Monday, 26 March 2012

Mititei sau mici

“Romanian skinless sausages”

Mici. Photo
Mititei, or mici as they are often known, are the keystone of Romanian outdoor cuisine. All over the country from the first weekend of warm weather, Romanians are piling their car boots full of garden furniture, barbeques, beer and packets of mici. No drive across the countryside can be considered complete without stopping at one of the many roadside restaurants equipped with an outdoor barbeque expressly for the purpose of grilling mititei for passing drivers. Beer gardens in every neighbourhood of every city pump the smell of barbequing meat into the streets luring passersby to a table, a cold beer, and a plate of freshly-cooked mici with bread and mustard. It is truly a Romanian custom and for many, a passion.

If you’ve wandered onto this blog, you might be Romanian, in which case there is nothing I need tell you about mititei, or perhaps you have been on holiday to Romania and have tried mici there and are looking to recreate them back home in your garden to capture and bring to life some of your memories of that holiday. You might even simply be curious about Romanian food, in which case I hope you’ll give mici a try one day when you next fire up the barbie.

So what exactly is a mititei/mici? Actually, I’ve used the plural form here – I’m not sure a singular form for them exists – and no Romanian would order just one of them, rendering the singular form all but redundant. Anyway, a mici is basically a sausage made, most commonly, of beef, but frequently these days combined with pork or lamb. It resembles many of the Turkish ‘kofte’ in shape and texture, and the fact that it frequently spiced with cumin, allspice, paprika, and black pepper lends it even more of a Middle-Eastern twist. They are usually about 10-12cm long, cylindrical in shape, with a diameter of 2-3cm. You sometimes see larger ones, but most of them, when cooked, are something like a short skinless sausage. Mici can be cooked under the grill, in a hot oven, or even fried, but the pure and true method of cooking is la gratar: on the barbeque.

Restaurantul La Iordache
The origin of the mici is shrouded in mystery. The most common story dates back to about 1900 and tells the tale of a small restaurant in the Lipscani area of Bucharest where the chef, known as a gratargiu (from gratar – grill, and the suffix –giu from Turkish), one day ran out of sausage casings. Rather than disappointing the line of people waiting for their barbequed sausages, he decided to take a risk and rolled the minced meat up into the now well-known mici shape and cooked them anyway. Clearly they were a success and are now a staple of Romanian cuisine. The restaurant in question is said to be Restaurantul La Iordache, although other restaurants also claim the honour, and the building still exists today in Bucharest’s historic centre, although in increasingly dilapidated condition. How wonderful it would be if someone were to buy it and convert it once again into a classic Romanian restaurant.

One of the more well-known recipes for mici dates from 1920 and exists in the form of a letter from the famous Caru’ Cu Bere restaurant, also located in Bucharest’s old town. The restaurant still exists today and does a great trade amongst the locals and is especially popular as a place for Romanians to take foreign visitors, thanks in no small part to its fabulous interior that was renovated some years ago. Personally I don’t particularly like the food there that much and its prices aren’t fantastic either, due to its popularity no doubt, but it’s worth a visit if only to marvel at the decor. The letter in question details how they make their mititei, again using beef.

There is more speculation regarding the origins of the mici, with particular reference to it being of Serbian origin. This is possibly more likely than the convenient sound tale of Iordache’s Restaurant. The Serbians have a very similar item which, in their language, is called a ‘small kebab’ (cevapcici), and was, in all likelihood, adopted by them from the Turks during the period of Ottoman occupation. To be honest, I tend to believe that this is the more likely route for mici entering the Romanian culinary opera, although the previous tale is certainly more romantic and compelling.

However the mici first arrived on the plates of Romanians, they have, over the last century, certainly made it their own. Although original recipes indicate beef as the meat of choice, it has also frequently been mixed with lamb, and in more recent years, with pork. Romanians don’t eat a lot of beef as a rule and aren’t especially keen on lamb, so it only seems natural for the recipe to have developed to contain pork. Older recipes, especially the one from 1920’s Caru’ Cu Bere, tend to be more strongly spiced too, which is now no longer the case, once again reflecting the tastes of the modern Romanian.

Nowadays, a lot of picnickers buy their mici from the supermarket. To be honest, I don’t know of anyone ever to have made their own, although it’s clear from a quick browse around the internet that people still frequently do. There are neighbourhood butcher shops that produce their own mici, and some of the have gained a good reputation for their products. By far and away the most famous place to buy mici (cooked) is La Cocosatu’, a restaurant that opened in 1996 which has steadily gained a great reputation for mititei, attracting people from all walks of life. It’s now a successful restaurant with a full a la carte menu.

When on the road, one of the more popular places to stop en route to buy some mici is Dealul Negru (the Black Hill) on the Pitesti-Ramnicu Valcea highway, known for its giant mici (somewhat of a contradiction in terms considering ‘mici’ itself means ‘small one’!)

Over the summer I hope to try several different mici recipes to see which one I like the best and to, perhaps, test them out on my Romanian friends to see how they compare to the modern recipes. When practical I’ll barbeque them, but as I live in a flat, that’s not always going to be possible! Here are a few of the recipes I have found for mici:

1920 – Caru’ Cu Bere letter (beef)
1936 – Carte De Bucate – Sanda Marin (beef)
1983 – Carte De Bucate – Silvia Jurcovan (beef)
1998 – Bucate, Vinuri si Obiceiuri Romanesti – Radu Anton Roman (beef and pork)

I'll add new ones as I find them and they’ll become links as I try them out.

Pofta mare!


Anonymous said...

Where in the world did you get the " it frequently spiced with cumin, allspice, paprika"?!? Are you really Romanian? Mititei is only spiced with garlic and optional ground black pepper. Ground beef mixed with baking powder and beef stock, salt to taste, optional mixed with ground pork, the grill rubbed with sheep fat and that is it.

Romfoody said...

Hello Anonymous,

To answer your questions:

Where in the world did you get the " it frequently spiced with cumin, allspice, paprika"?

There are several references to the spices used. I draw your attention to the following:

Radu Anton Roman, BVOR p353 (uses allspice and paprika)
Pastorel Teodoreanu, DRC p271 (uses cumin and allspice)
Jurcuvan CB p28 (also favours allspice)
Sanda Marin CB p74 (also likes to use cumin)
An old recipe from Caru cu Bere (uses the cumin and the allspice)

I also trawled through tens of recipes on the net and noted down what most people add. While garlic and pepper were ubiquitous, thyme, cumin, paprika and allspice frequently appeared.

I think the answer is that different cooks and different regions and even different periods in time all have their own take on the recipe according to taste, and perhaps availability of produce.

To answer your second question, no, I'm not really Romanian. That's made abundantly clear in the 'about' section of the blog.

Thanks for your comments.