Ah yes, time to talk about the single most important Romanian food of all time – mămăligă (pronounced mama-league-ah).
Any time I ever mention this food, ever, anywhere, within hearing range of an English-speaking person born anywhere on the planet, they immediately go “oh yeah it’s just like polenta“. No! No, no, no and no.
Folks, polenta and mămăligă are very similar but they are not the same. Polenta has its own merits and qualities and is used in Italian cooking and is delicious and I wish you many happy meals of polenta in your journeys to Italy or in your fancy dinners at Italian restaurants in America (or wherever) as you dream of summers in Tuscany and all that but polenta and mămăligă are not the same.
Neither is mămăligă something called “corn mush”, eaten in the southern United States. I’ve eaten corn mush before and it’s a lot closer to the Romanian food but it’s still not the same.
So what is the real deal 100% Romanian food mămăligă? Well quite simply put, it is boiled corn meal. That’s it. I know, right? After all that razzle dazzle shit, you were expecting something amazing and jaw-dropping and complicated but it’s not. It’s an extremely simple food.
To understand Romania and to understand mămăligă, you have to understand that food here is what’s known as peasant food. It’s food so simple, so readily available, so affordable that even the poorest guy out there in his simple little house can come home after a hard day working in the field and eat it. And that, friends, is mămăligă. In fact, there’s an old Romanian expression “the guy is so poor he doesn’t even have mămăligă to eat”.
I went online to see if there were any good cooking videos on how to make mamaliga and I found this one (in English) and I just had to lay my head in my hands and cry. The guy in the video actually is Romanian. In fact his last name is Bucataru, which literally means “Cook” (like Americans with the last name Cook) and so you’d think wow, okay, Romanian guy making mamaliga, what could go wrong?
The guy seems nice enough but he does what Americans (and others) seem compelled to do – make something simple OVERLY fancy. He’s got his fancy, expensive brass bowl (wtf?) to cook a dish in that every peasant in Romanian is cooking with an ancient old crappy regular pot that works just fine.
So, to begin with, I’m going to tell you how to cook your own mamaliga as simple as it can be and then how to serve/eat it.
1 x corn meal
4 x water
1 pot (big enough to hold everything – duh)
1 long handled spoon (preferably wooden to be Authentic Romanian)
Yep, that’s it. If you want to use one cup of corn meal, add 4 cups of water. If you want to use 1 gallon of corn meal (hey, you might be REALLY, REALLY hungry) use 4 gallons of water. Just whatever volume (not weight) of corn meal you’re planning on cooking, add four times the water.
In a pot, any old regular pot you’ve got in your kitchen, of any make, model, material or condition, add the water. Get said water to boil.
After water is boiling, reduce heat to the lowest possible setting on your stove that’s still “on” and producing heat.
Begin pouring in corn meal slowly. Don’t just dump it in there but pour it in there slowly. Meanwhile keep stirring. Stir, add some more, stir, add some more, stir, add some more until all the corn meal is now in the water.
Note: whether you use a whisk or a spoon, be sure that sucker has a LONG HANDLE. The vapors coming off the pot are going to be hot so you really don’t want to cook your fingers while stirring, do ya?
Keep stirring occasionally. You don’t have to stir non-stop but if the pot looks like one of those mud geysers that’s burping out wet, farty blurps like a volcano, it’s time to stir some more. If someone rings your doorbell, you can walk over to the door and answer it and let ’em in but just say hi and come back and keep stirring. The main thing here is to keep it from burping a big wet mash of hot corn meal all over your kitchen wall.
It’s done being cooked. How do you know? Well two ways. One is, as you are stirring, you will notice it begins to stick to the side of your pot before collapsing back into the mix. The second way is take a spoonful and put it onto a plate. If it gels up and looks semi-rigid within 60 seconds, the mamaliga is done.
Step 6 – Serving it
I told my mother how to make this recipe and then she went nuts and decided to make it super fancy and a meal unto itself and added eggs and cheese and meat and I don’t know what else. Certainly you’re free to do this yourself as I can’t stop you but in my opinion mamaliga is best when it’s kept simple, a kind of “bread” to accompany some OTHER main dishes of your meal.
In fact, mamaliga is quite filling UNTO ITSELF so if you jazz it up with a ton of dairy and meat and whatnot, your stomach is probably going to explode (but you’ll die happy, so that’s a plus).
I’ve eaten mamaliga all over Romania so there’s 50 million ways to eat it so below are a few ideas on how to serve it:
Simple American style
Spoon out a layer of mamaliga on the bottom of a plate/dish. Add a layer of shredded cheese (note: shred your own cheese as pre-shredded cheese is a nastiness beyond description) OR if you want to go buck wild, use some feta cheese (highly recommended). Spoon out another layer of mamaliga on top of that. The “icing” on this mamaliga cake can be either plain yogurt (lower fat) or sour cream (better tasting).
Let this “cake” cool for 2-3 minutes and you will see it “gels” to the point where you can eat it with a fork and it holds together.
Simple Cluj style
Again make the “cake” as above but use telemea cheese and add homemade (sliced) pickles on the top along with the sour cream.
Simple Moldovan style
Don’t even bother making the “cake”, just keep your mamaliga separate on one side of the plate (adding a little salt) and then have the soft cheese of your preference (branza) on the other. Mix and match bites using your fork.
Simple vegan style – my favorite
Again, make the “cake” but for the layers you want a good mujdei de usturoi. This is the world’s simplest sauce so I’m going to tell you how to make it right here because it’s incredibly tasty.
6-10 cloves of garlic, peeled and then mashed/smashed into tiny bits
pinch of salt
some oil (sunflower in Romania but anything BUT olive oil works great)
Put it all in a cup and stir it like crazy with a spoon until it’s well mixed. You don’t need to make 20 liters of this ahead of time – just make as much as you need. It’s going to be extremely garlicky, which is true, but it goes wonderfully with mamaliga like you can’t believe.
As I mentioned before, keep mamaliga simple – at least at first. It’s meant to be something on the side you eat WITH a main meal, not mamaliga all unto itself.
Mamaliga is completely fat-free, cholesterol-free and sodium-free until you begin to add other ingredients so it’s a great way to get that “filling bread feel” along with a main dish of your choice. I personally recommend some mamaliga along with a good soup as a wonderful lunch. Romanians tend to eat it with just about anything else around for lunch and dinner.
If you own one of those accursed devices known as a “microwave” then let it be known that mamaliga re-heats extremely well if you have any leftovers for another time.
In Romania, they sell little aluminum plates with a lip that are 9cm (4 inches) across, making it very nice for everyone to have their “own” personal mamaliga plate, customized to their tastes slash dietary needs.
If you want to get fancy, take any small plate with a little bit of a lip on it (so it doesn’t spill over) and make everyone their own personalized mamaliga and thus make them feel super special and loved and welcomed and then forever and ever they will consider you with warm, tender feelings and forgive you for that one time you did that one thing (you know what I mean!) and then all is well with the world forever and ever, amen.
POFTA MARE, MY FRIENDS!
Sam Cel Roman