The Flavors of the World: Melania Straka Spotlight
Some may call Melania Straka a jetsetter but to all who know her, she’s got one serious case of wanderlust that’s taken her all over the world. Having lived in several countries across Europe, the Middle East and Africa and now the U.S., this woman’s adventures and stories give a good look into a world of many different cultures, arts and of course, food. Having been born in Romania, a country that revolves just about everything around food, her passion was instant. She cooked her first full meal by age 7, a pork and polenta dish, something most people at age 40 would still struggle with. Since that first meal she has gained multiple higher education degrees, taken many different cooking classes and worked as a flight attendant, which allowed her to taste the cuisines of India, France, Dubai, Italy, Morocco and many, many more. Now a U.S. citizen, Melania was looking for a formal culinary education that would also work with her busy life and along came Escoffier Online. She has since graduated (with honors) and has moved onto the pastry program as well, all things that will help her in her business as a private chef.
We were lucky enough to catch Melania for a moment to talk about her native country’s cuisine, what culture’s food she loves most and where her career is headed next.
Escoffier: You’ve lived in quite a few different places across the world so you’ve gotten to experience all sorts of different cuisines. By far what is your favorite to eat? How about to cook?
Melania: Personally, I love North-Indian cuisine (Mughlai ,Punjabi ,Rajasthani ). I could eat only Indian food, especially the vegetarian dishes and awesome breads. I also love cooking French food—especially since I started studying at Escoffier.
Escoffier: You’ve dabbled in quite a few cooking classes. What drew you to our online cooking school?
Melania: Well, Escoffier is a very prestigious name and the Escoffier online academy meets my needs: I study at my own pace, the value is awesome and the professionalism of chefs is outstanding. I realized the Escoffier Online program was for me as soon I took the virtual tour.
Escoffier: Where does your love for food come from?
Melania: I believe it has to do with the culture and upbringing in Romania. Every woman learns how to cook at a very young age and food is very important in social settings. Everything is about food. You are offered food and drink whenever you visit someone, even informal visits and always feel compelled to indulge. In our culture the quality of the food offered reflects on the host. I was 7 when I prepared my first meal on my own, without mom or grand mom’s supervision. It was polenta and pork stew!
Escoffier: What inspires you the most when coming up with recipes?
Melania: I do lots of walking in the farmer’s markets of Philadelphia and Delaware. Sometimes I just see an item and it inspires me to try a combination or recipe of my own. When I cook for my husband and myself I never plan ahead, I always come up with something new on the spot. That’s why I cook something different every day, even if it’s a revision of a prior recipe.
Escoffier: What ingredient in your kitchen could you absolutely not live without?
Melania: Butter, butter and more butter!
Escoffier: How about a favorite cooking utensil?
Melania: My old iron pan. I’ve had it over 10 years. I bought it on my first trip to India when I was in Calcutta.
Escoffier: For those of us who are curious, what does Romanian food entail?
Melania: Romanian cuisine is a diverse blend of different dishes from several cultures with which it has come into contact and, in some cases, conflict. It maintains its own character. Some were influenced by the Ottoman (Turkish) cuisine, and the cuisines of our neighbors such as Hungarians , Austrians, Germans and Russians. Many dishes are common throughout these cultures (mushaca and chiftele from Turkish, schnitzel from Austrians, Goulash from Hungarians, Bors from Russians, etc.) but even though they are similar they do vary regionally.
Some Romanian traditional dishes are:
Mititei –Romanian Wee Ones Sausages—The story has it a popular mid-19th-century Romanian inn, famous for its sausages, was out of a customer favorite. To save time, the chef formed the unstuffed meat mixture into sausage-shaped cylinders and grilled them over charcoal. The customers delighted in “the wee ones without skin” and so these casing-less sausages became known as mititei or “the wee ones.” They are made of a mixture of fat, pork and lamb meat.
- –Mămăligă—cornmeal mush, also known as Romanian-style polenta. Mămăligă can be served as a side dish or form the basis of further dishes, such as “mămăligă cu lapte” (polenta with hot milk), bulz (baked polenta with Romanian sheep cheese and cream), “mămăliguță cu brânză și smântănă” (polenta with telemea, Romanian cheese similar to feta cheese, and sour cream)
- –Drob de miel—a lamb haggis made of minced organs wrapped in a caul and roasted like a meatloaf; a traditional Easter dish.
- –Caltaboş/chişcǎ—a cooked sausage made of minced pork organs and rice, stuffed in a pig casing.
- –Ciorbă—the traditional Romanian sour soup. Ciorbă de burtă (tripe soup) soured with sour cream, Ciorbă de perişoare (meatball sour soup)and Ciorbă de peşte “ca-n Deltă” (fish soup prepared in the style of the Danube Delta) are very well known.
- –Tobă—sausage (usually pig’s stomach, stuffed with pork jelly, liver and skin) used mainly in the winter time.
- –Salata de icre—roe salad, traditionally from carp, pike or various marine fish species called tarama and onion.
- –Papanași—a kind of doughnut made from a mixture of sweet cheese, eggs and semolina, boiled or fried and served with fruit syrup or jam and sour cream.
- –Mucenici—sweet cookies (shaped like “8”, made of boiled or baked dough, garnished with walnuts, sugar or honey and eaten on a single day of the year, on 9 March.
Escoffier: Who is your culinary idol?
Melania: Julia Child and Robert Irvine are my true inspirations! I hope I can cook for Robert Irvine one day.
Escoffier: What are some of your favorite parts of American cuisine?
Melania: I like barbeque since this is somewhat unique to the west yet varies regionally. I had my first hamburger last year but it didn’t sit well with me. I’m not a fan of the processed foods but some of the recipes are very interesting. I plan on trying them with fresh and natural ingredients and naturally experimenting to see what I can develop on my own.