Originally published in ByziKids Magazine, March 2022
By Judith Jolma and Lynne Wardach
Knock, knock knock! Mirela peeped through the glass of her small Romanian apartment to see who was at the door.
In the 1980s when Mirela was young, any form of religion was persecuted in that part of the world. The political police had "eyes" everywhere and if you were seen going to church on Sunday, the next Monday you risked being reprimanded by your boss at work — threatened. For an Orthodox Christian, that knock could be frightening.
But outside the door stood a smiling neighbor with a jar of homemade pasta called
“Mucenici” (pronounced something like Moochenich), which means “Martyrs.” Tradition says that the special pasta, which looks like a figure eight, actually symbolizes a human shape - the 40 Martyrs (in some parts of the country they'd make the baked ones with eyes, noses ,and even arms) and the "soup" is the lake they were thrown into.
The pasta soup was a favorite traditional meal enjoyed by Romanian Christians every 9th of March to commemorate the feat of the 40 Martyrs. But Mirela’s family did not own the special 8-shaped cookie cutter to make the pasta, so they relied entirely on the kind old ladies who lived nearby and had their own cookie cutters. “I still don't know how they had it, as in those days it was impossible to buy anything that had any remote relation to an orthodox tradition,” Mirela recalls. “I always imagined it was some kind of magic heirloom device, as old as time itself.” * Pohoto By: www.lauraadamache.ro/2012/03/mucenici-muntenesti.html
Each year, little Mirela watched the door with eager anticipation watching for the friendly-faced neighbors to arrive with the jar of brown deliciousness. Of course, she preferred some neighbor’s recipes more than others’ as this recipe is not a "standard" one, and there are infinite variations.
Depending on who you ask, you may even get a different explanation about the meaning of the dish. For example, some will say that the number eight symbolizes the eight days the martyrs spent in prison prior to being thrown in the lake. Others may say it represents some flower garlands that descended from the sky above their heads. Perhaps that is because in the old translation in Romanian, it is said "cununi stralucitoare," which could mean both bright crowns but also bright flower or laurel wreaths.
Photo By ideideretete.net/blog - https://ideideretete.net/blog/mucenici-moldovenesti-cu-miere-si-nuca/, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=117512459
The variety of recipes are even more diverse depending on which region in Romania you come from - the biggest being Muntenia, Moldova, and Ardeal (also known as Transylvania). While Muntenia and Moldova have their own versions of Mucenici, people from Transylvania often look puzzled when it comes to a dish called "Martyrs.”
Growing up in Mutenia, which is the southern part of the country, Mirela always looked forward to the "sweet pasta-soup" like Mucenici. “I cannot fathom any March without them,” she says.
Her husband, Cristian, on the other hand, was born in the Moldavian part of the country and has his heart set on the sweet-syrup-laden bread dough Mucenici, also called Sfințișori (little saints).
Early in the couple’s relationship, Mirela proudly invited her boyfriend to her home to enjoy her own homemade Mucenici and was eager to share.
“Cristian seemed really excited to taste them, so as soon as we arrived I poured two big bowls of my "soupy" pasta,” Mirela recalls, “which he very politely ate to the last drop, only to shyly ask in the end… ‘Now can I have some Mucenici?’”
They were both equally shocked to find out that what each called by the same name was a totally different childhood experience. “And we were both in our late 20's!” She laughs.
When she was very young, Mirela remembers desperately wanting her mother to make the treat. Unfortunately, she always explained that she could not since her family did not have that magic heirloom cookie cutter.
“We were lucky,” Mirela recalls as she thinks back on the Communist era. Orthodox Christianity was the mainstream form of Christianity in Romania and although it was persecuted, it was not forbidden totally (like in Albania, for example). Most churches and monasteries were still open but going to church and practicing any of the orthodoxy-related traditions was actually an act of courage. Most children went to church for Eucharist with old relatives - grandparents, old aunts… people who no longer had jobs to risk too much.
Mirela remembers that at some point during the persecution, her mother got hold of a tape with a choir singing beautiful Christmas carols: “We secretly listened to them on very low volume lest any of the neighbors hear and tell on us.”
What joy when the Christians were liberated after the fall of the Communist Regime. Once again, shops had all sorts of merchandise related to religious traditions. “The first time I saw the 8-shaped pasta in a shop, I did not think twice,” she says. “I had to end the years of just waiting by the door and having "only" a jar of Mucenici.” Despite being able to make her own Mucenici, the neighbors continued to bring theirs for some more years. “Naturally, their Mucenici always tasted heavenly.”
As a contributing editor for ByziKids, it is my pleasure to share these articles with the Sophia Homeschool community as well. Although Sophia Homeschool serves all homeschooling families regardless of faith or affiliation, I think you will enjoy this delightful publication. I hope to share these articles with you monthly as a regular feature here. Enjoy!
ByziKids Magazine is a pan-Eastern Christian, grassroots, monthly publication dedicated to the celebration of Byzantine Orthodoxy through the eyes of our children. We are not affiliated with any particular Church or jurisdiction, but welcome and strive to encompass the teachings and traditions common to all of Byzantine Orthodox-Catholic Christianity.
By Judith Jolma, Founder of Sophia Homeschool.
Sophia Homeschool teaches parents how to homeschool. Learn more about our training at Sophiahomeschool.com
Learn how to create a homeschool method and environment based on your family's needs so you can thrive. My Foundations of Homeschooling Masterclass teaches parents to work with their budget, schedule, learning style, teaching style, and resources so each member of the family has his or her needs met— including yours! Learn to create a peaceful and joyful learning environment that lasts a lifetime. Identify learning differences and adapt your educational plan accordingly. Unlock the mysteries of teaching multiple grades at once. By knowing what your needs are, you will save thousands of dollars, time, and energy on methods that do not work. We will end homework battles and restore your relationship with your child.