December 13, 2018
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Romania Has Its Own Borscht
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Ciorba has never captured the American palate as effectively as borscht has, but the sour, nourishing soup can be found in Romanian kitchens year-round.

Inside an airy cottage kitchen in Sighisoara, Romania, I watched as Otilia Hetrea cleaned scallions and chopped a pile of greens harvested from her backyard garden. Next she opened a jar of homemade red pepper paste and whisked a sunset-colored egg yolk into a dollop of sour cream. Otilia was prepping ingredients for ciorba, the bracingly tangy, soul-satisfying soup that is Romania’s answer to borscht.

Along with mamaliga (cornmeal porridge), mashed-eggplant salads, and high-octane fruit brandies called palinca, these soups are something of a national obsession for Romanians—ubiquitous on restaurant menus and an adaptable year-round staple of the home kitchen. They are equally at home on the tables of farmers in the Transylvanian countryside, or serving as a hangover cure for late-night partygoers in Bucharest, reviving themselves at a neighborhood restaurant or pizzeria. (Yes, even the pizza shops in Romania sell ciorba.)

The word “ciorba” simply means soup, but it typically refers to meat- or vegetable-based potages that have been soured with sauerkraut juice, lemon juice, vinegar, or a probiotic bran-based liquid called borș. Borș and borscht are related and nod to Romania’s linguistic and culinary connections with Ukraine and Russia. The country’s larger love affair with sour soups, meanwhile, is a legacy of Ottoman rule. In many ciorba recipes, thick ribbons of sour cream are swirled through the broth during cooking or used as a garnish, adding another dimension of sharpness.

Ciorbas are imminently adaptable depending on what ingredients are in season. In early spring, they tend to be light and verdant, simmered with nettles, lovage, or other wild greens and fresh herbs. In colder months, white beans, potatoes, celery root, and cabbage take center stage. Some ciorbas are enriched with fish or chicken; others studded with minced pork and rice meatballs or strips of tripe. The beet-based version, which is similar to what Americans think of as borscht, is called ciorba de sfecla rosie, literally “red beet soup.” Whatever ends up in the pot, the soup’s chameleon nature speaks to Romanian cuisine’s deep connection to the land.

It has been nearly five years since I spent an afternoon cooking in Hetrea’s kitchen, but I have not forgotten her ciorba—a rich vegetarian broth simmered with lobodă (a relative of spinach), thickened with egg yolk, and soured with a glug of homemade borș poured from a glass jar on her kitchen counter. Vivid too is the bowl of flavorful, herb-topped ciorba de pui (chicken) I sampled at La Ceaun, a Brasov restaurant that specializes in Romanian comfort foods. Ciorba never caught on amongst Americans with the same fervor as its Ukrainian cousin, borscht. But this category of rustic sour soups deserves wider recognition and celebration. Like soup from a stone, they are as expansive as our own imaginations.

Sour Chicken Soup: Ciorba de Pui

6 servings

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 1 pound celery root (celeriac), peeled and chopped
  • 3 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 2 ½ pounds chicken legs
  • ¼ cup finely chopped fresh dill, plus more for serving
  • ¼ cup finely chopped fresh parsley, plus more for serving
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • Sour cream, for serving, optional
  1. Heat the oil in a soup pot set over medium heat. Add the onions, celery root, carrots, and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until just beginning to soften, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the chicken legs, dill, parsley, and bay leaf. Add enough water to cover the ingredients by about 1 inch and turn heat to high. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, until chicken is tender, about 1 hour. The soup should roll along at a gentle simmer. If it starts to bubble vigorously, nudge the heat down a little.
  2. Remove the pot from the heat and discard the bay leaf. In a medium bowl whisk together both vinegars, the tomato paste, egg yolks, salt, and pepper. Slowly pour a ladle-full of hot liquid into the egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly, then pour the mixture back into the pot and stir to combine. (Do not allow the soup to come to a boil again, or the egg could curdle.) Taste and add more salt, if needed. To serve: place a chicken leg or two into each bowl and ladle soup over top. Dollop bowls with sour cream, if desired, sprinkle generously with more chopped dill and parsley, and serve hot.

Leah Koenig

Leah Koenig is a writer and cookbook author who's work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Epicurious, Food52, and Tablet, among other publications. Her cookbook, Modern Jewish Cooking (Chronicle Books) was published in 2015 and featured in the Food52 Piglet book tournament. Her most recent book, Little Book of Jewish Appetizers (Chronicle) was published in August 2017. Leah lives in Brooklyn with her husband and 3-year old.

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