Bram Stoker's Dracula opens, innocently enough, with a paprika chicken. British attorney Jonathan Harker, on his way across Eastern Europe to meet the eponymous Count, stops at a hotel in Cluj Napoca, Transylvania. "I had for dinner, or rather supper, a chicken done up some way with red pepper, which was very good but thirsty," the lawyer wrote in his journal, making a note to get a recipe for his fiancée.
Although Stoker never visited the region, then part of the Kingdom of Hungary, his culinary choices are appropriate. Paprika, made from ground red pepper, is the national spice of Hungary and meals featuring meat heavily laden with the red powder are a staple in homes and restaurants across the country.
A bust of Vlad the Impaler in Sighisoara, Romania. All photos by Ada Kase.
The book gets more gruesome from there, and we soon learn that the only thing Dracula's preferred meal has in common with paprika is the colour red. His supper of choice, of course, is one not usually available or desirable even to humans with an adventurous palate. However, you can try the next best thing as restaurants in Transylvania, in present-day Romania, trip over themselves to provide vampire-inspired fare to people tracing the history of Dracula's legend.
The place to start is in Sighisoara, a small town in the hilly interior of the country. Sighisoara features an elegantly preserved medieval centre including old churches, towers, battlements and a house that purports to be the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler. Mr. Impaler was the ruler of a chunk of Romania then known as Wallachia, and earned his notoriety with brutal campaigns against invading Ottoman Turks and other foes that included impaling his vanquished enemies for public display as a warning to others who would dare challenge his position.
In a historical aside, paprika wasn't brought to Hungary until a century or so after Vlad's day, by the very Turks that he fought against. His forces served as a buffer, perhaps, giving their lives to keep the spice away from Europe. Anyway. More to the point, the Impaler was also known as Vlad Dracula, and while he was never accused of cannibalism he lent both his name and his reputation for savagery to Stoker's creation.
A typical Romanian meal with lamb, potatoes, and some pickled vegetables.
The connection is celebrated in his childhood home, which today hosts the Restaurant Casa Vlad Dracula, featuring a vampire-themed menu. What does that mean in practice? Meat, meat, and more meat. The cooks whip up Dracula stew, Dracula chicken, Dracula filet, Dracula shrimp, and so on, much of it accompanied with a spicy red sauce. Very hungry diners can order a Dracula dinner, a mix of five different meats served with potatoes and pickles. When you think about it, vampires drink blood to steal the life energy from their victims, so I suppose eating the flesh of dead animals really isn't all that different. Truth be told, the menu wasn't markedly dissimilar to that of most restaurants in Romania, atypical only in theme, not fare.
I went with the Dracula stew, which limited itself to sausage and chicken, served between mounds of polenta. My wife, who won't traffic in animal products, ordered a house salad, figuring it would be a safe choice. Just to be sure, she confirmed with the waiter that it didn't have any cheese. And the salad, in fact, included no cheese or dairy products of any kind. Instead, it was slathered with a very generous portion of prosciutto.
To drink, I asked for Dracula beer. The waiter sniffed and informed me that there was no such thing. There was a Dracula wine on the menu, but it was only sold by the bottle and I wasn't looking to get plastered over lunch. I went with the house red instead, which made a perfectly acceptable substitute. There were also cocktails available—Dracula Kiss and Dracula Dream—as well as Dracula coffee.
Restaurant Casa Vlad Dracula, the purported birthplace of Vlad the Impaler.
After filling themselves up on renewing lifeblood, diners can pay a small fee to visit the room upstairs where Vlad was allegedly born. The proprietors have gone full haunted house—you step into a dark space to discover a man abruptly sitting up from a coffin on the floor. Charming.
More Dracula camp can be found in the town of Bran, south of Sighisoara, in a more mountainous part of Transylvania. The town is dominated by the stark, imposing castle rising from a rocky cliff at the top of a hill. Although the castle has no known connection to Vlad the Impaler, it looked spooky enough to serve as the model for Dracula's home in the novel, the cliff face serving as a plot device that helps keep the young British lawyer imprisoned inside.
At the base of the cliff is a small peddler's village selling kitsch. Endless links of sausage hang over the food booths, tempting hungry tourists. And inside a small restaurant was the elusive Dracula beer. I figured it would just be your standard pilsner with red food colouring added, but the brewers went the extra mile—the colouring came from some kind of syrup, rendering the drink thick, and sickly sweet. The vegan alternative to the vampire's sustenance, if you will. All it was missing was some salt and a bit of iron to provide a true facsimile of Dracula's favourite meal.
Editor's Note 1/23/19: A caption has been edited to adhere to updated editorial standards.