This zacusca recipe is over 100+ years old. This may not mean much to some, but to me is a way of reconnecting with a long line of relatives, some I didn't even get a chance to meet. This is a story of zacusca, a recipe which took me on a journey of self-discovery, helped me learn old family tales and taught me how to recreate a 13th-century authentic Romanian recipe.
For many, zacusca might be a traditional Romanian dish sampled during a brief visit around the country. You will find zacusca as an appetizer on many restaurant menus, ready-made in the supermarket, or in old jars, in the storage room of many traditional families. It's a prevalent Romanian dish, because it's easy to make, tastes delicious and lasts for up to one year if stored correctly.
Traditionally, zacusca is made sometimes in September with eggplants (aubergines, called vinete in Romanian), red peppers (either red pointed peppers or bell peppers called gogoşari in Romanian), tomato sauce, onion and vegetable oil (usually sunflower oil). Go to Bucovina in Romania, and you will still see old ladies making zacusca in large containers. It takes around a day to make enough zacusca for 20 jars. But those jars will last throughout the winter. Of course, we now have access to eggplants and peppers all year round, but back in the days people used to employ clever methods of storing vegetables for the winter. Zacusca was one of these methods, a beloved food, full of taste and flavour with an underlying sweet aroma.
Our 100+ year old zacusca recipe
To first understand where zacusca comes from, we need to go back in time, to the 13th century. Between the 13th century until 1820, we were under Ottoman occupation. This meant huge influences in our gastronomy, together with Greek, Arabic, Armenian and Byzantine influences. This amalgam of new aromas, tastes and textures created a new wave of innovation in our Romanian cuisine.
It is the time when Romanians begin to consume pilaf , ciulama, vegetable stews, musaka, our beloved zacusca and more. Around that time, we started using vegetables like eggplant (very prevalent in Romanian and Turkish cuisine), tomatoes, onions, peppers, beans, melons and corn (remember the history of mamaliga).
Every household has its own way of making zacusca. Passed down through generations, you will not find the same zacusca taste in two different families. Our family from my mother's side, perfected their own zacusca recipe for hundreds of years. When I asked about a traditional Romanian zacusca recipe, I received a piece of old yellow paper, aged by time. On it, there was the alchemy combination perfected by my great grandmother, a recipe which is believed she got from an aunt of hers. You can see how there is a new pen tracing over the old writing, to prevent it from fading completely. I felt as if I received a century-old secret.
With the zacusca recipe, I also received the gift of stories. I learnt so much about my family's history. Where my grandmother worked, how she met my grandfather. The story of how my great grandmother sadly become a single mother during the war. Happy and sad tales which I too feel compelled to pass down to my own children, in the future. It's interesting how a simple aged piece of paper with a traditional recipe like zacusca can really touch your soul and make you feel so much connected to your own family than ever before. It's as if, my own grat grandmother handed me over that recipe and told me her own life stories.
Traditional Romanian zacusca - how it's done
Food connects us all and I hope that by me opening up to you and sharing the gift of my great grandmother with you, you will feel as if we are all a big family. Sharing this with you is my way of virtually having you down for a traditional Romanian dinner. And of course, you wouldn't miss sarmale, the famed Romanian cabbage rolls.
Back in the days, zacusca was made on the fire, in the garden. The vegetables would be roasted on a metal plate, put on top of an open fire. They would be blackened all around. The vegetables would then be peeled and chopped. The tomatoes would be boiled, then turned into a homemade sauce.
As you will read in my recipe, the peppers and the aubergine are still "chopped" in the traditional way. We use a special aubergine chopper, it's called, which looks a little bit like a wooden axe or like a wooden chef's knive. We would place the roasted vegetable on a large wooden chopping board and hit them continuously with the wooden axe until we get a paste.
Once everything is like a paste, and the onions are chopped (this time with an actual knife), we put all ingredients in a large metal container over the open fire and we simmer them for hours. We mix occasionally to ensure nothing sticks at the bottom of the container. We sterilise the jars and they are usually put on top of a large stainless steel plate to avoid breaking the glass when in contact with the hot zacusca. This part is tricky and requires two people. One person pours the zacusca into the sterilise glass, the other immediately puts the lid on. This way we avoid getting air trapped in the jar, so the zacusca can be stored without going off, for an to one year, in a cold room.
Zacusca recipe - the easy, modern way
I think it's important to know how we make zacusca, in the most traditional way. However, I appreciate that many people live in a flat so there is no access to an open fire of metal plates. If you have parents or grandparents with a large garden and a grill, I strongly recommend doing zacusca the traditional way. It requires a smokeier taste thanks to the open fire and the result is a lot earthier in flavour, which I personally prefer.
However, this is how I also make the zacusca given that I, too, live in a flat, and I don't think my German neighbours would appreciate me taking over the communal garden to start cooking zacusca on an open fire. Although, I should ask them, maybe they'll join me.
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You can roast the vegetables in the oven. But make sure to poke a few holes in the peppers and eggplants as you don't want them to explode in the oven. I use 4.4 pounds / 2 kg of eggplants, 2.2 pounds / 1 kg of pointed sweet peppers, 2 medium onions, 2 cups / 500ml tomato sauce (from a can is also fine), 1 cup / 218 ml vegetable oil (I use extra virgin olive oil but you can use any you want), 2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp peppercorn, 1 tbsp sugar, 3 bay leaves.
(Optional: you can add a chopped chilli pepper in the mix if you want your zacusca to be spicy. This is in no way traditional. I usually eat zacusca with chilli pepper on the side and not add it to the mix, but you can do it the way you prefer)
Wrap your oven racks or trays with aluminium foil. You will notice that during the roasting process, the vegetables can make a mess in the oven. So this is just to make it easier for you to clean.
Preheat the oven to 450F / 220C. Place the peppers and the eggplants on top of the aluminium foil and roast them in the centre of the oven. Roast the peppers for 40 minutes in total and make sure to turn them around at least once, so they roast recently on each side. Roast the eggplants for 60 minutes or so in total. Also turn them around so they blacken all on sides.
Set all roasted veggies aside to cool. When all roasted vegetables are room temperature and you can handle them with your bare hands, it's time to "cut" them.
First, decore the peppers and discard the seeds.
Carefully slice the eggplant in half. Using a wooden spoon, scoop out the eggplant flesh and discard the skins.
Now, you have two options. You either use a wooden knife as explained above and engage in the traditional Romanian of chopping the vegetables, or you simply put them in a food processor and process until smooth. There is no right or wrong here. The first time I made zacusca, I made them the traditional way using my own eggplant wooden chopper. The second time, I made them in the food processor. There was no difference in taste.
Heat up a drizzle of oil in a large and deep frying pan. Add the chopped onion and fry for about 3-5 minutes until translucent and soft. Add the chopped eggplant and peppers, the tomato sauce, the vegetable oil, salt, pepper, bay leaf and sugar. Mix well until everything is fully combined. Bring to a boil then reduce the heat and simmer for 90 minutes stirring occasionally.
Check on the zacusca on a regular basis to ensure it doesn't stick to the pan. I simmer it uncovered so my zacusca reduces and becomes a delicious paste. If at any point during the cooking process you feel that your zacusca is drying out too much, simply add a few tablespoons of water to it and continue to simmer.
When the 90 minutes are almost up, remove the bay leaves and taste the zacusca. Adjust the seasoning if needed and let it simmer for another 5 - 10 minutes.
That's it. Your zacusca is now ready to be eaten with fresh crusty bread. I love eating it with fresh chilli peppers. It's super hot so be careful! Here's a recipe for no knead skillet bread in case you wish to create something crusty and perfect for Romanian zacusca.
This recipe has been developed entirely by Yuzu Bakes. Any resemblance with other recipes is purely coincidental.