My Moldovan friend at the U.S. Embassy, Sandu, suggested zama as one of the “must eat” items on my stay. The borderlines between Romania, Moldova, and Transnistria have changed over the years, but this traditional chicken soup crosses all lines. It’s savored throughout the region and passed down from generation to generation. So, when I saw it on a menu, I snapped it up. There really were no second thoughts or second choices. It was the right selection. However, Sandu said that nobody made it like his mother. So, I had to ask for that recipe.
Zama Like Mama Makes
Mama Sandu, Chisinau, Moldova
Mama Sandu, Chisinau, Moldova
Sandu’s mother is one of those chefs who cooks without any kind of measurements. That is not me in the kitchen, so I had to do some research as well.
Boil up your pound of chicken. One recipe suggested chicken wings. It would never happen in my kitchen. I do not understand the chicken wing craze at football games or any other time. When I buy chicken, I want the white meat. Throw away the wings, legs, and certainly the feet. I’ve had chicken feet in my travels. I’ve never had them by choice. We had chickens when I was a kid. I know what those feet stood in their entire lives. There isn't enough water and soap to clean them. Okay, it’s your chicken. Pick whatever meat you want and boil it on medium-high for 40 minutes. All my sources said you had to be vigilant about scooping out the froth.
Slice and dice up your vegetables as your chicken boils away. The list could and should include carrots, onion, cabbage, red pepper, and tomato. You want it colorful! Now, some people add potatoes (my favorite food) but purists do not seem to deem them an authentic ingredient. Be daring. Be flexible. Think potatoes. And, if you feel inspired to fry up the carrots, onions, and red pepper, follow your inspiration. If you are a little too lazy to do that, I understand completely.
Add all of the veggies (hopefully including potatoes) and the spice as well as salt and pepper to the pot. Continue cooking for another 10 minutes.
Add homemade noodles. Yes’m, you read that right. HOMEMADE. Every recipe said the noodles really should be homemade, either egg noodles or rice vermicelli. That just will never happen in my kitchen. If it doesn’t happen in yours either, feel no guilt. Yes, I know some people have pasta makers and it isn’t supposed to be that difficult. It still isn’t happening at my place. Noodles are too easy to buy – and you only need a handful!
Along with the noodles, add parsley, dill, and thyme to the mix and cook on for five more minutes.
This is also the time to add your borsch or lemon juice. Now, if you live in Moldova, especially near Sandu’s mother, you buy your borsch from her. It’s a beetroot broth that adds the required amount of sour flavoring to the soup. Sandu said his neighbor’s really did come to buy that from her. If you don’t have access to 250 milliliters of Borsch, then you can cheat and use a cup of lemon juice. Actually, that sounds like an enormous amount of sour, but that’s the conversion I located. Feel free to sour less. Another recipe I found called for three tablespoons. I personally would opt for that.
The final mystery item to add to the mix is lovage. It’s a plant with a taste similar to celery. If you can find lovage leaves, dice them up and stir ‘em into the soup. If not, use celery leaves the same way.
Cover the soup pot and remove it from the heat. It’s time to let everything sit for a while and blend together.
the magic of a dollop
When I had my zama, it was served in an individual tureen with a candle beneath to keep it warm. Along with that came a little plate especially made to hold an individual dollop of sour cream. Everything tastes better with a dollop of sour cream. And, it certainly changed the whole look of this dish. You can serve it with cornbread, but I had rye bread, so that’s what I’ll always stick with.