The Food Of The Roma: How Nomads Adopted The Cuisine
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The Roma, or Romani, are a nomadic group predominantly based in Europe and western Asia. How the Roma got to Europe remains a mystery, since the community did not keep written records of their itinerant history. Linguistic theory indicates that the tribe originated from what is now the state of Rajasthan, India. This hypothesis was later proven true with the help of genome analysis. Former Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj acknowledged the community’s Indian ancestry during the International Roma Conference of 2016, stating,  “You are the children of India who migrated and lived in challenging circumstances in foreign lands for centuries. Yet you maintained your Indian identity.” 

The Roma people, historically grouped as Gypsies, have a large diaspora spread across 30 countries. While there are broad patterns with regard to their culture, Roma customs are based, for the most part, on those of the host country. This is reflected in the range of the community’s culinary traditions. 

The throng of dishes that make up the community's ‘cuisine’ are more different than they are similar. That said, they always have a distinct Romani touch to them. The differences usually lie in ingredients used and the methods of preparation, as the Roma had to improvise with whatever they could gather in order to survive. However, companies that try to market products to the community seem to think differently. Products like Zigeuersauce, literally ‘gypsy sauce’, features cayenne as the standout ingredient, but activists have argued that this is a poor representation of the community’s rich culinary history, resulting in the company rebranding the product. There is some truth to the belief, however, that Romani dishes tend to be spicy or peppery. In other countries, brands have reduced the community down to skin color, using the word ‘gypsy’, in the names of cookies and wafers that often featured dark caramel or chocolate fillings. These attempts were later classified as racist and have since been thwarted following outrage from activists and well-wishers alike.

So, what do the Romani actually eat? Let's start with eastern Europe, a place the Roma have called home for centuries. Sarmi, or cabbage, rolls are staples here, along with ‘Rromano Cajo’, a Romani tea. Sarmi consists of a mixture of meats along with rice and spices wrapped in cabbage leaves and then cooked in a tomato sauce. The dish is renowned for its spiciness. Rromano Cajo is similar to a Russian tea, the distinction being the addition of whole fruit, as opposed to fruit juices in its Russian counterpart. The fruit used may include peaches, oranges, lemon, etc. Fruit preserves may also be added to the concoction. Romani cuisine features game, and even carrion. It was not uncommon for the Romani to procure carrion from farmers whilst on the road. 

The Roma people of France and Britain, the Romanichals, have long relished ‘Niglo’, i.e. hedgehog. There are various ways different groups cook the animal’s meat, almost all of which involve gutting the animal, removing its spines, and stuffing it. The spine may be removed by covering the cleaned carcass with clay before baking it, after which the spines come off with the hardened clay. Groups that find this method unclean may opt to scorch the back of the animal to do away with the spines. The Romani utilize every part of the animal. ‘Rrunza’ is a preparation that features a pig’s stomach lining, often cut up and made into a stew that is left to run for several hours, with additions such as tomatoes, onions and peppers. The stew is usually flavored with lemon juice, vinegar, spices, and salt. Roma around the world consume pufa or manriklo, a flatbread similar to the Indian naan. Roma cuisine is centered around inexpensive ingredients and improvisation: nothing symbolizes their privation like the Roma favorite Poovengur drey a koori, a dish made by stuffing a potato with jam and cooking it in a sealed tin can over the ashes.

Roma dining habits are reminiscent of their old Indian roots. Some Roma tribes still follow a form of the 11th century Indian caste system whilst dining, with only similar castes allowed to dine together. This practice is banned by law in India, largely obsolete and frowned upon by a majority of Indians today. The Roma also hold guests in high regard, a practice that is still followed in most Indian households. Romanis will always go out of their way to ensure that a guest is fed;  not doing so is considered a breach of custom. In the same vein, it is also considered rude if the guest turns down the food that is offered. Another custom akin to Indian culture is the concept of auspicious food. But the Roma go about this in a different manner to their Indian brethren: while Indians prepare certain food items on auspicious days, the Roma prepare what they would usually eat, but use spices and other flavorings to increase the pungency of the dishes being made.