And plenty of grapes, pears, plums, potatoes, green beans, cabbage, carrots, onions, eggplant, tomatoes, and cucumbers (tons and tons of cucumbers.) No lettuce, or spinach, or bok choy, or radishes, or radicchio, or leeks, or broccoli, or Brussels sprouts, or fennel. Occasional mushroom of the standard white capped variety.
I guess what I’m trying to convey is that the cook’s palette is very circumscribed. You eat locally here. And you also eat they what they’ve eaten for the last two centuries. There isn’t much imagination or variance that goes into the pot. Mostly it’s some combination of vegetables in a broth or sauce with a bit of meat added (sometimes) as a flavor enhancer. Some cooks rely on pasta and rice to fill up the saucer/plate (my first Nina shunned these staples, but my new Nina is a fan. I don’t eat with her much.) Putting cabbage and potatoes in a pastry (placintă) is a national favorite. So is wrapping rice/meat fillings in grape leaves (sarmale.) Zeama or ciorba de pui (sour chicken soup) is eaten two to three times a week. Cold, for breakfast.
Anyway. I have found my lifelong gusto for all things culinary has abated here. Food is fuel. That’s about it. Mostly, it bores me. I do get a brief frisson when I know the kitchen is clear and I can go in and wield a knife on the cutting board, but the dearth of stimulating ingredients when I open up the refrigerator soon quells it. How many ways can one slice and dice vegetables? Without an oven or food processor or crock pot, I’m kind of running thin on ideas.
With all the aforementioned now said, I must emphasize that Moldovans – like most cultures – use food as a primary mechanism for displaying graciousness, appreciation, inclusion, and nurturance. They want to feed you. PST devotes an inordinate amount of hours to discussions about food. Yes, they tell which foods to avoid and instruct on boiling water and sanitizing cooking implements and warn about checking label dates. But they also provide guidance on how to politely refuse a third helping (customary politeness dictates acceptance of the second one, but not all of us are polite.) They suggest tactful means of explaining that one doesn’t need to ALL the food that has been prepared in order to convey one’s appreciation to the cook.
I think this treatment of food as a bounteous expression is most beautifully illustrated by the Moldovan phrase “poftă bună.” The word loosely translates as „bon appetit,” however, in other idioms the word poftă can also mean to lust for or after. (And ”poftim” is an interjection with a variety of useful applications, from ”here you go” to ”pardon me” or ”Wtf?” – my interpretation, not the dictionary’s.)
In America, we enjoy our food with the best of them. But we don’t regularly wish anyone sitting down to a meal “eat with lust!” or “Go for the gusto!” But Moldovans do. If any Moldovan, from five to seventy, walks into a room where someone is eating they say “poftă bună.” When someone hands you a plate of food, he says “poftă bună.” When a server delivers you a bag of potato chips – “poftă bună.” When a newly arrived guest joins the dinner table, be prepared for the refrain. It’s ingrained in them, just like “gesundheit” or “god bless you” after a sneeze is for others.
Anytime I bring a friend into the apartment, Nina immediately prompts me to offer them chai. When I try to tell her it’s not necessary, the person either doesn’t like chai or has only swung by to pick something up, she conveys a grudging but reluctant understanding through a barely tempered glare of disapproval. I am not acting graciously in her mind. Moldovans will offer you chai if you look in their front gate as you’re passing by.
Perhaps it’s a good thing that I’m just not that into their cuisine. Otherwise I might weigh 50 pounds more at the end of my service. And that is definitely NOT on my Peace Corps agenda.