Not surprisingly, in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, solicitor Jonathan Harker, even before his fateful meeting with the Count, gets acquainted with “a sort of porridge of maize flour which they said was mămăligă.” When traveling to Romania, chances are you too will come across polenta when ordering one of your first meals.
Long before making its way into even the poshest of restaurants, polenta was the food of peasants and shepherds, who would cook it everywhere, even high up on the mountains. That is why, it involves very basic ingredients and a very simple cooking method. Although recipes vary, they invariably involve boiling cornmeal, about four times more water, and salt, while stirring continuously with either a wooden spoon or a wire whisk. Traditionally, polenta is cooked in a deep cast iron pot, but practically any heavy bottom pot will do. When cooked for longer to make it thicker, polenta can be a substitute for bread. Just flip the pot while the polenta is still hot and the result will be a golden sun disc on a plate, which is sliced using a string. Creamier polenta is served using a spoon.
Polenta can be found in nearly every restaurant serving Romanian food. At home, Romanians usually serve it on a round wooden plate with a handle and place it in the middle of the table. In restaurants, you can order it as a stand alone dish called mămăligă cu brânză și smântână, consisting of polenta served together with cheese and sour cream, or as a side-dish. Typically, it is served alongside sarmale, Romanian cabbage rolls stuffed with minced meat and rice, tochitură, a stew combining beef or pork meat and offal with tomato sauce, or alongside fish dishes. Another popular dish is bulz, traditionally a polenta ball stuffed with cheese that is fried, grilled or baked in the oven and served alongside meat and fried eggs.
The rules of eating this unpretentious food are few but make sure you only use a fork and always serve it steaming hot.