Romanian Mucenici: Boiled, not baked, Mr. Bond

Words: Adriana Sohodoleanu
Illustration: Doina Titanu
March 2024

As March arrived, Oana Vasiliu was struck, for the first time, by the fact that her grandparents were gone. And it wasn’t just because they had stopped calling, but rather because they were no longer asking about her baked mucenici. For the cultural journalist, these beloved Romanian pastries carry a taste of nostalgia. 

She’s not alone in that sentiment. In fact, these ritualistic sweets with a recent surge of fame are a way for many religious Romanians to reflect on the past. Every year on March 9, we commemorate through this food the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste – a group of Christian soldiers killed near the city of Sebaste, in Lesser Armenia, centuries ago, for confessing their faith. To remember those who died, we often consume these pastries accompanied by 40 drinks (or 44, depending on the region.) The type of drinks can vary, from wine to brandy. And the mucenici’s cooking methods and styles tell different stories depending on who you ask, with the main question being: boiled (like a soup) or baked?

Romania constantly surprises us with its regional differences. We eat them baked in Moldova, boiled in Muntenia and Dobrogea, or not at all in Banat. In some counties, they are called mucenici/măcinici; in others, brădoși, brăduleți, brândușei, sfinți, sfințișori, sânți, the last three being variations of the Romanian word for ‘saints.’ The eight-shaped dough is prevalent in both the baked and boiled versions, but the size differs dramatically – the baked ones are usually as big as your palm, while the boiled ones are so small that two or three fit nicely on a spoon. 

Since this day usually falls during Lent, they should be made of yeasted bread dough, baked and glazed with honey syrup and cracked walnuts, or a simple flour and water dough boiled in a sweet syrup perfumed with lots of cinnamon. However, just like the ritualistic Christmas pig slaughtering, which is thoroughly enjoyed during fasting, the baked mucenici are often made with an enriched type of bread, explicitly using cozonac dough, the Romanian brioche. 

Mirela Cata, innovation manager at Ana Pan, a bakery in Bucharest, remembers the boiled mucenici as the sweet soup of her childhood, along with the bagels baked and offered alongside them. Yet she does not recall the complimentary drinks and attributes it to the restraints of the Communist regime. On the contrary, for Daniel Ion, owner of Casa del Pan, another bakery in the capital, the so-called Martyrs’ Day was a much-awaited occasion in which people shared homemade mucenici with both their neighbors and extended family, joking about and enjoying the 40 drinks. Growing up with the soup version, he came to love the baked one more. 

Marius Tudosiei, owner of Bacania Veche, an old-style Romanian deli in Bucharest, observes that “the perception we have about festive foods is interesting: sometimes we have the impression that others are doing it wrong […] that they don’t know how to do it, that they should come to us to learn.’’ Indeed, when it comes to eating, people often choose with their heart, and this organ stays mostly anchored in their childhood. For Marius, that means native Moldova with its “braided, baked, almost like a cake dough smothered in honey syrup with honey and walnut coarsely ground or crushed under a rolling pin.” To him that makes the boiled soup “an interesting dessert but only a dessert. 

Valentina Ion, the owner of the artisanal bakery Grain Trip, fondly remembers the mucenici soup from her upbringing. She describes a dough spread thinly, from which her mother or grandmother would cut small eights in the traditional shape. She watched with wonder and yearning as the dough followed its rhythm, becoming the coveted soup. Others with a more romantic view talk about the dusty table and ghostly pale eight-shaped figures. Precision-bound bakers emphasize the perfect amount of pressure needed to create a flawless doughy eight. 

I could write that I remember my mom or myself cutting out those little eights repeatedly until the cows came home and the table filled with tens of tiny infinities, and our arms grew numb. But those are not my memories. When it comes to mucenici, I am more focused on the result than the process. All I can remember are the cold, flavorful spoons of sweet, thick, nutty soup I fed myself one after another until my stomach could take no more. 

Revisiting Traditions

Oana grew up in Moldova and remembers seeing the Muntenian sweet soup for the first time when she moved to Bucharest. She asked (and dazzled) the shop’s assistant for information. Iasmina Resid, my former student, now a pastry chef at Angeline pastry shop, grew up in Bucharest and spent her childhood holidays in Banat – she never had the Moldavian mucenici until they became fashionable a few years ago.

The fact that many more people are not aware of these regional variations is a sign of their upbringing in a time when social media was not yet born. But just like their older brother, the cozonac (a Christmas cake), and their Easter sister pasca (a cheese cake), mucenicii have recently grown in popularity. Facebook, Instagram, and Google are now filled to the brim with mucenici recipes, including eyebrow-raising descriptions to cook them: with rose, pistachio, lemon, and caramel or chocolate.

Revisiting traditional recipes is cool and enriches the array of options with, most of the time, delicious new styles. Plus, it has the advantage of keeping the tradition alive in some form (let’s not forget that any tradition was an innovation at the beginning). 

Talking about old recipes, Valentina admits that change and novelty happen whether we embrace it or not. “A young buyer will search for a contemporary product [with a traditional feel to it], but it would be a waste not to exploit the opportunity of giving old traditions a new twist,” she argues. Yet she adds: “As long as it is a well thought innovation, not for posterity’s sake or profit.”

For Iasmina, revisiting food traditions is an opportunity to leave her mark and improve older recipes with new ingredients and techniques. Mirela, not only a more senior chef but also a pastry instructor, considers the revisited mucenici as a trendy niche

Believing in the power of stories and in the memory of taste, Oana shares Iasmina’s view to exert creativity, but given the short window of traditional availability for this dessert, she prefers eating the version she grew up with, untouched. Her grandparents cooked at home – her grandfather followed recipes strictly from his childhood; her grandmother got inspiration from magazines. Her mother had always been curious to try new things. That may partially explain Oana’s favorable attitude toward novelty. “Innovation is welcome as long as the client accepts it,” she says. Marketing consultant Linda Willy believes that generations are changing, including the modification of their references, so ritualistic foods can also be integrated into adapted versions.

I do not have a problem with revisiting them either – it is fun and challenging to devise alternative ways of doing something, perhaps, and hopefully, even better than your mother. Traditions are known to be shapeshifters, yet they have become heavily commodified lately, raising questions of belonging and identity. 

Don’t Lent Your Money (They Say) 

Innovation means mucenici covered or filled with chocolate (it could even be Nutella!) and served with whipped cream, crème pâtissiere, raspberry syrup, or fresh strawberries. They can be sprinkled with sugar vermicelli, pumpkin seeds, or pistachio; treated pretty much like a Belgian waffle. But, whereas the gauffre de Liège was born out of Prince-Bishop’s appetite for sugary treats, March 9 is a religious celebration in Romania. 

The 40 Martyrs of Sebaste commemorated on this day were Roman Christian soldiers tortured to death for their faith in 320 AD by order of Emperor Licinus, the same one who, together with Constantine, had issued an edict granting toleration to the Christians seven years before. Indeed, emperors can be moody. 

The soldiers resisted temptations. They endured stone beating, drowning in a frozen lake, and were ultimately left to die with their legs crushed, their bodies cremated, and their ashes thrown in it. Miracles were reported that night – the lake melted, and 40 shining garlands descended upon the victims. Relics were spread throughout the land, and their veneration cult began. This developed alongside older pagan beliefs and practices related to the cult of the departed: offerings to the gods and the belief that the beginning of spring was a special time, making possible the return of spirits among the living. 

Housewives clean the houses, make fires to cleanse the yard, and sprinkle holy water over family members and cattle for protection. Some people engage in divinatory practices, others in a bit of drunkenness (a sure thing if the 40 drinks custom is strictly observed). People believe that if it rains on March 9, then Easter will also be rainy; if there is thunder, the following summer will bring rich crops; they know a long autumn lies ahead if the temperature falls below zero the night before the Martyrs’ celebrations. Furthermore, to increase household resources, on mucenici day, no money should be lent.

From Snakes to Lakes

The mucenici themselves have a ritualistic space, time and purpose. There are set rules – old books say they must be taken to church for blessing, before their offering and consumption. The main ingredients – wheat, honey, and walnuts – are among the sacred ones, each with a plethora of meanings and symbols behind them. 

The dough is woven into specific shapes, each with meaning. In Moldova, the eight-shape represents a stylized human figure, not the mathematical sign for infinity. In some places, it is believed that eight is the number of days the soldiers spent in prison. Some link the S-shape to the snake motif, which stands for temporal transformation (the Earth shedding its winter skin to make room for the spring one), ancestral perennity, regeneration, and fertility. 

In the region of Oltenia, villages in the Olt, Argeș, and Teleorman counties bake a clearly anthropomorphic shape – it has a head with eyes and nose and mouth, belly button, hands, and legs, and it is called brădoși or brândușei. However, Western Oltenia villages simplify the whole thing down to a round flatbread upon which 40 stamps are made with a pipe. The Southern-boiled version holds the watery syrup as a reminder of the lake the martyrs were thrown into. The late Radu Anton Roman, the beloved culinary journalist, mentioned a coin being placed randomly in one mucenic in some areas (just like the Catholic Epiphany gateaux du roi.) 

Since the festivity is attached to Orthodoxy, we share it with other Orthodox peoples, such as the Ukrainians and the Russians. Ukrainian mothers and grandmothers bake zhavoronki, yeasted dough larks as heralds of spring and symbols of the martyr soldiers. Children toss the doughy birds into the air to symbolically welcome spring and bring luck to farmers. In Russia, the Martyrs’ Day precedes maslenitsa, the butter week leading up to Lent fasting and reminds us of the Mardi Gras celebrations. 

So there you have it, paganism and religion one after the other, a cavalcade of fact and myth, meanings, practices, and beliefs from times past. Habits and beliefs that can get lost when mucenici shine brightly in shops’ windows from January to May, dressed in cosmopolitan attire hard to distinguish from other contemporary desserts. Chocolate, pecan nuts, tonka, and cream make them modern and international. Identity will not get scared of a pair of pink sprinkles, but time might get to its core – being around for a couple of months leads to dulling the eye and palate. As they say, sometimes less is more. 

Why Does It Bother Me So Much?

As a social science budding researcher, concepts such as consumerism, aestheticization, desacralization, hipsterization, and commodification come to mind when considering mucenici’s newfound popularity. For a while, year after year, I monitored social media for reactions to this seemingly tiny phenomenon, just another expression of our times. I wondered why no one seemed to see the dangers of losing our stories and identity. 

Tiberiu Cazacioc, a Slow Food fellow and expert in sustainable agriculture and UE food quality protection schemes, wrote that taking a dish out of its context “commodifies, banalizes, and standardizes; .it levels and kills cultural and social traditions.” Furthermore, anthropologist Florin Dumitrescu published his PhD thesis about the “supermarketization of the ritualic involvement,” making it all easier to understand and contextualize. 

Mucenici, like cozonac, coliva (Romanian “death” cake), and pasca, were once homemade foods. They are now available in supermarkets, restaurants, and sometimes even in street food stalls. One explanation for this leap is the fact that people no longer cook that much at home. This means professional chefs come to save the day, in classic or modern dress. Their offer is sometimes marketed or curated as a repository of tradition, together with the associated rituals and emotions. 

Oana thinks that the 10-year-long history of revisiting Romanian cuisine has elevated ritualistic food, making it as suitable as traditional lay food — and inducing nationalism and authenticity. But she notes a lack of storytelling surrounding them when they are used beyond their traditional context.

Daniel believes that overly exceeding the traditional timeframe of some foods leads to the loss of tradition and eventually the pleasure of tasting them. He’ll have mucenici two weeks prior to March 9 and one week after. Mirela puts them on the menu for about a month before and takes them out in mid-March. Zexe Brasserie starts selling them, boiled and baked, three days before the festive day, so people have time to stock up, says owner Ana Consulea. 

At Grain Trip, Valentina launches them exactly on March 9 and keeps them all month; it’s her personal choice. “People ask about them being made outside the season, but I just think they’d lose their appeal, we do the same with cozonac for Christmas and pasca for Easter,” she says. “It is not necessarily wrong for products with a ritual character to be prepared during the rest of the year as well [..] it is important for preserving  traditions and products with Romanian specificity that they are promoted in the most intelligently. But this can mean different things depending on the bakery/restaurant and the audience that each one has. The more people talk about traditional products and the more we try to carry on traditions through well-made products, the better.” 

The solution? Mirela has one: the already existent lay versions that are very close to the real thing – cheesecake for pasca and Polish bagels for mucenici.

Chocolate, pistachio, and spice make everything nice, and I am not one to say no to trying them (and retrying them for confirmation). What really bothers me is their desensitizing effect. Ritualic foods ahead of or long after their due date lack any emotional load. I put my trust in these traditions to keep us grounded in a more globalized world. 

In a market brimming with neon-coloured industrial products, I need my mucenici to keep their humble paysan clothes, to stay simple and start being baked or boiled on March 9, continuing the long line of grandmothers who baked and grandfathers who either cracked open walnuts or drank the 40 glasses. This might be seen as hate, but it is actually love. As a society, we live in the most permissive time ever; we remove and reinterpret daily what we no longer like or use in its classical form, and that liberty is amazing. However, I find it reassuring that some things happen the same way year after year, maybe even century after century (I know a mucenici recipe from 1883). 

For sure, there’s no offer without demand. Bakers and other mucenici makers give their clients what they want and, in the process, enjoy robust sales. I just hope we do not lose the appetite due to overstimulation and kill a tradition in the process. 

So, baked or boiled? 

I liked Valentina’s answer – do we really have to choose? 

Each recipe has its charm if it’s well prepared. The industrial versions focus primarily on quantity/price, not taste, making the memory of our grandmothers’ cooking a hefty one. Valentina grew up in Muntenia and loves the boiled ones “a little more.” Influential food blogger Laura Laurentiu lives in the mucenici-free land of Banat and recently adopted the Moldavian style. 

As for me, my true king of the North remains the boiled, chewy cinnamon ones, although my Muntenian mother also bakes some delicious brioche for my Moldavian father. 

I haven’t baked or boiled any mucenici yet – I am lucky to have my mom around, and just like Oana, I know there will come a time when March 9 will make my heart tender. 

I’ll Have Some Cornbread, Please!

Words: Andrea Dimofte
Photos: Lucía Blasco
August 2023

In a world where different types of food are constantly vying for our attention, there is a humble staple that has remained consistent: bread. The love for bread is difficult to overstate. It nurtures our body and soul, imprinting itself on our collective consciousness. Like a warm hug, bread symbolizes comfort and connection. And the good news: there are many kinds, from the crispy French baguette to the soft and salty Italian focaccia. Today, I’ll write about the Romanian cornbread. 

When it comes to corn-based Romanian dishes, cornbread is the underdog. Corn holds a significant place in the Romanian consciousness. The grain has become a main character in Romanian cuisine, assimilating into many traditional dishes. But corn is not native to Romania. It arrived here from the West during the 17th century after the Spanish brought it to Europe from Mexico. Romania’s territory became a corn’s oasis, and today, Romania is among Europe’s top three corn producers. For the 2022 harvest year, it ranked just second after France. You can ask any Romanian about their relationship with corn, and they will likely give you a passionate answer. 

Corn is hearty, cheap, and adaptable for many cooking methods, so it has become a popular ingredient. You can find pufuleți – corn puffs that closely resemble cheese puffs. These were ones of the few snacks available under communism. They boomed in availability and popularity after the revolution. They are still popular today, evoking a sense of sentimentality.

But the corn superstar is mămăligă – a cornmeal porridge or a type of polenta. Having started from humble beginnings in rural areas, mămăligă is one of Romania’s most beloved traditional foods: it can be eaten as a main dish, with cheese and sour cream, or as a side to grilled fish or sarmale, cabbage rolls often filled with minced meat. It can be eaten for dinner, lunch, and breakfast, particularly in rural areas. It can even be a substitute for bread! Many families will argue about the “right” way to prepare it. And while it holds historical and cultural significance, some trendier restaurants are modernizing and reinterpreting how this type of polenta is eaten. From the many recipes for polenta to even how we eat corn cobs – grilled, boiled, with salt or other spices, shaved down, or eaten straight off the cob – Romanians love corn. 

The Golden Masterpiece

Romania has a strong agricultural tradition, with many communities relying on corn for farming. It is only natural that cornbread is more popular here, in the countryside. In Suciu de Jos, a village in Maramureș, northern Romania, making bread is like a ritual. Lucreția Filip, 63, and Ludovica Kvechita, 58, are excited to prepare cornbread – from scratch. They are good friends. Upon seeing the camera, they insist on putting on their costum popular (folk, traditional clothing). They are both from a nearby village, but have been living here for many years. “Regarding food, many things are done uniquely here in Maramureș. We even have different names for ingredients,” says Ludovica. “For instance, we call potatoes picioci instead of cartofi.”

Ludovica’s kitchen is adorned with traditional tapestry. In the corner, a small TV shows women dancing to folk songs. I notice the dry batter resting in a large wooden bowl, colloquially called copaie. It already smells good. Lucreția and Ludovica made the flour themselves: untreated, by mixing corn and barley on a stone mill in their backyard. “You can truly taste the difference when the flour is homemade, compared to store-bought,” proudly declares Lucreția. While they sometimes make wheat bread too, “if you make it from scratch, cornbread is better for your silhouette,” says Lucreția, this time giggling. 

They then take the wooden bowl to their backyard, where their masonry oven is also located. They begin to place the dry batter into iron skillets. Their hands move swiftly. They whisk the wet ingredients separately, then mix them into the skillets. By this point, they have created somewhat of an assembly line, and the pace quickens. With great care and tenderness, they place the now ready batter inside the oven, pushing it towards the fire. 

“Cornbread is sacred here,” Ludovica says as we wait for the bread to grow. “We dip it in sheep’s broth when we go to mass, for Easter, or for pomană” (a traditional ritual involving food offerings after someone’s passing). Religion plays a significant role in their daily lives here and is often intertwined with food. Occasionally, the bread is dipped in donkey milk, so Lucreția rushes to quickly heat some up in the kitchen. Naturally, the milk they use is fresh. 

A few hours later, the moment arrives. Lucreția and Ludovica retrieve the golden masterpieces from the oven. They both now seem relaxed, exchanging proud glances. We wait patiently, observing the perfectly crisp crust as it cools. Then, with a touch of humor and ease, they flip the bread, removing it from the skillet that has been its home. They bring out the milk and cut a few slices of the loaf. Each bite offers a crunchy resistance before surrendering to reveal the tender crumbly interior. Inspired by their choice, I also decide to dip it into the milk. It’s a sweet flavor with a savory undertone. It tastes heavenly. 

Our Heroes

Lucreția and Ludovica are not only heroes in the kitchen. They take pride in keeping Romania’s rural traditions alive. They contribute to their community by making traditional garments in a vibrant mix of colors. These tapestries dress up local festivals and celebrations, while their clothing is worn by their peers or sold at local markets. Lucreția and Ludovica also take care of orphaned children with the help of their husbands. I met Claudiu, an 8-year-old boy who kept us company while they made the cornbread. He is one of the children they support. When asked about his favorite meal, the answer is pasta. Lucreția smiles, placing her hand on his shoulder. “Some of these kids have been brought to us since they were 1 year old. Others came straight from the hospital, after being abandoned by their mothers,” she explains. 

Ludovica has her own children: a daughter and a son, both of whom completed their university studies in Cluj-Napoca, one of the most up-and-coming cities just a few hours away. They now live in Italy, working in the hospitality and agriculture sectors. This is a common scenario for many families in the Romanian countryside. Often, the younger generation departs for cities or other countries. Economic disparities, limited prospects, and a yearning for modernization fuel this exodus. Nonetheless, Ludovica notes, “they come back with a big appetite and leave with suitcases filled with fresh local produce.” She smiles as she hands me another loaf of cornbread. “Have some more!”

How Do You Like Your Coffee? A Taste of Romania’s Coffee Culture

Words: Maria Raicu
Photo: Bogdan Balaceanu
Illustration: Doina Titanu
August 2023

It’s very early in the morning and I am still sleepy. It’s 2003. I’m 16 years old and in my second year of high school. School starts at 8am. I’m still in bed, listening to the tasty clamor coming from the kitchen, as my mom prepares breakfast before another day begins to unfold in our apartment, in this small town in Southeast Romania, Slobozia. Every morning starts the same. I’ve never needed an alarm clock. While my mom washes the dishes from last night’s dinner, my dad goes into the bathroom, which he doesn’t leave for the next half an hour, making us beg him to come out. I rush to the kitchen, my eyes half closed, looking for coffee, a 3-in-1 soluble mix of instant coffee, sugar and powdered cream – all in one sachet, which I really enjoyed back then and from time to time, I might still indulge in. This may be one of the weirdest things to mention when writing an article about specialty coffee, but bear with me.

Coffee culture in Romania has quickly evolved, and people from different generations and backgrounds have different ways of enjoying coffee. This is an article on how coffee is consumed by the people around me, like my mother, and the specialty coffee my friends and I drink today.

Savoring every sip – my mother’s love for coffee

My parents drink two coffees per day. For them, coffee drinking is sacred for several reasons. It soothes both the mind and the body, and offers them one of the few moments they have to reconnect. Their ritual is as follows: my mom wakes up and makes the coffee. She grinds the beans in a small electric coffee grinder she found at a promotion in a supermarket. She then puts one teaspoon of coffee in each small cup and pours bubbling hot water on top. That’s it. No sugar, no milk. They drink the second one in the afternoon after their siesta. That is when they also have something sweet with their coffee; either dark chocolate or digestive biscuits. 

My mother, Nicole Raicu, is 62 years old, and loves her coffee. She was born in Țăndărei, a now small town in the southeast of the country. Her first memory surrounding coffee is tied to the fascinating stories that an old Roma woman was weaving while solemnly contemplating the bottom of a coffee cup turned upside down. She was practicing the ritual of reading the ‘future’ in the lines left by the coffee grounds at the bottom of the cup. My mom wasn’t at all attracted to the smell or taste of coffee, but she was happy her mother would give the old lady flour and eggs in exchange for nettles, wild mushrooms, and the stories that filled her childhood with images of lands and people she would have hardly come to know otherwise.

Later on, in the 70s, she discovered the taste of ‘real coffee’ and fell in love. She remembers it happened while she was at a friend’s place doing homework, when all of a sudden she was offered coffee. “It had the taste of emancipation, of freedom, of the forbidden fruit.” That is because at home they weren’t allowed to have it. It was considered something too elegant and refined, she remembers. Since then, this relationship has remained her most reliable. In the magical potion, she has always found a most trustworthy confidant to share her aspirations with, her passions and pleasures, and her time of celebration and ceremony. Many of my mom’s friendships were formed and strengthened over a cup of coffee – authentic or not.

Coffee during communism

During communism, people would drink coffee in small cups as it was something precious and expensive. It wasn’t real coffee made out of coffee beans, but a concoction that had many ingredients now considered unusual by the younger generation – chicory, chickpeas, oats, and rye. Real coffee was found in diplomatic shops and it would cost a lot compared to the salaries they received. A kilo was around 210 lei, which meant almost 10% of the average income, which in 1985 was 2827 lei.

Real coffee was kept for special occasions: a doctor’s visit that required special treatment or when one needed to ask someone a favor. Our parents’ generation gave gifts of coffee, chocolate, liquor, and cigarettes as tokens in exchange for the service provided. From a visit to the doctor, to thanking an acquaintance for helping you out with a better spot in the student dorm for your kid, coffee was always there to make things official. It came as a plus and not as a substitute for money. If you weren’t a doctor or a higher-up in your field, you certainly wouldn’t even enjoy the gift, but keep it for the next dire circumstance. Being so scarce, coffee was a symbol of power and status. For those who were powerful, offering it was a recognition; for those receiving it, it was an obligation to return the favor by helping the person with whatever they needed. 

My mom admits that since she first tasted coffee, she has seldom passed a day without it. When I asked her what coffee means to her, she said: “It’s my daily dose of energy and vitality, it gets me ready for a work day or vacation day.” Coffee was always there for her when she was happy or struggling; when she was in love, or just in the middle of a breakup. My mom doesn’t know what specialty coffee is, although her taste for coffee has evolved as she grew older. Even if she is buying single-origin beans from around the world, she is still bound to the coffees she can find at her local shops in Slobozia. 

As much as my mom’s coffee ritual brings me comfort and nostalgia, I can’t help but notice the stark contrast between her simple routine and the world of specialty coffee. While my mom enjoys her classic drip coffee every morning, there is an entire  culture of coffee enthusiasts exploring unique brewing methods and exotic beans. Specialty coffee has become an art form, with baristas mastering the craft of creating the perfect latte art and roasters sourcing beans from all over the world. It’s a world of complex flavor profiles, where the subtle nuances of a coffee’s origin and roast can be tasted in every sip. But with this new wave of coffee culture comes a sense of exclusivity, a perceived notion that only those who can afford expensive equipment and beans are ‘true’ coffee connoisseurs. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of specialty coffee and forget that at its core, coffee is a simple pleasure that brings people together. My mom’s humble coffee ritual may not be Instagram-worthy, but it’s a reminder that the joy of a good cup of coffee can be found in the simplest and most familiar of routines.

The specialty coffee buzz – from coffee shop to home brewing

According to the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), the term ‘specialty coffee’ refers to “coffee that is graded 80 points or above on a 100-point scale by a certified coffee taster (SCAA) or by a licensed Q Grader (CQI).” This type of coffee is grown at high altitudes, and custom-roasted according to its profile to highlight and enhance its natural flavor and tell the story of its origin. The barista traces the steps of the coffee beans from the nutritious soil to eager taste buds. Just as a magician, he uses his set of skills to constantly recreate the best spellbinding experience. Due to the change in humidity, the temperature of the water, the grinding method, and many other factors, it is always a challenge. This is how true artistry is proven during international contests and in your local specialty coffee shop alike.

Tinu Cojocaru, 45, first discovered specialty coffee in 2013 when he went to Origo, one of Bucharest’s most famous specialty coffee shops, which opened that very year. Tinu started going for coffee with his friends once or twice every week, but now spends around 260 ron/month (approx 50 euros) for the coffee that he drinks at home, which he prepares using a Lelit, an Italian espresso machine, recognized as one of the more affordable machines one can use to make the best version of specialty coffee at home. The decision to buy it came after thorough research and following the advice on espressoman.ro, a forum for coffee lovers who want to experience the taste of specialty coffee at home. The forum was created by Liviu Frățilă, whose specialty coffee adventure began in 2007, as mentioned in his first blog entries. While searching for a good espresso machine, he started a discussion thread on Softpedia, a popular Romanian forum. His thread now has 6,287 comments. On his blog, he describes Espressoman as “an online platform, blog, and a wonderful and animated forum, which wants to be a tool for the rising Romanian community of ‘home espresso’ enthusiasts, or more precisely, for those who drink at home a better espresso/cappuccino that in most cafés in Romania.”

I met Tinu at Aviatorilor and went to Ototo (which is Japanese for younger brother), a concept store that sells locally roasted coffee and many sustainable and environmentally friendly Romanian (but not only) brands. The atmosphere is cozy with good lighting, green vibes, and lovely smiling people. They have a special coffee selection from the best local roasteries: Sloane, Origo Coffee, Pressco, Incognito, Nomonym, Dropshot, MABO Coffee, and Bob Coffee Lab. 

Tinu was going home on vacation and was planning to buy 3 bags of coffee: one to take with him, one for when he comes back, and one for Carmen, his wife, to enjoy at home while he is away. This means that he needs to pay attention to the date the coffee was roasted. The best coffee for him is the one that was roasted two weeks prior. He used to buy a lot of Origo roasted coffee, but now his favorite is MABO. He looks for the best-tasting coffee that he can make using his espresso machine. When he travels he always takes his Aeropress along. When he books a hotel room he usually calls in advance to make sure the room has a kettle for fresh boiling water. One of the bags he bought was roasted a few days earlier. The coffee is from Brazil, and he will use it for filter and Aeropress after two weeks have passed so that the taste and flavor will be at their peak. He chose it as the best and cheapest version he could find for his requirements, which was 55 ron (11 euros) per 250 gr. 

We are now at his home sitting around the dining table, the room warmly lit by an oversized paper mushroom ceiling lamp that is hovering above us. He now recounts his first interactions with a barista. He remembers how serious and proper they were when describing the coffee that was served. It felt strange at first, he says. He didn’t quite get it. Later on, he understood that that was the signature of the place and that, more or less, each coffee shop started developing its own vibe. He laughs when he remembers a particular barista who, back then, he thought was ridiculous for his pedantic speech and demeanor. We both laugh as it is clear what he is referring to. This used to be a trend (in some cases still is) among fine-dining restaurants in Bucharest, promoting a certain type of service believed to suit the tasting experience. Some of the servers are so serious, he says, laughingly, that they somehow make him think of the soup-nazi, (a side character in the Seinfeld series that was serving one of the best soups in New York. Once he absurdly felt his soup was being disrespected by his customers, he would ban them). When asked if he ever felt intimidated by this approach, he said that he sometimes felt like it was exaggerated, but he got used to it because of how much he loved the coffee. 

Tinu’s favorite places to go for coffee are Origo and Steam Romană. His drink of choice is a double espresso. He remembers how he didn’t even drink coffee before his 20s. He didn’t like it as it was too burnt and needed sugar.

Adding sugar to your specialty coffee is usually frowned upon because it limits the experience of the coffee’s natural sweetness. At Origo, in the beginning, they were very adamant about not using sugar, to the point where you felt judged. Max Balthazar, 27, – barista at AM Social Space – says he likes it when his clients feel at ease to ask for personalized drinks, sugary or not. He noticed how when you accommodate one’s personal needs, as a barista, you create a certain ease around the space which makes people come for more. He has been working in the coffee business for just three months, but already feels comfortable in the coffee shop. He can easily froth milk and make a well-defined rounded heart design but admits that this is just the first step in mastering the craft of latte art.

Specialty coffee shop owners in Bucharest thought of a clever method to break Romanian’s obsolete taste in coffee (the very burnt Italian espresso style) through a comfort blend. A type of coffee, is roasted and prepared to fit a more general taste, but still keep up with the specificities of a specialty coffee: fragrance, aroma, flavor, acidity, body, and aftertaste. This blend helps baristas get people accustomed to a taste different from what they are used to, and educates them towards a more refined palate. The comfort blend offers a more balanced, tasty yet simple enough taste, to convert the old-fashioned coffee drinkers more used to the ibrik coffee (a traditional unfiltered Turkish way of brewing using finely ground coffee boiled in small copper pots) and taste than to the acidity-powered taste of the specialty coffee.

Tinu’s espresso machine broke a few days ago and he and Carmen are thinking about which new one to buy. It broke after he ground the coffee too finely. The water was coming through with too much pressure and got stuck behind the wall of finely ground coffee, making a sound that announced the unfortunate fate of their most used and most loved home device. They are willing to pay 2,000 euros for a new one, together with an exterior coffee grinder so, in case it breaks, they won’t need to change the whole thing.

After listening to my mom’s stories about coffee, I reflect on the deep connections we share with this magical brew and how it brings people together. From the simplicity of a traditional cup of coffee shared with loved ones to the artistry of a perfectly crafted latte, coffee has the power to bring people together and elevate our everyday experiences. The rise of specialty coffee culture is a testament to our desire to taste and appreciate the complexity and nuances of this beloved beverage, not just a drink but a reminder of the beauty in our delicately human daily practices.

Reinvention & Slow Living: A Conversation with Yuki Ichiro

Words: Lavinia Gogu
Photo: Bogdan Balaceanu
August 2023

Yuki stands as one of Romania’s first Japanese restaurants. This small, family-run operation offers the most genuine Japanese experience in the capital; a relaxed setting with authentic Japanese flavors where everything is created with care and attention to detail. From the Ukiyo-e prints on the walls to the staff’s traditional kimonos and the characteristic aroma of miso, everything at Yuki’s reminded me of a trip I made a few years ago to the Land of the Rising Sun. 

While admiring shelves filled with different teacups – which I later learned are individually dedicated to regular clients – I asked about the restaurant’s owner. His name is Yuki Ichiro. I confess that I didn’t expect to find him working in the kitchen. But, as I was to discover, there is nothing conventional about Yuki.

Yuki Ichiro’s professional path is colored with many adventures, bold choices and “a lot of luck,” as he likes to say. It all started in the US three decades ago. After finishing his marketing studies in Oregon, he moved back home to Tokyo, where he spent eight years working in the advertising industry. Life in Japan’s megacity was busy and fun; filled with countless office hours and after work parties – “even when we finished work by 9 or 10 pm!” he remembers. But there were some more travels awaiting him far away from Japan, this time in Europe. The first stop was the Netherlands. Ichiro moved to Rotterdam to enhance his academic experience. He met his now ex-wife there, a woman from Constanța, in south-east Romania, with whom he has two children. The couple moved back to Tokyo where he founded a consulting firm, but they eventually settled in Bucharest. In 2014, in collaboration with Ishii Makoto, a chef and friend from Tokyo, Ichiro opened up the restaurant that bears his name.

At a table tucked in the back, which also serves him as a working desk – and still wearing an apron – Ichiro pours me herbal tea and tells me his story with a warm, kind voice. 

Something that stands out about your background is how well-traveled you are; all the different places where you have lived: from the suburbs of Tokyo to Western and Eastern Europe, via the US. How did your travel journey start?

When I was in high school in Japan, only a few chose to study abroad: the prestigious universities in Tokyo were preferred. I was the only one among my high school friends who decided to study in the US. So I did it – and I began seeing the world and gaining a new perspective. “If you do what everyone else does, you’ll be as good as them at best,” my father told me, encouraging my decision to study abroad. Perhaps his message pushed me to be different and to accept new challenges. He was quite a strict parent. I wouldn’t say we were friends. But I do remember some of his teachings. 

After I finished college, I returned to Tokyo and worked for seven or eight years in advertising. But I wanted to see and experience what Europe has to offer. This is how I ended up doing an MBA in the Netherlands, where I met my ex-wife, who introduced me to Romania. 

At that time, I was already financially independent and I think I took that step (of studying and living abroad) more out of curiosity. Maybe I was bored with my life in Tokyo. But once I finished my MBA , I was hired by a French company to open a subsidiary in Japan and ended up being one of its founders. So I moved back to Tokyo with my ex-wife and lived there for nine years. 

I didn’t doubt my choices in life – I didn’t question my destiny. In Tokyo, everyone worked extremely hard and I never had a problem with working overtime or on weekends. We worked a lot, but we also had fun. I would go out to party after work, even when we finished at 8, 9 or 10 pm! 

So, what brought you to Romania?

In 2011, after an earthquake, tsunami and then radiation, we decided to come to Romania. These unfortunate events were the triggers. 

Before that, I would visit Romania once a year, for a week or two, for my children to see their grandparents at the seaside. The idea of moving to Romania was mine, a decision I processed for nine years. I actually think I had this idea planted in me all along, since my very first visit here.

My ex-wife was more skeptical about the move because she loved Japan and had learned the language. She didn’t think it was the right time: it was too early. We decided to live in Bucharest and not Constanța because there is a Japanese school here, in Pipera. Our eldest son was in primary school and the youngest in kindergarten. It took some time to get things in order in Japan and prepare for the move, but I did it with pleasure.

I can say that I have always considered myself lucky in life. And this brings me to another thing that my father told me. He was an entrepreneur, and even if he could delegate, he preferred interviewing each employee personally. He always asked candidates if they considered themselves lucky, and wouldn’t hire them if they said no. I think I’m lucky.

What were the first culture shocks you had when you visited Romania?

My first impression of Bucharest was that the city is gloomy. The buildings and even the people seemed gray, starting with their choice of clothing to their facial expressions. And I don’t mean it negatively; I’m just comparing it to how it looks today. In fact, I knew from my wife that Romanians are very friendly and open-hearted people, once you get to know them. 

But I can’t say that I was surprised by anything. I was already used to culture shocks.

What do you like the most about living in Bucharest?

Romanian traditions are beautiful. What captivated me the most was the slow pace of life. Tokyo has a quick and exciting pace. Everything works flawlessly, as expected. But every time I came here, I was fascinated by the leisurely life of the locals and I dreamed of it: a good balance between personal and professional life. Family orientation is a Romanian inclination that I really appreciate.

There are many advantages of living in Romania. Expats who are restaurant customers always tell me that they are delighted with the friendly people, the city’s safety (Bucharest is considered one of the safest European capitals) and the reasonable cost of living. 

Now that I have lived here for 10 years, I realize some problems with the educational and medical systems exist. I now understand my ex-wife’s reservations because these factors are also very important in the quality of life. The quality of the services in the stores and the relationship with the authorities and governmental institutions can also leave something to be desired. But that’s another story. Life is good here in Bucharest.

How do you like to spend your free time in Bucharest?

I like the parks in the city. I also enjoy Romanian films: the stories are authentic and I appreciate the actors’ performances. I have over a dozen DVDs with old movies, but I watch current Romanian movies too, both in cinemas and on Netflix. Currently, my favorite Romanian films are “A fost sau n-a fost” (12:08 East of Bucharest) and “Anul Pierdut 1986” (Clouds of Chernobyl), which I recently saw in cinemas.

But if I have more time at my disposal, I prefer to travel around the country. I love the countryside, where I have discovered so much beauty, for the eye and spirit. 

When I explored Transylvania and Bucovina, I met many foreigners. Veteran travelers know just how lovely it is here. They often come from Western Europe and always seem to know where to go and what to do. There is something precious here. I love the small villages, Criț and Viscri in Transylvania. I always bring my friends from Japan to visit and they are delighted. These places have a special beauty and sense of authenticity.

Is there something you dislike about living here?

I don’t like that, in general terms, the authorities are unwilling to help you much. Maybe it’s not a surprise for others, but where I come from, town halls, for example, are there to serve you as a citizen. This is reflected in how they are organized. For example: someone explained to me that the main entrance of the City Hall of District 1 is for the mayor and for the most important people, while the citizens have to go through a small door at the back. In contrast, in Japan, public service is really public service; officials are there to serve the citizens. The citizens enter through the main entrance while the staff enter through the back. 

In addition, corruption is still part of the Romanian system, although the situation is improving. Many people are intrigued by the fact that it still doesn’t seem normal to me. I am often asked why I’m not happy that money can solve problems. But things are improving year by year.

What are the major differences for you between Romanian and Japanese societies?

There are many differences in the education systems. In Japan, schools prepare children for life: they teach them to become members of society and train them to work well in a team. But by living here and observing my children’s education, which has a Romanian component, I observe that they are unprepared for teamwork.

The Romanian education system focuses on the subjects of study and encourages competition. For example, exam results are displayed from the highest to the lowest grade, with first and last names. In Japan, exam results aren’t displayed at all. My parents never asked me about my grades, much less compared to other kids. Another difference is that, in Japan, students have a lot of extracurricular activities. The year is filled with events, and the kids have assigned responsibilities at each event.

In addition, schools in Japan have committees with a wide variety of subjects, ranging from animal committees to flower committees and such. These are held regularly and push students to make decisions according to their roles. It simulates society on a micro level. These school organizations have hierarchies. The older students are the leaders while the younger ones are the apprentices, so they learn from their seniors. This system is implemented from a very young age, sometimes even at kindergarten, to inspire mutual respect and trust. This system is continued throughout the Japanese work environment. Every time you start a new job, you start from scratch. You become an apprentice all over again. In Romania, I noticed a different mentality; that your boss is allowed to exacerbate his/her power over you, while in Japan, the approach is that the leader takes care of his or her subordinates. By the time a young Japanese man reaches adulthood, he has been through this hierarchy system three or four times. He is ready and knows how to integrate into the team, respect his peers and lead. 

Considering these cultural differences, how do you relate to the Romanian staff in your restaurant?

They are talkative and I enjoy working with them, but they are unprepared for teamwork. It can sometimes be quite difficult for me. It may be difficult for you to imagine, but in Japanese culture, when you join an organization, you will work in several departments for the first two years, regardless of what college you graduated from. This is the training period where you must understand what everyone does to form a holistic view of the company. This philosophy is also applied in services, sometimes with great success.

For example, if a chef has the time to serve the client, he does. This is because they can better explain the dishes, ingredients and preparation methods. I don’t think many restaurants do this here, but I try this multipurpose method because I think it makes sense, especially in a small team. But I often hear: “I’m a chef, I don’t wash dishes.” Things don’t work that way in the Japanese system.

So is this why I caught you working in the kitchen when I got to the restaurant?

Yes, I make desserts, I help in the kitchen for an hour or two, I even patrol the street in front of the restaurant. And this creates funny reactions because people get worried and sometimes even ask me why I am cleaning the street. But that’s teamwork. And I think this mentality is hard to implement after the age of 25, when people are already trained. Perhaps this is one of the biggest challenges of running a business here as a Japanese person.

What lessons from Japanese culture and from your father would you like to pass on to your children – and which ones from Romanian culture?

I retained a formula for success from my father which I interpreted like this: result or reward = talent (from 1 to 10) x effort (from 0 to almost infinity) x luck (1 or 0).

And speaking of effort: a strong sense of purpose and resilience to hard work have always been values found in my father’s words which are also fundamental to Japanese society. Japanese schools focus on compassion and empathy more than competition between students. Teamwork requires compassion, and compassion requires mutual respect and trust. 

What about luck? Well, reality hurts, because we are not lucky all the time. One thing we could do is to continue to make an effort – that is, to be alert, so that we are more likely to take advantage of opportunities when they arise.

However, no one can continue to work hard all their lives. We need breaks. The question is when to work hard and when to rest, and we’d better find out the answer that works for us earlier in life rather than later. But the painful reality is that we do not have an answer until we work hard. Only in adulthood can we be wise enough to discuss these decisions in terms of life stages. 

Japanese culture teaches us to work hard because rest comes after significant effort. But here in Romania I am learning a completely different approach. One that helps me find balance on my own terms.

How is the balance between personal and professional life now, in this unpredictable post-pandemic socio-economic climate and with a war so close?

First of all, I am lucky to be in Romania, both as a freedom-loving individual and as a hospitality entrepreneur during the pandemic. The regulations were not as strict as in most other countries in Europe and our business survived. 

Now, as in many other restaurants everywhere, clients are coming back to enjoy their social life, probably even more than before, while many customers have become accustomed to eating food delivered at home, unfortunately. 

How has the Asian cuisine scene in Bucharest changed in recent years?

Over the last seven and a half years since I opened the restaurant, a lot has changed. Several restaurants with this profile have opened and the quality has improved, but of course, when it comes to Japanese cuisine, Romania is still in its infancy. Here, when you think of a Japanese restaurant, people tend to automatically think of sushi. 

In other parts of the world this association is changing. In Western Europe and the US, Japanese food is no longer perceived as just sushi, but also as ramen and many other things. Every market goes through the same stages. We noticed this in the US 30 years ago, then in the Netherlands 20 years ago.

Which kind of Japanese food do you serve in your restaurant?

Ishii Makoto, the chef with whom I launched the venture, is not a sushi chef: he specialized in traditional Japanese dishes. He is originally from Tokyo and has worked in the food service industry for over 20 years. 

In Japan, sushi is not an everyday food, and I don’t know any Japanese person who eats sushi daily. Rather, we eat them on occasions. When I lived in Tokyo, I would eat out maybe once a month, and we would occasionally go to a restaurant with friends to enjoy the talent of a specialized chef.

Yuki is a restaurant that serves authentic Japanese food in a city that focuses more on sushi – how does it work?

Our restaurant in Bucharest works well even if we don’t serve sushi because Romanians naturally favor what is good. Several foreigners have expressed this observation to me. I’m used to quality ingredients and the vegetables taste amazing here. Even my mother, who visited Romania twice, mentioned that the ingredients here taste better.

Of course, if you go to the supermarket, you can find products imported from Holland, Turkey or Greece, but Romanians know how to identify the natural taste of food. And that’s exactly what we try to offer at our restaurant: food with genuine, natural taste. We do not use flavor enhancers or chemicals of any kind. Romanians can identify this difference and appreciate it.

Which dishes from Yuki’s menu would you recommend to someone only familiar with sushi from Japanese cuisine?

We practice slow cooking, which is why we have a small menu, so I think it is important for our guests to try them all.