Oven baked cheesy layered Romanian Polenta (and some humble remarks on Romanian cuisine)
People sometimes ask me about Romanian cuisine and, I confess, it’s not always easy to answer this question. Firstly, as a Romanian myself, I have a totally biased and very personal view on our cuisine; I relate most to my family cooking and to our regional, local food. In my region, we prefer strong flavors, food that packs a punch and feels like a taste explosion in your mouth. We amp the volume on the garlic, our sour broths are really sour, we’re not afraid of salt and pepper, we don’t shy away from the hot chilies, we like fatty, heavy meats. We the cure the meat and we smoke it; we eat it with the best pickles in brine. We add a hearty spoon of heavy sour-cream on top of most dishes (yes, Russian influences cross the borders), we pile up fresh parsley and dill atop the sour-cream. We embrace food that speaks to the soul and silences the hunger. I was lucky enough to have a food-loving grandma that came from a another region, with an entirely different style of cooking and ingredients choice. She liked mixing meats and fruits and making stews that combined sweet and savory flavors. My family lives rather close to the Transilvanian border, so after one hour drive, we can enjoy all the good Hungarian gulashes, dumplings and the works. It’s difficult to nail the entire Romanian cuisine in one paragraph: Romania is big, extremely diverse and, sometimes, peculiar as to what we throw in the cooking pot.
However, there are some common elements, no matter where. Romanian cuisine is simple, heavy, unpretentious, unsophisticated, abounding in all things deemed uncool or unhealthy by modern food trends. Our cuisine has been heavily influenced by all the waves of people that crossed our borders along the centuries. We have strong Turkish influences (koftas & co.), Greek (hello moussaka), Austrian (snitzel all the way) and even French influences from the turn of the century, when everything French was so fashionable. All these with a local spin and local ingredients, that one almost doesn’t recognize the original anymore.
Fundamentally, our cooking and our traditional cuisine is (also) socially driven: historically, we have been poor people, this is reflected in our food, too. We use a variety of herbs and weeds unknown to others (ramps, nettles, sorrel, red orach/ pig weed and so many more), we scout the forests for wild mushrooms, we eat every bit of an animal and, most times, we go for cheap staples. Given the people were poor and the food supply was scarce, we have become masters of preserving. We pickle, we smoke, we cure, we make jams and confitures, we make compots, we preserve everything that can be preserved.
Religion also plays a big part, our heavy orthodox customs impose long fasting periods, so we do have lots of vegetarian and vegan dishes. Of course, no one refers to them this way, we just call it “fasting food” (with a rather disgusted grimace on our faces). Yes, we are a meat loving people and pork reigns supreme!
All this being said, there one thing that all Romanians love: from north to south, from east to west, this is something so utterly Romanian! For lack of a better word, I’ll just call it Romanian Polenta (mamaliga), but don’t be fooled, it’s not as fancy as the Italian version. Even though you only need three ingredients to make it (water, salt and coarse cornmeal), nailing it is far from being a trifle. As some one who takes pride in making good food, I needed years to learn how to make the Romanian Polenta properly. We eat it in a variety of ways, from substituting bread at meals, to mixing it with cheese and sour-cream or just dumping the mamaliga pieces in a bowl of fatty, warm milk. Here below, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite recipes of Romanian Polenta, all my foreign friends who tried it were instantly in love.