Why This Classic Romanian-Jewish Dish Is Nearly Impossible to Find

Mamaliga was once regular fare at home and in restaurants; now it’s a rare treat.

March  2, 2022
Photo by Rocky Luten

When said aloud, the word sounds almost like music: Mamaliga. An almost-facsimile of polenta, the cornmeal-based dish mamaliga is native to 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 yearning, particularly 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 comestibles: “Vos dos harts glust kenstu krign: A mamaligele, a pastramele, a karnatsele, Un a glezele vayn, aha…!” (In English: “What your heart desires you can get; 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 kind used for polenta—cooked with water and salt over a 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 today straddles Moldova and Ukraine. (I personally spent upwards of an hour standing over my Dutch oven in both of my attempts to make it, though I am a notoriously slow cook).

Corn was brought to numerous European countries by 15th century traders from modern-day Mexico. In her 1994 cookbook, Jewish Cooking in America, Joan Nathan writes "it only took hold in Romania and parts of Italy.” However, Ashkenazi Jewish foodways scholar Eve Jochnowitz noted that mamaliga technically originated in the region of Bukovina which, while a part of pre-World War II Romania, is now in Ukraine. And yet, the dish remains firmly rooted in Jewish foodways. In her recipe headnote, Nathan quotes Florence Naumoff, a home cook with whom she exchanged a number of letters: “‘My mother used to use the expression, ‘Es [m]amaliga licht in punem,’ literally “when you eat Mamaliga it shows in your face,’ when she met someone who looked Jewish.’” The dish is also commonly served during the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, as Nathan notes in a 2020 Tablet article.

Served simply, mamaliga may be adorned with butter, sour cream, and even a bit of salty Romanian bryndza cheese (often swapped out for feta in the U.S.). Or, it can be turned into something show stopping and rich, like the Romanian dish mămăligă în pături: a lasagna-like concoction layered with butter, cheeses, eggs, and sometimes—in a treyf, or unkosher, rendition—meat. Mamaliga can even be sliced and pan-fried, much like polenta.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I say efficient since my boyfriend's mămăligă pripită (literally hurried mamaliga ) which is like a sort of yellow corn grits takes about 5' to make. We eat it over cheese and topped with cream and a fried egg. My mom's more solid mămăligă takes about 20'. It's usually the best side dish for fish or cabbage rolls. When I was a kid she would add some milk to the iron pot where she cooked the mămăligă and serve the milk and blackened, crispy mămăligă bits to us as a sort of unlikely but delicious treat. Oh, and my gran, a Southern Romanian would eat mămăligă with jam.”
— Entchi

Still, it started out as a peasant food, author and food scholar Darra Goldstein explained over email. When corn eventually arrived in Romania from Mesoamerica (now Mexico, Guatemala, and other nearby countries) by way of Spain, it was swapped in for the millet historially eaten as a staple grain. So associated with poverty was mamaliga that, Goldstein said, Lithuanian Jews looked down on Romanian Jews for eating it, calling them “mamaliges,” which Goldstein clarified as an insult: “Calling someone a ‘mamaliga’ is like calling them spineless, a milksop.”

A dish once firmly rooted in the realm of home cooking, mamaliga became a restaurant staple in the 20th century, when dairy restaurants—mainly kosher spots that eschewed meat for dairy-based treats—burst onto the scene. Opened in large part by Jewish immigrants from countries like Romania and Poland, as Ben Katchor describes 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 quash their perennial 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 prominent of these establishments, Ratner’s Delicatessen, was opened by Galician immigrants, brothers Jacob and Harry L. Harmatz. Ratner’s was a Jewish culinary bastion of the Lower East Side, and mamaliga (spelled 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 plop it in a bowl and give it to me, like ‘here ya go!’” Peck said over the phone. The dish, Peck recalled, was served there until the restaurant closed in 2004. (However, it appears that the dish was not kept around for its popularity, nor for sentimental reasons—Peck added that his cousins, who owned Ratner's toward the end, didn't take much interest in the food and therefore didn't bother to update the menu.) Mamaliga appeared on the menu at a number of these spots, but simply didn’t seem to leave a lasting impression on 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 at a kosher deli or restaurant specializing in Jewish food today, and you’re more or less out of luck. The vast majority of New York’s dairy restaurants closed by the late 20th century—and yet, the city is still (relatively) rich with options for milkhik favorites like blintzes and pierogi, but mamaliga options are few and far between. Even B&H Dairy, perhaps the last remaining holdover of the dairy restaurant’s halcyon days, doesn’t serve it today—though it’s also no longer 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 in fact never heard the word ‘mamaliga’ before I asked them about it.)

One could, however, find mamaliga today at a few Eastern-European—not specifically Jewish—establishments. Order it as a side dish or appetizer at Romanian Garden in Sunnyside, Queens; or at the Midwood, Brooklyn restaurant Moldova, (which specializes in the food of the eponymous country) as part of the house special Mamaliga Trapeza, which comes with sides of pork stew, cheese, sour cream, and scrambled eggs.

Jochnowitz offered a theory on why mamaliga didn’t last in Jewish restaurants: “Some Yiddish foods totally cross over, and some don’t,” she said over the phone. “I was speaking about bagels somewhere, and someone said: ‘the bagel sort of is a template; you can project anything you want onto it.’ People make chocolate bagels and blueberry bagels. It’s like the zero: It’s the blank slate. The bagel is the tabula rasa.” Mamaliga, on the other hand, is comparatively exactly what it is. It can be dressed up, but not necessarily played with: “It’s sort of the opposite of the bagel.” Explaining further, Jochnowitz said, “You can’t make a mamaliga emoji.” (We certainly haven’t seen one yet.)

Perhaps the closest you’ll get to finding mamaliga in a kosher New York restaurant is at Knish Nosh, a tiny eatery in Rego Park, Queens. But it’s not on the menu there, either. If you’re lucky, the cook, Ana Vasilescu (who is Romanian, but not Jewish), will offer to make it for you, as she sometimes does for interested customers. While the everyday version of mamaliga is made mainly of cornmeal, and served with bryndza and sour cream, Vasilescu will sometimes make a more decadent baked version, layered with cheese and meats like sausage and bacon (or mushrooms for those who keep kosher). Vasilescu’s decked-out mamaliga seems to point to the best way to keep people interested in the dish. To make a really good mamaliga, explained Nathan over the phone, “you’ve got to put a lot of things together.”

Of course, as people like Jaffe, who left behind a life of scarcity for one of relative abundance in countries like the U.S., access to myriad ingredients and foods grows and formerly everyday staples become less common. If I were to offer my own guess, I’d say that the shift from eating mamaliga every single day to cooking it up a few times a year, on special occasions, stems not from availability; perhaps cooking mamaliga has become less about sustaining oneself, and more about sustaining a tradition.

Do you make mamaliga at home? How do you serve it? Let us know in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Lois
  • Dar
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  • Entchi
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Rachel L Baron

Written by: Rachel L Baron

Freelance writer based in Brooklyn


Lois August 24, 2022
I make this in the microwave 2-1/2 cup of water to 1/2 cornmeal 5 min in a covered bowl, stir and repeat. I make a garlic chicken stew”. I could smell the garlic blocks from my grandparents home. People didn’t use as much garlic as we do now it’s one of my favorite meals to serve for company
Dar June 12, 2022
My mother who was from Bukovina and my Dad who was from Bessarabia always cooked delicious meals, but on Sundays the entire family (about 18) would gather at my parents dining room table and feast on mamaliga with a chicken and sour cream sauce, cabbage rolls, perogies, wild mushrooms along with other main meats and vegetables. Needless to say few of us could actually even stand up after eating. Momma was also a fantastic baker so there were tortes, pies and cakes for dessert. Some of the greatest memories for me.
CareyMc June 12, 2022
There is a dish in Bosnia called pura that sounds very similar. Possibly a little softer than what's been described here, i.e. you eat it with a spoon and couldn't cut it. It's served with butter and shredded salty cheese or kajmak. It was one of my favorite dishes in Bosnia, which is saying something.
Entchi March 7, 2022
I think mămăligă originated in both Romanian principalities (Moldova and Wallachia) some time in the 17th century (probably at a similar time with polenta in Italy) as corn replaced millet. Even the name supposedly comes from meimeliga, with mei being millet in Romanian. Btw, only the northern part of Bukovina belongs to Ukraine, southern Bukovina belongs to Romania. Sometime around 1700 Moldovan prince Dimitrie Cantemir wrote that "corn grows so abundantly in the lower country (the southern plains of Moldova, close to the Danube) that the peasants have a saying: as big as corn in the lower country and as apples in the upper country. They grind the corn, knead it and make it into a sort of bread which they like to eat with butter while still hot". By the mid 1800s French, British and Belgian travellers to the Romanian principalities mention that mămăligă is the staple and sometimes only meal of Romanian peasants. A lot of the Jews living in the Romanian principalities settled there mostly during the 19th century and since they were often poor and marginalised they adopted the cheap and efficient
mămăliga. I say efficient since my boyfriend's mămăligă pripită (literally hurried mamaliga ) which is like a sort of yellow corn grits takes about 5' to make. We eat it over cheese and topped with cream and a fried egg. My mom's more solid mămăligă takes about 20'. It's usually the best side dish for fish or cabbage rolls. When I was a kid she would add some milk to the iron pot where she cooked the mămăligă and serve the milk and blackened, crispy mămăligă bits to us as a sort of unlikely but delicious treat. Oh, and my gran, a Southern Romanian would eat mămăligă with jam.
Nancy March 7, 2022
Grew up with this (long time ago). Lovely to see it again.
sara D. March 6, 2022
My earliest food memories are my dad making cornmeal mush topped with cottage cheese. My Great grandma, who called me her Mamaliga mamala, made this for us in her Apartment on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, and my grandma (her daughter) scoffed at this as peasant food. They were from Vienna by way of Galecia. My great grandfather was a waiter in a milk restaurant. My grandpa, who married into this family, was A Moldavian-Ukraine Jew by family. My grandparents moved to Rego Park from the Bronx after they got married in the late 1920s of early 1930s, and my dad grew up with a lot of Italian friends ancc do he always called this ubiquitous food Polenta. I lived in my grandparents Rego Park apartment as a toddler, and I love love love Kinish Nosh. My comments gone all over the place, but one last note. I always serve polenta/mamaliga with chicken paprikash. Omg so good.
Lisa March 6, 2022
My husband is a Romanian Jew (I’m Ukrainian/Lithuanian Jewish) and I make mamaliga quite often. It’s a favorite side dish with fish dishes - when I make it with milk, butter and sour cream or when I make it with water and serve it with a beef stew.
Deborah A. March 6, 2022
So....after reading all the descriptive comments about cornmeal mush topped in various dressings my mouth is watering. Should not a recipe for authentic Mamaliga follow this discussion? I'm feeling famished!
trvlnsandy March 6, 2022
I was surprised there wasn't a link -- but if you google can find some
Valerie N. March 6, 2022
As a Romanian American, we still make this regularly. It does bring back memories of my grandmother making this dish; have also eaten it in Romania, made by relatives. No measuring, it's just made! Comfort food indeed, and for me, puts me in touch with my "roots"; will always make this dish. We like to make it with cheese, bake, sour cream on the side.
trvlnsandy March 6, 2022
so you bake it? To get a crust? I know my mother would slice the cornmeal mush and pan fry the next day -- served with either maple syrup or honey.
Valerie N. March 6, 2022
hi! you make it per directions (no measuring) in a pot, I use an immersion blender after it cooks in the pot, to eliminate "lumps",
some butter pieces on bottom of pyrex, then layer the mumaliga, maybe 1" - kinda have to eyeball it, munster cheese, maybe a little more butter, then repeat. bake uncovered until bubbling @ 350. serve with sour cream. The thicker you initially cook it, the better, you don't want it too soft. Good luck!!
Alice March 6, 2022
I was recently on a river cruise in France where most of the staff was Romanian. I asked them what the crew ate, and to a man/woman, they lit up and proudly answered, "Mamaliga!" I knew what that was, as my mother's family was from Bessarabia. The difference was that the Romanians ate theirs topped with cheese, and my mother's was layered with sour cream and butter. I like mine with a little black pepper. It doesn't take long if you make it soft, like cornmeal mush. Very good and fiiling in cold weather. And quite inexpensive!
Entchi March 7, 2022
I am Romanian and I almost always eat it with sour cream, butter and cheese. Maybe those crew members just ate it with cheese not because of some Romanian vs Bessarabian differences but just because cheese, especially Romanian telemea is much easier to keep (months at a time) than cream which has a very short shelf life.
Dar March 6, 2022
So glad to finally see this food that I grew up eating recognized on a food blog. I am 64 and still make it to this day. Thank you again, brings back great memories of my parents.
Anne Y. March 6, 2022
No such thing as "just" grits. Yes the description sounds a lot like grits but don't denigrate grits.Grits are much better than oatmeal and useful in a variety of other dishes, including mains. I am a many-generations back Virginian and often make grits with various additions, most often cheese but also bitter greens and other ingredients. I prefer yellow grits and now use yellow polenta to make them (recently got white polenta by accident).
Teo C. March 5, 2022
I've never heard mămăligă being called a Jewish/Romanian-Jewish meal. Perhaps it was popular amongst Jewish immigrants and made a staple meal in their families? Also, the title is making me chuckle; mămăliga is probably the easiest thing to make. You don't even have to go to your local Romanian or Moldovan store, corn flour is found in other shops as well. I have it at least twice a week with either fish, mushroom stew or cheese. It's second to bread on how common it is. Speaking of cheese, I'm not sure if bryndza is the Yiddish spelling of cheese, but I know in Romanian it's spelled brânză. The word brânză is essentially the general word for cheese, so saying 'bryndza cheese' sounds like you're saying cheese cheese. Restaurants also serve mămăligă, go to any Romanian restaurant and you'll probably see it in the menu. It's not impossible to find and it's not a rare treat.
Ruth A. March 6, 2022
I am Romanian Jewish, but was always told it’s Romanian. The “national dish of Romania” in fact.

I have seen something that sounds very similar mentioned, from other countries in the region. A friend from Hungary eats it. I have seen recipes in Georgian cookbooks. And read about a dish that sounded the same in a review of an Albanian restaurant. But I think of it as Romanian.
Entchi March 7, 2022
I think it's extremely easy to make but there are a couple of secrets: gradually pouring the corn meal over the water, like a rain as my mother likes to say, constantly stirring with a preferably wooden spoon so you get rid of any knots and you end up with a smooth mămăligă and last,which might just be only my mum's trick, add a knob of butter to make it extra smooth.
Falcomel March 4, 2022
I have only ever eaten mamaliga on trips to Romania, and didn't know it was Jewish. I was given a huge portion every time and it was so filling! I had it topped with yogurt and salty cheese. It's definitely one of those foods I wish I could find more often. 🇹🇩
trvlnsandy March 4, 2022
So, other than the toppings, how was it different from polenta or cornmeal mush/pudding?
Tobie March 3, 2022
My Nana, who was from Romania, used to make this for us for lunch and I love it. She made it in a beautiful cake and served with lots of melted butter and dry cottage cheese. Since I grew up I have tried to recreate it without much luck . I can make it like cornmeal mush but not a cake and of course it is not as good as what my Nana made.
trvlnsandy March 3, 2022
The author indicates this is not served in restaurants anymore, then goes on to say it's like a soft polenta. Based on the description sounds like cornmeal mush, or grits, or in Zambia, mealie meal. So, someone who is familiar with the dish, is it just another name for what is essentially the same dish? I didn't see anything in the description to indicate a different preparation from any of these. Maybe I missed it.
CareyMc June 12, 2022
Grits is not the whole corn kernel, just the innermost part. Mealie meal is similar, but it's white corn and more finely ground than polenta. Ugali/sadza/nshima are usually very firm. Also, traditionally ugali etc. is not made with salt, and no fat is added. It's purely the mealie meal and water, a very neutral base for whatever sauce you want, but never the main attraction.
Demi Z. March 3, 2022
As the son of recent Romanian Jewish immigrants in the 1910s, my father spoke nostalgically about mamaliga, along with nahit, the crispy roast chickpeas they enjoyed every Shabbat. However, he never asked my second-generation Russian Jewish mother to learn to make it for the family. I eventually realized he remembered it nostalgically, but not fondly. I didn't taste mamaliga until my 20s in Israel when I thought I was eating soft polenta. I don't think my father ever tasted it after he became an adult. I feel the same way about taiglach.
SharonKay March 3, 2022
“ … corn was brought to the Old World after the discovery of America … “ You mean like 20,000 years ago when humans first inhabited North America? 😑
Mary E. March 6, 2022
Really, language policing everywhere is why so many people despise those of us who are politically liberal.
SharonKay March 6, 2022
Nothing about language but about history. North America has been inhabited for at least 15,000 years with some saying much longer now. It wasn't discovered and we shouldn't perpetuate this narrative. And I'm not a liberal but I'm sure you'll consider that language policing, too. No, I'm just not a liberal. 🤷🏻‍♀️
ginny March 6, 2022
I think the author meant when the new world was discovered by those in the old world—I use the terms new and old idiomatically,
Rosalind P. March 7, 2022
This was not a criticism of political liberals. On the contrary, it was to remind all that North America wasn't "discovered" by Europeans, a point usually made by liberals. It was there all along. :-) And that language denigrates the incredible indigenous peoples and cultures who were also there, all along. It's not a bad thing to remind everyone about that.
Gary M. March 7, 2022
Sharon your Mamaliga is sticking to the pan!
Mary E. March 7, 2022
What is a “bad thing” or an annoying thing is in the eye or ear of the beholder. Admonitions from the language police are seldom welcomed. Even if they “should be.” The widespread belief that anyone is entitled to tell anyone else how they should feel is puzzling because it is completely ineffective.
Oaldea March 3, 2022
You can eat mamaliga in so many ways! It’s a classic with cabbage rolls, roasted chicken and garlic sauce, fried fish and garlic sauce, stews of any kind or bean soup. Honestly, you don’t need to dress it up. Just make sure it’s properly cooked and everyone is at the table when you serve it. Like pasta, it doesn’t wait for anybody.
I now live in Canada, but I cook mamaliga very often. It’s comfort food for me. Oh, and it’s gluten free too
Ruth A. March 3, 2022
I forgot to mention that I have a great recipe that uses mamaliga with caramelized onions and cheese as the filling for stuffed cabbage. Cooked in tomato sauce with sauerkraut.
Oaldea March 3, 2022
jojoroma March 6, 2022
I'm very interested - since I have some polenta I use for a side dish once and awhile - or used to, pre pandemic! Could you please send me your details for cooking it? What might I be able to talk my (non-adventurous about food) husband into trying?
jojoroma March 6, 2022
Replies in here, I mean - rather than send me!
Alice March 6, 2022
How can I get that recipe? It sounds delicious!
Ruth A. March 6, 2022
Unfortunately I am currently unable to access the cookbook with the recipe right now. The book it is from is ‘Crossroads Cooking’ by Elisabeth Rozin.

I cant give you quantities or times, but basically you caramelize onions in butter, add cornmeal and enough water to make a stiff polenta, and cook until done, usually ~10-15 minutes. Then stir in farmer’s cheese. Set aside to cool. Then use that as the filling for the cabbage leaves you have prepared in the usual way. Use toothpicks to hold them together.

Saute onions and garlic, add canned tomatoes and sauerkraut, preferably fresh from a barrel, or the kind sold in bags, not canned. Cook until slightly thickened, arrange the cabbage rolls on top, bring to a simmer, and cook over medium-low heat until tender.

jojoroma March 6, 2022
Thank you ❤️- I appreciate it very much!
Alice March 6, 2022
Thanks! I can follow that!
Ruth A. March 3, 2022
Yes, I make mamaliga at home. It’s the ultimate comfort food for me. I grew up eating it, and serve it the way my mother did. Cooked soft and served in a bowl, with butter and cottage cheese, or, better yet, pot cheese. For breakfast.

Her father was from Romania. She told me that he said he used cottage cheese because Bryndza wasn’t available here. I was able to get it a few times, but I found that I prefer cottage cheese. Because it’s what I grew up with, and because I found Bryndza too strong for breakfast.
mga305360 March 3, 2022
My grandparents were from Romania and my mother made it often.
Would you please tell me how you make it? Never got my mother's recipe and would love to know-
Ruth A. March 6, 2022
The consistency depends on the ratio of liquid to cornmeal. I like it soft, so I use more water.

I mix the cornmeal with an equal amount of cold water. Then bring 3x that amount of water to a boil and salt it, pretty heavily. Stir in the cornmeal/water mixture over medium heat, and continue to stir until it’s as thick as I want. Turn the heat down low, cover, and cook for 10-15 minutes.

So for 1/2 cup cornmeal, I mix it with 1/2 cup cold water and stir that into 1 1/2 cups of salted boiling water.

Be aware that the pot will be a real pain to clean. I recommend soaking it.