Romancing Romanian Food, Dracula Style

IF THE CONNOTATION OF "DRACULA" wasn’t quite so familiar to modern-day readers, the beginning of Bram Stoker’s iconic novel may have almost read like a food travelogue. 

Jonathan Harker, soon to be the unfortunate Jonathan Harker, is on his way to meet a wealthy new client who wishes to purchase property in England. The very first entry in his journal, that we are privy to, is dated 3rd May (c. 1890s), whilst the young solicitor is in Bistritz (Bistrița, Romania): Through it, we learn that Jonathan has travelled through Munich and Vienna, then Budapest, before reaching the town of Klausenburgh (present-day Cluj-Napoca, Romania). Here, he stays overnight at the Hotel Royale, where he is served a dinner — or rather supper — of: “a chicken done up some way with red pepper, which was very good but thirsty”. 

Here, Jonathan adds a note to himself — “get the recipe for Mina” [his fiancée] — and asks the waiter about the dish, only to be told that it is called “paprika hendl, and that, as it was a national dish, [Jonathan] should be able to get it anywhere along the Carpathians”.

                         Image credits: Paprika hendl

Paprika hendl was an interesting choice for Bram Stoker to begin the book with. The chicken-and-paprika dish — also known as chicken paprikash or paprikás csirke — was a popular dish across the Austro-Hungarian Empire (of which Romania was then a part). Paprika itself had had a long journey to this part of Europe — beginning in South America, carried along by Spanish explorers like Columbus to the ‘Old World’, and the influence of Ottoman invasions. While the paprika introduced in Central Europe tended to be mild and sweet, the variety used in Hungary and its surrounding regions tends more towards the pungent.

This is perhaps why Jonathan, having passed a fitful night, filled with “queer dreams”, wonders in his journal if it as the dog howling under his window all night that disturbed him so, or “may [be] the paprika, for I had to drink up all the water in my carafe, and was still thirsty”.

These musings don’t prevent him from having some more of the spice that morning, as he records: “I had for breakfast more paprika, and a sort of porridge of maize flour which they said was ‘mamaliga’, and egg-plant stuffed with forcemeat, a very excellent dish, which they call ‘impletata’” noting once again, that he should get these recipes too for Mina.

                            Image credits: Mamaliga

Mămăligă is, as Jonathan describes it, a porridge made out of [yellow] maize flour, a staple dish in Romania. Incidentally, the Danube Valley is known to be one of the regions where the most maize is grown in Europe (this was another crop brought back from South America by early explorers), so its significant appearance in Romanian cuisine is par for the course. Mămăligă, for instance, is sometimes used as a substitute for bread in meals.

In Bistritz itself, Jonathan is put up at the Golden Krone Hotel, at his client’s recommendation. It is here that the first glimmerings of the sinister events of the future first appear to Jonathan, in his landlord and landlady’s frightened reactions when they realise his client — with whom he is soon expected to rendezvous — is none other than Count Dracula. Before this less-than-promising occurrence, however, Jonathan is served a pleasant-enough dinner: 

“I dined on what they called ‘robber steak’,” he writes, “bits of bacon, onion, and beef, seasoned with red pepper, and strung on sticks, and roasted over the fire, in the simple style of the London cat's meat!” By the latter, Jonathan is referring to street vendors who pushed around handcarts full of chopped meat on skewers to sell to cat owners, in London. He also partakes of two glasses of wine — “Golden Mediasch, which produces a queer sting on the tongue” but “is not disagreeable”.

Within a day or so of this dinner, he has been transported to Count Dracula’s castle, where Jonathan has a meal of “an excellent roast chicken. This, with some cheese and a salad and a bottle of old tokay, of which I had two glasses”, in the company of his strange, aristocratic client, who asks to be excused from actually eating with his solicitor: “You will I trust, excuse me that I do not join you, but I have dined already, and I do not sup.” Of course, we the readers know just what it is that Count Dracula likes to dine on — though Jonathan is as yet unaware of the bloody horrors to come. 

Today, the restaurant on the grounds of Transylvania’s popular tourist spot Bran Castle (or the Count Dracula’s Castle) has a menu that Jonathan would have certainly noted meticulously in his journal: 

“...double-concentrated soups with cut-into-strips flavored pancakes, nutmeg and tarragon; Romanian soups, cooked with lovage and thyme; dishes originating from different villages, later adapted to the nobles' cuisine: beef, duck, turkey, lamb and fish with seasonal or stinky cheese, wrapped in a variety of savors [sic], with lemon or forest fruits, powdered with mint, coriander, saffron and thyme; fresh and tangy vegetarian dishes”.

As for which, if any, of these recipes he might have wanted to collect for Mina, we can but make a guess.