When spoken aloud, the word almost sounds like music: Mamaliga. A near-facsimile of polenta, the mamaliga cornmeal dish originated in Romania and neighboring Moldova, as well as parts of Ukraine. Written as mamelige in Yiddish and mămăligă in Romanian, the dish inspires an almost romantic longing, especially among Ashkenazi and Romanian Jews. In his famous song “Rumania, Rumania” originally recorded in 1925, Yiddish theater actor and singer Aaron Lebedeff extols the delights of the eponymous land through its edibles: “Your backs harts glust kenstu krign: A mamaligele, in pasramele, in karnatsele, Un un glezele vayn, aha…!” (In English: “What your heart desires, you can have it; a mamalige, a pastrami, a karnatzl and a glass of wine, aha…!”)
Mamaliga is, in its most basic form, quite simple: coarsely ground yellow cornmeal – the same type used for polenta – cooked with water and salt over low heat. It takes about half an hour to cook, stirring constantly, says Roza Jaffe, a home cook and Holocaust survivor from the region of Bessarabia, which now straddles Moldova and Ukraine. (I personally spent over an hour standing over my Dutch oven in my two attempts to do so, despite being a notoriously slow cook).
Corn was brought to many European countries by 15th-century traders from present-day Mexico. In her 1994 cookbook, “Jewish Cooking in America”, Joan Nathan writes “it only took root in Romania and parts of Italy”. However, Ashkenazi Jewish food expert Eve Jochnowitz noted that mamaliga technically originated in the Bucovina region which, despite being part of pre-World War II Romania, is now in Ukraine. And yet, the dish remains firmly rooted in Jewish eating habits. At the head of the recipe, Nathan quotes Florence Naumoff, a home cook with whom she exchanged several letters: “’My mother used to use the expression ‘Es [m]amaliga licht in punem, “literally” when you eat Mamaliga, it shows on your face, “when she met someone who looked Jewish.” Tablet item.
Served simply, mamaliga can be adorned with butter, sour cream, and even a little salty Romanian bryndza cheese (often substituted for feta in the US). Or, it can be made into something quirky and rich, like the Romanian dish mămăligă în pături: a lasagna-like concoction slathered in butter, cheeses, eggs, and sometimes — in a treyf, or unkosher, one interpretation – meat. Mamaliga can even be sliced and pan-fried, much like polenta.
Yet it started as a peasant food, author and food scientist Darra Goldstein explained via email. When corn finally arrived in Romania from Mesoamerica (now Mexico, Guatemala and other neighboring countries) via Spain, it was exchanged for the millet historically consumed as a staple grain. Mamaliga was so associated with poverty that, according to Goldstein, Lithuanian Jews despised Romanian Jews for eating it, calling them “mamaliges”, which Goldstein clarified as an insult: “To call someone a ‘mamaliga’ , it’s like calling him an invertebrate, a slag. .”
A dish once firmly entrenched in the realm of home cooking, mamaliga became a restaurant staple in the 20th century, when dairy restaurants — mostly kosher eateries that eschewed meat for dairy-based treats — burst onto the scene. on stage. Opened largely by Jewish immigrants from countries like Romania and Poland, as described by Ben Katchor in the book “The Dairy Restaurant”, these affordable restaurants flourished in the early 20th century. Dairy restaurants were frequented by hordes of Jewish customers hoping to choke on their eternal yen for blintzes and gefilte fish. One of the earliest known dairy restaurants was opened by Romanian immigrant Jacob J. Kampus. (Kampus, described in a quote from a 1900 Yiddish newspaper, included in Katchor’s book, was a “world famous” maker of blintzes, kreplach, and mamaliga.)
One of the most important of these establishments, Ratner’s Delicatessen, was opened by Galician immigrants, the brothers Jacob and Harry L. Harmatz. Ratner’s was a Jewish culinary stronghold on the Lower East Side, and mamaliga (spelt marmaliga) was indeed on their menu, served with cheese and butter. Theo Peck, great-grandson of Jacob Harmatz, remembers eating the mamaliga at Ratner’s counter growing up, served without any particular ceremony: “My aunt would just go into the kitchen and put it in a bowl and give it to me , like ‘here go!'” Peck said over the phone. The dish, Peck recalls, was served there until the restaurant closed in 2004. (However, it appears the dish was not kept for its popularity, nor for sentimental reasons – Peck added that his cousins, who owned Ratner’s towards the end, didn’t take much interest in the food and so didn’t bother to update the menu.) Mamaliga appeared on the menu at a number of these places, but just didn’t seem to leave a lasting impression on the clientele. As Katchor said over the phone, one such place, Gefen’s, stopped serving the dish early on. Simply, “because no one wanted it”.
Try to find mamaliga on the menu of a kosher grocery store or a restaurant specializing in Jewish cuisine today, and you’ll be out of luck. The vast majority of New York’s dairy restaurants closed by the end of the 20th century – and yet the city is still (relatively) rich with options for milkhik favorites like blintzes and pierogi, but mamaliga options are rare. Even B&H Dairy, perhaps the last remaining vestige of the dairy restaurant’s heyday, doesn’t serve it today — despite it no longer being under Jewish ownership. (Fawzy Abdelwahed, who is Egyptian and Muslim, took over B&H Dairy in 2003 with his wife Ola, who is Polish and Catholic, had actually never heard the word “mamaliga” before I asked them.)
One might, however, find mamaliga today in a few establishments in Eastern Europe – not specifically Jewish. Order it as a side or appetizer at the Romanian Garden in Sunnyside, Queens; or at the Midwood, Brooklyn restaurant Moldova, (which specializes in cuisine from the eponymous country) as part of the special house Mamaliga Trapeza, which comes with sides of pork stew, cheese, sour cream and scrambled eggs .
Jochnowitz offered a theory for why the mamaliga didn’t last in Jewish restaurants: “Some Yiddish foods totally cross over, and some don’t,” she said over the phone. “I was talking about bagels somewhere, and someone said, ‘the bagel is kind of a template; you can project whatever you want on it.’ “People make chocolate bagels and blueberry bagels. It’s like zero: it’s the blank slate. The bagel is the tabula rasa.” Mamaliga, on the other hand, is relatively exactly that. It can be dressed up, but not necessarily played with: “It’s kind of the opposite of a bagel.” Explaining further, Jochnowitz said, “You can’t create a mamaliga emoji.” we certainly haven’t seen any yet.)
Perhaps the closest to finding mamaliga in a New York kosher restaurant is at Knish Nosh, a small restaurant in Rego Park, Queens. But that’s not on the menu either. If you’re lucky, the cook, Ana Vasilescu (who is Romanian, but not Jewish), will offer to do this for you, as she sometimes does for interested customers. While the daily version of mamaliga is mostly made with cornmeal and served with bryndza and sour cream, Vasilescu sometimes makes a more decadent baked version, layered with cheese and meats like sausages and bacon. (or mushrooms for those who keep kosher). Vasilescu’s decorated mamaliga seems to indicate the best way to keep people interested in the dish. To make a really good mamaliga, Nathan explained over the phone, “you have to put a lot of things together.”
Of course, like people like Jaffe, who left behind a life of scarcity for a life of relative abundance in countries like the United States, access to a myriad of ingredients and foods is growing and once-daily staples are becoming less common. If I had to offer my own guess, I would say that the shift from eating mamaliga every day to cooking it a few times a year, on special occasions, does not stem from availability; perhaps cooking mamaliga has become less about sustenance and more about maintaining a tradition.