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Radu Ciobanu


Between cuină[1] and șpais[2]

            A celebrated researcher of the cultural past, specialised in the still – in our country – undiscovered field of oral history, asked if I could contribute to a new theme: food as a potential identity factor in Banat. I immediately thought this was a useful and a little eccentric topic. But I also shuddered – in a somewhat metaphysical manner – at the thought. Because, when someone from the younger generations asks you what it used to be like in in illo tempore, it means your biological clock must indicate a late hour. Let us not become melodramatic, though. On the contrary, I would like to invite you to take part in an amusing experiment, by bringing back words naming things rather than things, i.e dishes whose purpose or shape was altered by historical changes, pushing them slowly towards the shifting sands of memory. And the sands turned out to be so shifting that the things disappeared altogether, leaving behind but their name.
            Coming back to our topic, I see myself as a mere child. Everything beyond this age has become blurred and uncertain. Moreover, since the theme seems to be more feminine in terms of scope and target users, what attracts a man to it should be quite brief and approximate. Thus, I stored in mind some dishes which I have never tasted again since my childhood was over. I would dare make a ... reserved statement about their origin, presenting them as typically belonging to Banat. An example could be a dish that was prepared only once a year, before Christmas. My relatives living near the Serbian border called it groiză, while those in Sâlha, near Lugoj, borândău. It was made of corn flour boiled in the fresh blood which had dripped into the vailing[3]
fașirt, where fașirt is the Hungarian equivalent of the meat balls, given the osmosis and impartiality with which all dishes – their names included – circulated in the entire multiethnic world of Banat.
when the pig had been sacrificed. It is, in fact, the only dish that, despite the numerous spices used in its preparation, still finds me reluctant to the idea of consuming it. Unlike all the others, which make me nostalgic because, no matter how hard I tried to revive the culinary memory of some survivors of those times, I never managed to obtain their past flavour again. They all have a long-forgotten essential detail, an untransmittable secret, which makes them irretrievable despite their apparent simplicity. Potatoes with noodles, with browned onion and red paprika for the colour, was an unforgettable dish whose memory evokes summer evenings in the room overlooking the vast plains. Nothing complicated apparently and, yet, I think the secret lies in the preparation of the noodles, in their contents and the quantity of onion used. A fasting dish. Similarly, for dinner on Good Friday, after coming back from church, we always had cold dishes: mashed beans, with browned onion – but not too browned, only superficially, to make sure it doesn’t get burnt. With it, leek balls, sprinkled with dark green pumpkin seed oil. Well, I have to admit that none of the venerable housewives could help me find the subtle flavour of the leek balls. I then turned to venerable matrons from Oltenia starting from the assumption that the origins of the leek, the raw material of this unusual dish to be consumed only once a year, are in this region. But the questioned housewives were puzzled: they had never heard of such a thing. We called them leek
            Gone and lost forever is also the secret of șmoren (with the stress on o!), a sort of a crumbly dough made of crushed wheat, with egg (were both the white and the yolk used or only the yolk?), of a pleasant golden colour that made you want to eat it only by looking at it. It belonged undoubtedly to the Suabian cuisine and was multifunctional, as it could be served with boiled lettuce, sour cream and milk, or as a dessert, with raspberry syrup, just like the rice pudding which it resembled. We borrowed from the Jews, apart from the Easter mațes, a wonderful accessory for our white coffee, the șolet (with the stress on o!), boiled goose meat with beans. I think it is a ritual dish, as our neighbour, „aunt Schulz”, brought it, in a big raina[4], only on a certain date every year. This was, of course, an addition to the bilateral exchange of cookies which worked on a regular basis. Once a year, my family also offered her a bit of sweet boiled wheat, on a tray, upon the religious commemoration of our deceased family members. The charm of the sweet boiled wheat consisted, for me, of the promințle (with the stress on i!), the tiny mint-flavoured coloured candies the children in the Sâlha of my childhood memories called „mouth-wind-making sweets”.
            I drew special attention to stress because the Banat vocabulary causes many pronunciation difficulties to others, especially the inhabitants of the former Romanian Kingdom (regățeni). In the 70s, when there was still food available in Romania’s groceries, the „Femeia” magazine had an interesting column of recipes sent by the readers. I was immensely amused when a housewife from Zimnicea presented there, as a sensational recipe, one entitled  Caicana. The stress obviously fell on the last syllable, on the model of the Turkish musaka, tchulama, baklava… But, surprisingly enough, the caicana from Zimnicea was none other than the good old căigana from Banat, the local scrambled eggs, great on any occasion, especially for unexpected guests: two or a dozen eggs scrambled in the frying pan, with wedges of ham or slices of sausage and a sprinkle of red paprika. When it is preceded by a ștamplu[5] of local brandy and is garnished with pickles, it turns into a genuine feast. It was also called ratota, the Hungarian synonym of căigana, whose etymology is still a mystery. Its counterpart for periods of fasting, less consistent but more richly flavoured, was papa, a mixture of paprika, tomato juice and a bit of onion, shredded and fried in a pan. It must have also contained a linker, as the final result had the firmness of a paste.
            The țușpais (today we call it „garnish”) usually accompanied the steak: the șpenot (which only later turned into spinach) and the pumpkin were my favourite. The pumpkin țușpais went well with the cărmănadla, the pork chops. A more sophisticated țușpais was the asparagus, șpargăl (from the German Spargel, of course), which, though, was not as rare a dish as it has become nowadays, being available anytime, just like the rubarb for compote, on the tables of Suabian vendors in Timișoara’s market places.
            I used to prefer, as I do now, the plainer desserts, such as the scoverzi (pancakes), the crapfene, aka pancove (doughnuts), the ștrudele (Strudels), especially the pumpkin Strudel, of a golden colour, the apples in șlafroc[6]
(in pyjamas), the haioșchifle[7]. The cremșnit or crempita[8] was omnipresent in the New Year’s lunch menu, when one piece would hide a coin that was supposed to bring luck to its finder. The adults in the family always made sure I was the lucky finder. But the crempita secures the passage to the ... cultivated, sophisticated desserts, prepared in a complicated ritual that had been taught in the academies for the young ladies of the period. Many of old Timișoara’s ladies had been trained in these institutions, some of them later becoming teachers there, for example in the „Queen Maria” School for Young Ladies. This was a serious, conservative, prestigious academy, located in one of those severe buildings dating from Maria Theresa’s reign, between the Scherter House and the flower clock that can be seen today between the Bega Shopping Centre and the Continental Hotel. We called these „academic” desserts melșpaisuri. Now that I have visited Germany I realised this word is totally obscure to the natives, being in fact an Austrian lexeme – Mehlspeise – while its German synonym is Kuchen.
            Nowadays, the noun cake is neutre (tort), while, in the past, it used to be feminine: tortă. Torta Torontal is a sheer Banat creation, unlike the others, common to the whole K.u.K empire: the Pischinger, Sacher, Doboș cakes and many others, especially the crunchy Margittorta, sprinkled with tiny bits of roasted walnuts. Then came the cookies, such as the damenkapriț (The Ladies’ Whim)[9], șamrolne[10], vargabeleș[11], puserle[12]. I’ll stop here. I have already mentioned there are many others and I don’t want to interfere with the absolutely fabulous list of Banat Mehlspeise available in Livius Ciocârlie’s novel, The Sunken Church Bell, Livius Ciocârlie being himself a distinguished native of the Banat region. And so are many other authors in whose writings I am always glad to find such testimonies that my memory had stored somewhere deep down. The griliaș[13], for instance, appears in Adriana Babeți’s writings, but she can also make it. I came upon the  himbărșpriț – the unforgettable genuine raspberry syrup, foaming impetuously with sodavasăr, soda – in a page signed by Sorin Titel. Vighi or Marineasa also offered me such countless sources of lexical nostalgia, omnipresent in their works.
            But maybe many others should have been mentioned! Langoșe and colăcei, salty doughnuts and bagels, with or without cheese, and then the pașteta. This was, in fact, the liver, the equivalent of the aristocratic paté de foie gras, with goose liver only, of course, since Banat, just like the vast Hungarian plains, were endless sources of stuffed geese for al the posh restaurants of Mitteleuropa and not only. That’s why the word paștetă became a superlative with a general meaning in the Banat cuisine: when I was frowning at some cumin soup, the invariable reply came promptly: you can’t have pașteta-s all day long! Not to mention the Grenadiermarsch!
            Radetzkimarsch and Grenadiermarsch came from the same world. Only that you played the former and ate the latter. But the Grenadiermarsch is one of the recipes which was swallowed up by the shifting sands of memory. I can only remember its martial name. Lost and gone forever are its aspect, taste, or flavour. Could any of the survivors of the old Banat cuisine art remember what the genuine Grenadiermarsch used to be like…?



[1] Dialectal for cuisine
[2] Dialectal for pantry
[3] Dialectal for large bowl
[4] Dialectal for cooking pot
[5] Dialectal for small glass
[6] Slices of apple in a pancake-like dough, fried in oil.
[7] Cookies with jam, whose dough is prepared with pork fat
[8] A yellow, vanilla-flavoured cream cake
[9] A cake with apricot jam and egg white
[10] Whipped cream rolls
[11] A cake cheese with noodles and raisins
[12] Meringues
[13] Waffles with caramel and tiny pieces of walnuts.