Comfort food: Romanian Meatball Sour Soup, vegan

More than a decade ago, a friend and I went on an adventure of a lifetime and spent a year abroad as college student missionaries in Romania.  We lived at a children’s home in a village and helped out where we could: watched the kids, walked them to school, played with them, taught English, etc.  (I call it a children’s home because not all the kids were orphans–some had parents who were alive but unable to take care of them, i.e. drug addicts, alcoholism.)

While there we were there, we learned to love Romanian food.  It’s simple and hearty, much like comfort food.  Even more so since we were there during the colder months–we ate lots of bread, soups, potatoes, and cabbage.

IMG_1455One of our favorite soups was a sour soup with “meatballs” made from walnuts, ciorbă de perişoare (read with rolled “r”s: chee-OR-buh de perry-SHWAH-reh).  Traditionally, it’s made with actual meatballs, but the ladies in our village were known for making a vegetarian walnut version that was just as satisfying.  When I got back home, I tried making this soup a couple times with vinegar or fresh lemon juice to make it sour.  It works, but it’s just not quite same.

My friend and I went back to Romania on a dental school mission trip a few years ago and we made sure to pick up ciorbă seasoning packets where we were.  Our Romanian friend who was with us said this is essentially what Romanians use to flavor their sour soups.  I’m pretty sure we cleaned out the little village market!

IMG_1449I’ve hoarded those seasoning packets and have been slowly using them since then.  I used to make ciorbă more often when I lived in southern California (where it’s hot all year long to anyone but a southern Californian, go figure) because I could easily buy vegan meatballs down there and I really can’t imagine this sour soup without them.  Since I’ve moved up here to Big Sky Country, it has taken a couple of tries to finally make walnut balls that stick together and a few weeks ago, I finally did it.

When I lived in Romania, I also remember having soup with homemade noodles in it.  On a whim, I decided to give it a try for this most recent batch.   I actually surprised myself: it worked well.

And Romanian soup?  It’s really is such good comfort food.

IMG_1450Romanian “Meatball” Sour Soup (aka Ciorbă de Perişoare)

Serves approximately 6-8 people

For the walnut balls (makes approximately 25):

  • 3/4 c dried brown rice, cooked
  • 2 flaxseed “eggs”  in a large bowl (1 “egg” = 1 tbsp ground flaxseed mixed with 3 tbsp water)
  • Approx 1.25-1.5 c ground/finely chopped walnuts
  • Dried or fresh minced parsley, to taste
  • Braggs Liquid Aminos, to taste (can replace this with soy sauce)
  • Gluten flour aka vital wheat gluten, as needed, starting with 1/3 c increments

For the soup base:

  • 12 c water or broth
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Onion
  • Potatoes
  • Bell peppers, optional
  • Parsnip, optional
  • Celery root, optional
  • 1 can (14 ounces) crushed tomatoes (or diced then blitzed to your liking in a blender)
  • Salt, to taste
  • Dried or minced fresh parsley, to taste
  • Ciorbă seasoning, to taste (can use white vinegar or fresh lemon juice, to taste)

For the noodles, optional:

  • 1 flaxseed “egg” (see above) in a medium sized bowl
  • 1 c flour (I used whole wheat pastry)
  • Pinch of salt
  • More water and/or flour as needed


Cook the brown rice according to directions.  While cooking, mix your flaxseed “eggs” separately and let sit until sufficiently gelled (two for the walnut balls in a large bowl, one for the noodles in a medium sized bowl).

Chop all the soup base vegetables to small half-inch sized cubes or smaller (or larger!), your preference.  If you can get your hands on a couple of parsnips or even a celery root, they work very well in this kind of soup.

Preheat the oven to 350 deg F.  When the rice is done cooking, place it into the large mixing bowl holding the ground flaxseed along with all other listed walnut ball ingredients.  The ground flaxseed and gluten flour are what helps hold the mixture together.  Mix the bowl ingredients for at least 2 minutes.  You know the gluten flour is working when you start to see the gluten strands forming.  If you’re not sure, add another 1/3 cup and mix for a couple more minutes.  Try forming a small ball–it’s done when it holds together without crumbling apart.  Use a small cookie dough scoop and just under fill it OR use a spoon to scoop out some of the mixture, shape into walnut-sized balls with your hands (wet hands are helpful), and place on parchment paper on a baking sheet. Bake at 350 deg F for 15 minutes; when the timer is up, turn all the walnut balls and bake for an additional 10-15 minutes. When you initially pull them out and break one open, it may be a little wet/mushy in the middle but should dry out well enough after they’re done cooling on the counter. Once cooled, you can set them aside to be added to the soup when it’s nearly done or freeze them till you need them later.

When you get a chance, either now or even earlier while the rice is still cooking, you can start cooking the soup base.  I like to sauté the onions, celery, and bell peppers directly in the soup pot with oil as needed; you can skip this part if you want.  Add the water/broth to the pot, bring to a boil, then add all the chopped vegetables except for the potatoes (you can let them sit in a bowl of cold water for now) and lower the heat to allow the pot to simmer.  Add a little salt to the soup base to begin with.  Let simmer until the vegetables are almost cooked (approximately 20 minutes or more), then add the potatoes. Add the crushed tomatoes to the soup.

Time to make the noodles if you want them.  Slowly add the flour to the ground flaxseed bowl with a pinch of salt to start with.  Begin mixing with a fork and switch to your hand as you add more flour.  Keep kneading by hand in the bowl (or on a floured surface) until well mixed.  Dust a surface with flour, roll dough into 1/8″ thickness, cut into strips, and drop into the simmering soup.  Since the noodles are fresh, they only take a few minutes to cook until done (taste to check).  You can turn the stovetop heat to low (read: not simmering) soon after this.

Lastly, check the taste of your soup base and adjust it.  If you have ciorbă seasoning, add a spoonful to begin with and add a little at a time after that until it’s sour enough to your liking.  If you don’t have the seasoning, do the same with vinegar or lemon juice. Add salt and parsley as needed. Add the baked walnut balls to the pot and let them warm in the soup for about 3-5 minutes.

Serve with hearty, crusty bread to sop up the soup remnants in your bowl.

Recipe Notes:

  • All my measurements listed for the walnut balls are approximations.  I was going on instinct at the time and was just throwing together ingredients in the mixing bowl.  I wrote down my guesstimations for the amounts immediately afterwards which means the amounts listed are a lot more accurate than if I had waited until the next day to write things down.
  • If you run out of walnuts, pecans are a good substitution!
  • I have a old school nut “grinder” that I usually use for finely chopping walnuts or pecans. You could easily use a food processor, too, but remember that you’re going for a mealy-look, not powder. (I’ve even used a food processor to mix cooked brown rice with nuts for my burger recipe!)
  • I don’t remember how much gluten flour I used.  I think it was somewhere in the range of 0.5 to 1 full cup, no more.
  • My walnut ball mix yielded about 25 balls.  By under filling my cookie dough scoop, this worked out well.  Also, I would refrain from making large balls–they will have more of a tendency to fall apart in the soup.
  • March 2018: I made these walnut balls again recently and decided to slightly more than double the recipe and ended up with 60 balls! I may have taste tested a few and possibly ended up with 50. They’re all going in the freezer till I need them!
  • When I can, I’ll make the walnut balls ahead of time, let them cool, then pop them in the freezer till I need them!
  • When the soup base vegetables are getting close to being cooked, this is when I usually add the chopped potatoes.  This way, they don’t turn into the mush they would if I had thrown them in with the other vegetables from the beginning.
  • We always have unseasoned diced tomatoes on hand (hello, Costco). I usually dump the can into a large cup and whizz it up with a stick blender to my liking.
  • If you make the noodles, I would make them last so they don’t languish in the pot any longer than needed.  None of my noodles fell apart until the very last ones which were only a small amount after having been in the soup for a total of three days in a pot that went back and forth from the stove top to the fridge several times.
  • I happened to have whole wheat pastry flour on hand and it worked fine for making the noodles.  All purpose flour should work easily; whole wheat flour may need more water and may be more difficult to handle.
  • A lot of the steps are based on tasting the soup or parts of the soup to see if they’re done.  Make sure you taste things.  If there is only thing I’ve learned from the couple years I have been creatively cooking, it would be to taste, taste, taste…and adjust as needed.

IMG_1451While back in the States, it was one of my Romanian friends that taught me how to make ciorbă.  If there’s anything I learned from her, it’s that there are many ways to make the same thing, not to mention the many variations of the same thing.  I may not be Romanian, but what I made that night was as close as it gets to what I remember eating many, many times when I lived in Romania.

Are you looking for a new cold weather comfort food?  I promise, Romanian ciorbă is worth giving a try.


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