The Bessarabia region is home to various different kinds of local cuisine created at the intersection of various different cultures in this region that borders Romania and Bulgaria. Here are a few tips for tourists traveling in the Odessa region on finding the best of local cuisine.
Bessarabia is very well-known for its tasty and richly eclectic cuisine. There are many travel tips and tricks in order to experience authentic Bessarabian cuisine. First and most importantly, do not search the Black Sea’s coast for seafood, that area has never gotten the proper taste of Bessarabia. Of course there are some good fishing places in that region (notably Vilkovo – small fisherman town that is connected with the sea and Danube Delta). The noteworthy local ingredients are from the steppes – flocks of sheep, herds of cow, vineyards, fields of wheat, corn, sunflower provide the region with sustenance. Rice is also widely grown near the Danube river itself. The region’s farmers produce tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and fruits. And of course, walnuts are a historic symbol of Bessarabia.
The best way to try all of these ingredients molded into one tasty dish is to visit somebody’s home. The region’s hospitable people will wine and dine you with their best: domestic wine, mamalyga (a polenta dish), the legendary local “bryndza” sheep’s cheese and borscht. There are many other recipes and tastes depending on the ethnicity of inhabitants: sarma, mititei, vertuta, milina, manzha, syrniki, vareniki, kavyrma, kurban, placintas, karnazzi, zama – a mix of exotic names mostly from Ukrainian, Moldavian, Bulgarian and Gagauzian cuisine. These cuisines are tasty and also moderately spicy. Also, if one is to combine these ingredients in the right fashion it can be similar to Mediterranean cuisine in its consistency.
Bessarabia is known for its hospitality, to the point where it is considered rude to decline an invitation from one’s host. One should absolutely endeavor to get an invitation to eat in someone’s home. Of course, you may not have any friends in this foreign land and so finding good food might pose a challenge. The good news is that there are always local markets in every small city. Perfect meats, bryndza and all kinds of vegetables can be easily found. The other piece of good news is that you can buy great and cheap wine everywhere: in the shops, bars, and even on the village streets! People will often write online about how wine is sold on the house gateways.
In order to continue experiencing the best Bessarabian local dishes, one’s travels should follow a certain course. We recommend starting such a journey in the Shabo village, there is a local wine cellar that is very well-known for its degustation. Its restaurant, “Shabski dvorik” (Shabo Yard), is very tasty. The nearby Bilgorod-Dnistrovsky has noteworthy sightseeing, but no noteworthy restaurants. However, the local market has a very good choice of bryndza.
Next stop should be Tatarbunary, which is a small town a traveler would want to pass through. Do not pass it though, the road café has spectacular kurban – a very popular local sheep soup. Most gourmets consider it to be one of the best in the area.
After Tatarbunary, the next destination should certainly be Bolgrad. This is the home of the largest Bulgarian diaspora in Ukraine and happens to be a very nice place to eat. Visit the local restaurants and produce markets, where the fruits and vegetables are unrivaled. Bolgrad is also considered to be the best place in Ukraine to try the milina (a pie stuffed with sheep’s cheese) as well as kavurma and karnazzi – meat specialties that are best with domestic wine, kurban and different lamb dishes. Being here, it is of upmost importance to visit a market in order to find very interesting products such as “kisloyo mlyako” (domestic made yogurt), pepper paste and ‘merudia’ seasoning – a special mix of homegrown herbs – a great souvenir to bring home.
Ismail is the biggest city south of the Odessa region. Danube port’s restaurants and cafés provide great entertainment for the short-term traveler. The notable cuisine choices in this city are mamalyga, local borscht, Mititei (a kind of kebab), hot Kavyrma (stewed lamb) and Vushka – a variant of fish soup – which is traditionally prepared with “Lyubystok” herb to add a special flavor to the soup.
Between the cities of Ismail to Bolrod, there is the Kolonist Winery (in the Krynichne village) – which is, without doubt, one of the best in the region. One can enjoy a delicious meal along with their wine. And, last but surely not least is Vilkovo (‘Ukraine’s Venice’), our very own “fish destination”. This small fishing city, located on the canals of Danube Delta, is a remarkable place to see, but there is so much to eat and drink as well. After an excursion down the great European river and through the amazing biosphere reserve, eat some freshly prepared fish and drink some local “novak” (’new wine’) – a domestically produced wine made of grapes grown over the wet river islands. But, be careful: while this deceptively light wine will leave you with a fresh mind, it will also leave you with a heavy walk!
Dmytro Sikorsky is a restaurateur, scholar and historian of the Odessa and Bessarabia regions.