Romani Cuisine and Cultural Persistence

Food Features
Romani Cuisine and Cultural Persistence

I am the first generation of my Romani family who did not grow up hungry, and so food in my household was revered, and often stock-piled. Roma worldwide are disproportionately plagued by poverty, directly stemming from centuries-old antigypsyist discrimination that
persists today. We are better known by our often appropriated ethnic slur, “Gypsy,” a word that even dictionaries define using inaccurate stereotypes ranging from the criminal to the free-spirited seductress tropes. Some call us nomadic, though that’s not entirely accurate since our travel is born of persecution, and many of us have been settled for generations. With a history riddled with slavery, genocide and systemic racism, our diasporic ancestors, who most agree originated in India, passed down traditions both protected from the outside world and shaped by the travel routes of our past.

Our Romani language dialects, customs and cuisines are all colored by the countries we’ve settled in and the roads our ancestors passed through. Although we often adapt the local cuisine to Romani-style dishes, Romani cooking has its own distinctive flavors and unique lore. Roma believe that some foods are auspicious, or lucky (baxtalo), particularly those with pungent tastes like garlic, lemon, tomato, peppers, and fermented foods like sauerkraut, pickles and sour cream. One of our most sacred foods is bread—it’s used in many rites, rituals and celebrations, and in some traditions, you must apologize to bread if you drop it, and it is a sin to step on it. In my family, lemon bread is a prized gift on holidays and birthdays, and I will always associate that dense, moist, sweet-tart pastry with my grandmother’s love.

Roma are still fighting for basic human rights and employment, health and housing equality, and as such, we’ve had to become resourceful to survive. Our dishes are often marked by
inventiveness and the hard-earned rewards of foraging. Our down-country style has led Romani cuisine to be dubbed “the soul food of Europe” by Dr. Ian Hancock, Romani Studies Professor at The University of Texas- Austin, and NPR. In Europe, where antigypsyist hate crimes and legislation are particularly rampant, some Roma are using food as a way to educate outsiders about Romani culture and our commitment to hospitality by opening up restaurants and food trucks, often with the help of human rights organizations. These restaurants also provide employment opportunities for Roma who too often face employment discrimination in their home countries.

The Gipsy Queens in Rome, Italy; Romani Platni in Budapest, Hungary; and Romani Kafenava in Maribor, Slovenia all serve up delicious Romani staples, like sarma rolls stuffed with meat and tomatoes, with the hopes that the more people learn about us, the more they will accept us. This means a lot for European Roma, especially when extreme right-wing Fascist parties like the Jobbik party are gaining support and seat in government by actively running on platforms calling for the eradication of Roma, Jewish people, and immigrants. Romani bloggers and blogs such as Qristina Cummings and Romani Cookbook often include stories about discrimination right alongside recipes, daily observations, memories, and other aspects of the mundane, because for us, discrimination is the mundane. Persecution is an accustomed part of our experience, but it shouldn’t be as common as fixing yourself a plate of paprikash.

I have happy memories of going out into the fields and forests of New Hampshire where I grew up with my parents and collecting blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, wild strawberries and gooseberries for our Sunday morning crepes, or blinis, which are a staple in Romani cooking. Blinis can also be savory, stuffed with garlicky meat, vegetables, potatoes, cheese and sour cream. My family, however, loves them best with piles of fruit, yogurt, sour cream and/or whipped cream. On my maternal grandmother’s side, dancing and fortune telling are the traditional family trades for women.

I should note that dancing and fortune telling are not nearly as ubiquitous among Roma as the stories about us suggest. My grandmother, a Sinti-Romani woman, came to the United States after fleeing from the wreckage of post-WWII Germany, where nearly half of Europe’s Roma and Sinti were exterminated alongside Jewish people and other targeted groups. Still, the Romani genocide is barely recognized, and the Roma were paid no reparations. Meanwhile, some of our most important sites go unmarked, and one of them is currently a working pig farm. My grandmother lost family members, the Romani language, and her home country because this genocide, so the parts of her culture that she could pass on were very important to her. After these decadent fruit and blini breakfasts, she taught me to dance, as well as to read palms, cards and tea leaves. The living room was redolent with black tea, honey, fruits, and jam, with an ancient pack of playing cards spread on the table and a fat little tea pot steaming in the center.

My parents took a special interest in teaching me about foraging. My father, who is not Romani, always loved living off the land and survivalist cuisine, like eating spruce tree needles for your day’s supply of vitamin C. My mother showed me how to gather little red teaberries and simmer them into a fresh, slightly wintergreen tea. She also taught me to snack on red clover and the sweet purple clover blossoms if I was hungry in the meadows. She and my father still keep a massive garden that they eat from all summer, and they preserve or freeze as much as they can for the winter. One of my favorite seasonal foraging dishes is sautéed fiddleheads, the slightly bitter furled fronds of a young fern. My mother simply sautés these little greens with lemon, butter, garlic, salt, and pepper, and they’re so good that even as a child I looked forward to fiddleheads every spring.

Much of my experience with Romani cuisine centers around the fruits and veggies since I’m not much of a meat-eater, and my mother and father didn’t grow up with a lot of meat to spare in their homes. I grew up making vegetarian versions of the Roma’s infamous Paprika Soup, which is renowned for its complex blend of spices, including but not limited to cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, cayenne, cumin, black pepper, basil and of course, paprika. The Moosewood Café has a pretty delicious vegetarian interpretation of the soup, which is of course called ”;Gypsy Soup,” and it became one of their most famous recipes. It’s frustrating for me to read that the people who concocted this version of our staple, and “daydreamed of life as a gypsy [sic],” don’t realize that “Gypsy life” is not just a bohemian version of their white privilege, and that portraying and appropriating our culture and the very word “Gypsy” as such seriously diminishes the seriousness of the current Romani human rights crisis.

When I make this Paprika Soup, usually a little differently each time, with flourishes of lemon, Ras el Hanout, or fresh shelled peas, I think of the “Gypsy life.” I consider my family trades, the music of Esma Redzepova and Tatiana Eva Marie, the artwork of Lita Cabellut and Katelan Foisy, Romani writers Rajko ?uri? and Lumini?a Mihai Cioab?, Romani organizations E-Romnja and RomArchive, tea with my grandmother, and my mother and aunt’s old horse trading business. I also think of my grandmother’s harrowing tales of war, terror, torture and persecution, and the way that legacy of violence has seeped into each generation of our family. I think of kids pelting me with rocks on the first day of school in New Hampshire, and my 5th grade teacher, Mr. Martin, giving me detention for using “the evil Gypsy eye.” I think of how a neighbor tried to run over my mother and aunt on their walk because she was afraid these “pretty strangers” would become husband-stealers. I think of an American employer asking me to be “less of a Gypsy” in case I make others uncomfortable. I think of the number of men who have taken advantage of me because I’m “only a Gypsy.” thought that I think of Mitko, the teenage boy who was savagely beaten this year in Bulgaria, for saying that he, a Rom, is equal to non-Roma. I think of the Romani camps worldwide, full of men, women and children, that are regularly bombed by hostile outsiders, and how many of us die for simply existing.

Our cuisine tells our past, present and future. Our dishes are shaped by travel, adaptation,
hardship and resilience, just as much as they are shaped by our Indian roots, the seasons, and all the places we and our ancestors live and have lived, walk and have walked. Hopefully, the more the world learns about our recipes, the more they will learn about our history. Perhaps with the mastery of a good cup of Romani tea (with a dollop of blackberry jam), outsiders will also learn to become allies. They may learn the names of Ethel Brooks, Gilda Horvath, Alexandra Oprea, Carmen Gheorghe and other Romani activists and feminists fighting for our equality and safety, just as they learn the names of our lucky foods. After all, what brings people together better than a shared meal?

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