The Romanian ‘sarmale’, a meal in times of joy and sorrow

When Romanians baptize their children, they cook ‘sarmale’ (cabbage rolls stuffed with mincemeat). When they invite their loved ones over to dinner for the first time, the soon-to-be mother-in-laws prepare ‘sarmale’. At funerals, the attendees get them, too. Cabbage rolls truly have an almost anthropological value in the life of Romanians.

Officially, the cabbage rolls have not been invented in Romania, but ‘borrowed’ from the Turks, during the Ottoman invasion. Their name comes from ‘sarmak’, the Turkish term for twist or roll.

Historians have discovered that an archaic version of the cabbage rolls – stuffed with meat and millet or pumpkin pulp – has been used in this region ever since the Roman invasion.

What is sure is that the ‘sarmale’ has become the one meal no Romanian can live without: the spicy meat mixture is rolled up in raw or pickled cabbage leaves, or in vine/ garden patience/ horseradish/ coltsfoot leaves. Being good Christians but still wanting their favourite dish to be served, Romanians have invented a variation of ‘sarmale’ for the Lent period. Recently, there have been special devices for rolling the ‘sarmale’ up for sale.

Walnut, the measurement unit for the Moldavian ‘sarmale’

People in Moldavia roll the meat in vine leaves as well. The recipe is approximately the same, only that the leaves must be steamed beforehand so as to be flexible. In Moldavia there are the smallest rolls. Pastorel Teodoreanu wrote that the ‘sarmale’ are to be made ‘no bigger than a medium-sized walnut’. The smaller the rolls, the better the housewife. In other regions of the country the rolls are much bigger. In Moldavia, they are let to simmer in borscht (bran and water), while in Oltenia in wine. In Maramures the rolls (named ‘piroște’) which are made during the Lent are big, nourishing, stuffed with mushrooms, ground seeds of corn, rice, carrots, peppers and onion. In Moldavia, the Lent rolls are made only with rice and vegetables, with plenty of leaves, including of horseradish. Beans is another base ingredient for Lent rolls in Moldavia.

Summer cabbage rolls a la Păstorel – Romanian slow food

The most elaborate recipe of twice cooked cabbage rolls is that belonging to one of the greatest Romanian gourmand, Păstorel Teodoreanu.


  • 500g fatty pork
  • 500g beef mince
  • 200g smoked lard
  • 2 fresh cabbages
  • 2 tablespoons of melted pig fat
  • 1 cup of rice
  • 3 onions
  • 2 bellpeppers
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon of sweet paprika
  • 1 teaspoon of ground caraway
  • 2 tablespoons of thyme
  • 3 onions
  • 4 litres of borscht
  • 1 bottle of white wine (Riesling, Feteasca)
  • 5 tablespoons of tomato sauce
  • Salt, pepper

Boil the cabbage in 3 litres of borscht until the leaves on the outside soften. Unfold these leaves from the head of the cabbage and then do the same for the rest of the leaves. You will need thin leaves so remove any hard veins using a knife.

Melt the pork fat in a big pot and add the finely chopped onion and pepper. Stir until they get soft, then add the rice. Keep stirring until it gets translucid, then add the caraway and the paprika. Remove the pot from the stove and add the meat, the thyme and season with salt and pepper. After this mixture has cooled down, add the egg as well.

The best rolls are the ones cooked in a clay pot.

Place a layer of chopped cabbage rolls on the bottom of the pot, as well as some lard slices.

When forming the rolls, place a cabbage leaf in the palm of your left hand, add a tablespoonful of the above mixture and roll. Tuck the ends by pressing them inwards. Put a layer of cabbage rolls into the pot, then one of chopped tomatoes, some slices of lard on the outside, then repeat until the pot is full. The last layer should be of chopped cabbage and tomatoes, pieces of lard and some thyme. Pour 1 litre of borscht over the rolls, add salt and pepper, cover the pot with a lid and place in the unheated oven. Boil the rolls at 130 degrees for an hour and a half, then turn off the oven and let the rolls cool down for several hours. Put the pot in the pantry or in the basement for the night. The next day take out the rolls from the pot and put them in another pan, add wine and tomato sauce and let them simmer for 20 minutes. Serve hot.

Article originally published in Evenimentul Zilei