A visit to Cluj-Napoca is not complete without trying the local, traditional dishes. Mainly part of Transylvanian cuisine, the meals are rich and full-flavoured. Here is a list of the ‘must try’ dishes. If you want to eat like a local, have a soup for starters, followed by the main dish and dessert. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself already planning your return trip to experience it all again!
Varză à la Cluj
The first thing to try is varză à la Cluj. Yes, Cluj has its own dish and the locals will proudly recommend it, as you may not find it anywhere else in Romania. The cabbage à la Cluj is carefully prepared with rice and meat and can be flavoured with cumin, thyme or paprika, depending on each cook’s recipe. There is no better place to try it than the Varzarie, which is the ‘cabbage restaurant’ of the city and one of the locals’ favourite.
Varzarie, Bulevardul Eroilor, Cluj-Napoca 400129, Romania, +40 264 595 064
If you ask a Romanian for traditional food recommendations, the first thing that he is likely to suggest is sarmale. Pickled cabbage rolls stuffed with meat and rice, sarmale is never missing from the Romanians’ tables at Christmas. Usually accompanied by polenta and sour cream, sarmale is served all year long and can be found in any traditional restaurant. In Cluj, try the sarmale at Roata restaurant and you’ll have an authentic experience, feeling like you’re in a Romanian’s house, eating a dish made by grandma.
Roata, Strada Alexandru Ciurea 6, Cluj-Napoca, Romania, +40 264 592 022
Very popular in Transylvania, gulaș is a Hungarian dish representative of the multicultural cuisine of Cluj. Gulas is usually cooked in a cauldron in big quantities, with vegetables, meat and spices, mainly paprika. You can have it as a stew or as a soup, depending on the region and on each restaurant’s cook. As a Hungarian dish should be tested properly in a Hungarian restaurant, the Matei Corvin restaurant is the best place to go.
Salată de vinete
Usually an appetizer, the salată de vinete (eggplant or aubergine salad) is a mix of eggplant, mayonnaise and onion or garlic. While the recipe is simple, the dish is absolutely delicious and easy to eat in big quantities as you just can’t stop taking a bit more. But don’t worry, in Romania, eating all that is served is a form of respect and asking for a second portion is always appreciated.
Mămăligă cu brânză și smântână
Normally a side dish, the mămăligă (polenta) can be also eaten as a main dish, with cheese and sour cream. Some recipes also include fried bacon. This recipe is also suitable for vegetarians who want to try a typical Romanian dish. You can find it in practically every traditional restaurant in Cluj and some serve it with pickles. Ask for the recipe so you can recreate it at home, as it’s an easy dish to cook and you will certainly want to eat it more than once.
Ciorbă de fasole cu ciolan
Have you ever had a soup served from a bowl made of bread? It’s a popular twist on classic soup in Transylvania. What translates as bean soup with smoked pork meat comes in a wheat bread bowl. There is no better time to serve it than on a cold day when all you want is a hot meal that can fill your stomach and warm your heart. And there is no better place to try it than Hanul Dacilor restaurant – a paradise for meat-lovers, with a menu filled with local specialities. Now you know what to ask for.
Ciorbă de burtă
In Romania, if you are invited to eat in a local’s house, you will always start with a soup. And the ciorbă de burtă (tripe soup) is one of their favourites. Traditionally served with sour cream and chilli pepper, the tripe soup is good when you are hungry or feeling a bit delicate, as it’s a good remedy for stomach problems. Try it at Bricks (M)eating Point and in summer, sit at a table on the lovely terrace suspended above the Somes River.
Bricks (M)eating Point, Strada Horea 2, Cluj-Napoca 400038, Romania, +40 364 730 615
Each meal should finish with papanași for dessert. Even when you feel full, once you have them in front of your eyes, you will want to make some more space for this delicious dish. Papanași are made from fried dough and sweet Romanian cheese and are garnished with sour cream and fruit jam. From the very first bite, it will melt in your mouth and after you’ve had them once, you will search for them again in every menu of Cluj’s restaurants.
While not so popular as papanași, vargabeles is a Hungarian dessert that you should definitely try. Made with noodles and sweet cheese, this is a light, classic dessert just like grandma used to make. It might not be easy to find in local restaurant menus, but we know the place where you can find it for sure: Engels Bistro. Make a stop there and try it!
Engels Bistro, Strada Brașov 56, Cluj-Napoca 400000, Romania, +40 749 201 000
Pâine în ou
If you like hearty breakfasts, then you should definitely give pâine în ou a try – this is basically a piece of bread dipped in beaten egg and fried. While usually served savoury with ham or cheese, some people eat it with sugar or marmalade. No matter which option you choose, it’s going to be a great first meal of the day. We recommend trying them both – though maybe not at the same time!