Aug 272016


On this date in 1991 the Republic of Moldova declared its independence as part of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The current Constitution of Moldova was adopted in 1994. A strip of Moldovan territory on the east bank of the river Dniester has been under the de facto control of the breakaway government of Transnistria since 1990. Otherwise, it is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe, bordered by Romania to the west and Ukraine to the north, east, and south. The capital city is Chișinău.


The history of Moldova as a political entity can be traced to the 1350s, when the Principality of Moldavia, the medieval precursor of modern Moldova and Romania, was founded. The principality was a vassal of the Ottoman Empire from 1538 until the 19th century. In 1812, following one of several Russian-Turkish wars, the eastern half of the principality, Bessarabia (where most of today’s Moldova is located), was annexed by the Russian Empire. In 1918, Bessarabia briefly became independent as the Moldavian Democratic Republic and, following an intervention of the Romanian Army, united with Romania. In 1940 it was annexed by the Soviet Union, joined to the Moldavian ASSR, and became the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic until the dissolution of the USSR.


Is Moldova culturally or ethnically distinct from Romania? A good question that will get me in hot water in some quarters no matter how I answer. Moldova is obviously a political entity now, and has had a certain integrity over history despite the shifting sands of fate and time. You could ask the same question about Scotland and England and get much the same kind of answer (although, obviously, the circumstances are different). When asked, the vast bulk of the people of Moldova will say they are Moldovan – and may even say that they speak Moldovian – but there is an ongoing controversy about this. Is there a way to decide whether Romanians and Moldovans are the same ethnic group or not? Does the Moldovans’ self-identification as Moldovan and NOT Romanian constitute  enough evidence to consider them as a distinct ethnic group distinct and apart from Romanians or a subset? During the 2014 census more than 75% of people asked identified as Moldovan first, but there were numerous allegations that the ethnic affiliation numbers were rigged: 7 out of 10 observer groups of the Council of Europe reported a significant number of cases where census-takers recommended respondents declare themselves Moldovans rather than Romanians. Complicating the interpretation of the results, 18.8% of respondents that identified themselves as Moldovans declared Romanian to be their native language.

I don’t have a horse in this race so I’ll be a bit craven about the whole issue. Cultural and ethnic politics are largely about self interest, not about hard facts that can be independently verified by science (not that I would trust science anyway). From a distance, Romanian and Moldovan language and culture appear to be similar, but not identical. On the ground tempers flare about the subject. This has more to do with national politics than cultural realities. You can draw borders around nations, but not around cultures. Cultural identity is much sloppier. Go to the borders of any nation that has neighbors and you’ll see all manner of cultural mixing even though there is a tangible line separating one nation from another.

It would be convenient if there were a culinary solution to this conundrum, but there isn’t. Moldova has deep, fertile soil making it an abundantly productive agricultural nation producing grapes, fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, and dairy products, all of which have found their uses in the national cuisine. It’s very hard to distinguish Moldovan from Romanian cuisine, and can best be characterized as drawing inspiration and elements from many cuisines in the region, including Greek, Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian, with a great influence left by the cuisine of the Ottoman empire.


Arguably the best known Moldovan dish is also a well-known Romanian dish, mămăligă, a cornmeal mush or porridge that is a staple polenta-like dish on the Moldovan table, served as an accompaniment to stews and meat dishes or garnished with sour cream and cheese on the side (mămăligă cu brânză şi smântână) or crushed in a bowl of hot milk (mămăligă cu lapte). Sometimes slices of mămăligă are pan-fried in oil or in lard, the result being a sort of corn pone. Since mămăliga can be used as an alternate for bread in many Romanian and Moldovan dishes, there are quite a few which are either based on mămăligă, or include it as an ingredient or side dish.

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Just to be craven to the end, I’ll give you a video on the cooking of mămăligă – “like mama makes.” Don’t worry if you can’t understand Romanian, the video is self explanatory, and gives a very good idea of how to make the dish (slowly with lots of stirring), and the consistency you are aiming for.