Transylvanian Christmas traditions and Sarmale recipe

As fall comes to an end and winter approaches, all parts of the world have their own traditions as they prepare for the holidays. These traditions often revolve around special decorations, fun attires, unique activities, and best of all, delectable dishes.

Romania is a land of many more traditions than you’d normally expect from some lesser-known Eastern European country, and Christmas is no exception. From lovely groups of children singing carols from door to door to mouth-watering dishes and various eccentric habits, the homeland of Dracula and other cool things you’ve probably never heard of, is kind of a truly amazing place to spend Christmas. Some of these customs and traditions are old, unusual and authentic, others borrowed from overseas, but together they dress up Romania in bright holiday clothes, offering it an identity and a special charm. Christmas season in Romania kicks off with a series of wonderful celebrations right after St. Andrew’s Day (November 30), when according to local legends, vampires and evil spirits come to light. Other major holidays taking place during the Advent include Romania’s National Day (December 1st) and St. Nicholas (Mos Nicolae), when all children receive gifts.

Christmas traditions and customs in Romania comprise: the decorating of Christmas Tree, which is usually made by the whole family a couple of days before Christmas; the arrival of Santa Claus with its bag full of gifts, a practice that takes place on Christmas Eve; the decorating of each city with millions of glowing lights and of course, the charming Christmas Markets sprinkled all over the country.

Food is probably the main part of any holiday in Romania, but Christmas is a true feast for the senses. Preparation begins with pig slaughtering, when a good part of the poor animal is turned into smoked ham, bacon, sausages, liver sausage, pig’s trotter and other goodies whose names are untranslatable. On Christmas Eve women make sarmale (delicious meat-and-rice rolls wrapped in cabbage, served with polenta) and bake cozonaci, a sort of sponge cake with nuts, cocoa and Turkish delights, similar to the Italian panetone, but more consistent. Despite all financial problems, Christmas dinner is always a rich, multi-course meal. Highlights of the menu always include roasted pork, pickled vegetables, the delicious beouf salad, home-made wine and plum brandy, as well as various fancy cakes.

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls (Romanian Sarmale) – RECIPE

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Cooking Sarmale for Christmas and all other major holidays is a Romanian tradition. They are usually made with pickled cabbage and stuffed with ground pork (sometimes combined with beef), rice and various herbs and spices. We serve it with polenta and a few generous tablespoons of sour cream.

Time: 135 min, Prep: 45 min.  Cook: 90 min.


  • 500 g ground pork
  • 500 g ground beef
  • 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
  • 2 Tbsp. rice
  • 2 onions
  • 2 Tbsp. dried thyme
  • 2 large pickled cabbage heads (since pickled cabbage is not easy to find you can also use fresh cabbage*)
  • 200 g smoked pork neck or bacon, cut into small strips
  • 3-4 Tbsp. tomato paste
  • salt and pepper

o    *If you want to use fresh cabbage, you have to wash it and cut the core out. Prepare brine by mixing 4-5 l of water with 3 tablespoons salt and 120 ml vinegar.  Bring brine to a boil, lower heat to low and add whole cabbage to the brined water. Remove outer cabbage leaves as they wilt.

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Carefully remove the outer cabbage leaves, paying attention not to tear them. You will need 25 leaves, cut in half, to yield about 50 cabbage rolls. Cut the remaining cabbage (middle part) in thin strips.

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Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a pan over medium heat and add the onions, finely chopped. Cook onion until translucent. Wash the rice and cook together with the onions for 1-2 minutes. Set aside and let it cool off.

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Mix ground pork, ground beef, tomato paste (2 Tbsp.), onions & rice, dried thyme and ½ teaspoon pepper.  If you use pickled cabbage be careful with how much salt you add (if any) since the cabbage is already salty. I didn’t add any salt since the pickled cabbage and smoked pork I used were already pretty salty.

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On each of the cabbage leaves, place about 1 tablespoon of the mixture in the center, wrap the leaf around to cover meat and tuck the sides.

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Place ½ of the chopped cabbage on the bottom of a large pot. Arrange a layer of stuffed rolls and spread some smoked pork. Continue arranging a second layer of rolls and smoked pork strips and so on. Place remaining chopped cabbage on top.

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Combine remaining tomato paste with about 500 ml of water and pour over the rolls and shredded cabbage. The cabbage rolls should be almost covered with liquid.


Cover pot and cook for 1.5-2 hours on medium-low heat. I used a slow cooker so I cooked the rolls for 6 hours on high. Lastly, uncover the pot and place in the oven for another 20-30 minutes at 180°C (350°F).

Serve hot with polenta and sour cream.


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