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           Roma  Cuisine - What is Gypsy Food

                                                                                                                                                        Chuck Todaro - Feb. 2012


   What is Roma cuisine? It was one of my earliest questions while traveling amongst the various tribes. The common reply was a subtle shake of the head, as if they had never really thought of it before, a thoughtful pause, followed by the sudden realization “mas”, meat in the Gypsy tongue.

Gypsy Food
Some elaborated with idioms like, “meat is the Gypsy vegetable,” and which rings of saying of other nomadic groups like the proud Tatar who similarly claim, “the right of the Tatar is meat and rakia”.  There are theories that at least some Roma groups entered into the Balkans enslaved by the Tatars. This period under Tatar constraints perhaps molded their compulsion for red meat.  It certainly didn’t come from their Hindu Indian origins where the cuisine leans towards vegetarianism. In other words, they learned it from somewhere.  But that is what Roma culture is all about – it’s an amalgamation of numerous cultures acquired over 4000 miles and 1000 years of movement west.


According to Sociologist there are generally two major variables forging an ethnic cuisine: produce availability and economy.  Religious beliefs are also known to play a role though clerical restrictions have never had much of an effect on the way of the Roma.   The Tatar and other pastoral nomads ate an abundance of meat because their red-blooded gardens were free for the picking at any point of the four seasons. The “have-not” Gypsies, on the other hand, roaming the countryside without livestock, was forced to cultivate the needs and weaknesses of man to obtain their daily bread. They found an economical niche and by doing so edged into the prominent class known as middleman minorities. The sociological term defines a group that though discriminated, found a societal need which ultimately leads to a peculiar status amongst the majority as both despised and in demand.  While other middleman minority groups like Jews and Armenians based themselves in the monetary driven cities and towns, the Gypsy maneuvered through the countryside where compensation often came in the way of food stuff.  The farmer’s surplus soon became the basis of Roma cuisine.

Gypsy Food mushrooms
The Roma’s ability to exploit natural resources has remained the catalyst of their economic independence. Their creativity also helped fill their plates.  Some tribes, like those living along the edges of the forest survived almost entirely on the benevolence of Mother Nature. Mushrooms and nuts gathered from the forest brought them needed protein while wild berries and greens cooked like spinach or added to their soups brought addition nutritional value. Snails were another popular Gypsy meal adding protein to their diet. “Snail soup is another favorite dish of the gipsies, and one which old aesculapian gispy women recommend to persons in delicate health,” wrote Vernon S Morwood in 1885. “In the month of February we visited a gypsy family… By the side of the smoldering embers stood a coffee pot without lid or handle filled with snail soup which was to constitute the mid-day meal of the family… the idea of drinking or eating those slippery-looking creatures was too repugnant for us to accept the invitation to taste a little of it, so kindly given by the woman.”


   Appetites have since changed. Modern refrigeration systems and better access to markets has improved Roma access to animal meat and gradually turned opinion towards mainstream distaste of the slimy mollusks. Within a generation or two traditional dishes like snail soup or grilled snail meat with potatoes had been completely abandoned. Even the very poor Romas of today whose fields are crawling with snails and may resort to begging to put food on the table leave the little creature to freely slime, all to the snails’ good fortune.


“We eat what everyone else eats,” Is how most Roma identify their diet: Romanian Roma eat Romanian foods, Bulgarian Roma eat Bulgarian foods, Turkish Roma eat Turkish foods, etc., though a difference does show between the more stabilized majority population and unsettled Gypsy clinging to the bottom rung of the social ladder.  The Roma meal is sometimes best categorized as the food of the poor.  Today, social programs help keep the severely impoverished from falling too deeply between the cracks; however, not too long ago, when a lack of income could easily lead to starvation, Roma, had a reputation of eating the animals killed on the roadside or of other unknown causes. They called these groups “morticar” in the Romanian and “dugo” in Romani, but it all means the same thing, “a people who eat the infectious carcasses of dead animals”.


Gypsy kitchenGypsy Food














“The greatest luxury to them is, when they can procure a roast of cattle that have died of any distemper: to eat their full of such a meal, is to them the height of epicurism,“ appeared in John Hoyland’s 1816 book A Historical Survey of the Customs, Habits and Present State of the Gypsies and numerous other documentations throughout the century. “They are particularly fond of any animal that have died by fire; therefore, whenever a conflagration has happened, the next day, the Gypsies from every neighboring quarter assemble and draw the suffocated, half-consumed beast out of the ashes; men, women, and children, in troops, joyfully carrying the flesh home to their dwellings…  When any person censures their taste, or shows surprise at it, they say: ‘the flesh of a beast which God kills must be better than that of one killed by the hand of man.’”

Gypsy bones“Beggars can’t be choosey” is the Gypsy way of life. You take what you can get until it becomes accepted or in this case, food of choice.  Food in their plate often relied on the benevolence of others and which meant that they were often “thrown a bone”, sometimes quite literally: “oase tziganesti” ( “Gypsy bone”)  is a term still used in the Romanian markets describing meat stripped animal bones that most shoppers purchase for their dogs.  The Romas use this in their soups and also in the popular Roma dish “shak te mas” which simply translates to meat and cabbage.

Pig stomach is another animal part normally discarded by the majority that quickly found its way onto the Gypsy table. The preparation entails a thorough cleaning, boiling and then frying the organ.  Animal fat that western society usually separates from human consumption and turns to soap or other byproducts is eaten by the Gypsies in gelatin or liquid form with bread.

Gypsy bread

   Bread, whether leavened, unleavened or the popular “mamaliga” (corn bread), is a major staple of the Roma meal, second only to meat and just before potatoes. It’s on the table regardless of the menu. This dependence on bread shows in a story told by a family of migrant workers traveling through Italy. They complained after to their surprise the waiter failed to bring bread with their pasta. He turned a deaf ear.  They would not eat without bread, it was as simple as that, and they threatened to leave their food and walk out the door. That got a reaction and they received their basket of bread along with a heavy load of curious looks from the staff and other diners.  An abundance of bread always accompanies their meals; it’s what fills them up, especially the poor ones, and that which produces the famous big Gypsy belly.

The Roma cuisine is today less distinguishable by its content than its style. Gypsy food means cooking outdoors in cauldrons over a wooden flame. They work manually with simply a knife and wooden spoon. They know nothing of electric slicers and dicers, non-stick, polytetrafluoroethylene coated pans and the cooking process never, ever includes the words “microwave it”. Even the blue-flamed gas stoves are frowned upon. A wood fire is what they prefer. They claim that its slower cooking time is what gives the meal a more composite Roma taste.  The sudden absence of an adequate number of plates and utensils on the table is a habit that derives from the olden days when the family ate out of a single dish. “Dig in,” the head of the household announces and all hands do just that. Roma like to eat with their hands.  They defend this lack of etiquette by claiming, “foods always taste better from your hands” - and though no tests have yet been conducted to either disavow or support it – I think it actually does.


The End

Comments and Questions can be directed to  author at tziganiatours@tzigania.com

Gypsy FoodGypsy Food