Make Ahead

Basic Mamaliga

August 20, 2011
4 Ratings
  • Prep time 5 minutes
  • Cook time 20 minutes
  • Serves 6
Author Notes

If "mamaliga" (mama-LEE-gah) is an unfamiliar dish to you, you're sure to know it by another of its names: polenta.

Mamaliga is the Romanian version of this staple and has been called the country's national dish. While the recipe itself is not revolutionary, the history behind mamaliga is fascinating. Cooked in a round-bottomed kettle called a "ceaun," the cornmeal porridge would be turned out into the center of the peasantry's wooden farm tables, where it hardened as it cooled, holding its rounded shape. Portions would be sliced off using a piece of string held taut, and pieces would be topped with butter and sour cream, or with cascaval cheese, a sheep's milk cheese similar to pecorino. After each meal the matriarch would scrub the table clean, and it's said that many a Romanian table is concave and shiny in the center, a testament to the daily tradition of eating mamaliga.

When making mamaliga, examine the piece served to you; any cracks that appear on the top of your portion indicate an unexpected journey lies ahead. —Nostrovia_ca

What You'll Need
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1-2/3 cups yellow cornmeal, medium grind
  • freshly crack black pepper to taste
  • butter and sour cream (or yogurt, to feel more virtuous) for serving
  1. Bring water to boil in a medium saucepan. Add salt and butter.
  2. Begin stirring the water in one direction, sprinkling about 1/3 cup of the cornmeal into the depression that forms in the center. Once the water returns to the boil, pour in the rest of the cornmeal, stirring continuously to prevent clumps from forming. Turn heat to low and continue stirring until cornmeal begins to thicken.
  3. Cover the pot and cook on low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 10 to 15 minutes. When it is done, the mamaliga will pull away from the sides of the pot. (A tip from Nicolae Klepper, author of Taste of Romania: Wet the handle of a wooden spoon and insert it into the center of the mixture, spinning it a few times. If it comes out clean, the mamaliga is done.)
  4. Invert the pan onto a wooden cutting board and carefully lift it away — the mamaliga should hold its shape, spreading out slightly. Slice into six wedges and top with butter and sour cream. (Note that as it cools, the mamaliga will harden.)

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Sagegreen
  • Nostrovia_ca
  • Marilyn Abramsky
    Marilyn Abramsky
  • JudyVegan

11 Reviews

JudyVegan November 17, 2023
I love this Mamaliga recipe! I used vegan “butter” and vegan yogurt. It was delicious and I’ll be making this often!!!
Phyllis W. September 10, 2023
My Zade, grandfather, tested his mamaliga for doneness the following way. He used a wooden spoon, but his test was to stand the spoon, handle-side down, into the cornmeal. The mamaliga was ready when the spoon could stand on its own. How I loved to watch him make it, dump the steaming pot onto the counter, and eventually cut it with a string into delicious slices. For breakfast we ate it with butter and sugar; butter, farmers' cheese and sour cream for other meals. My memories are sensory!
Andi May 15, 2023
Interesting how corn meal moves around the globe. One thing that seems persistently true is that corn is made better with dairy. When I cook polenta, I always include some milk, even if it's a fraction of the total liquid. For Mamaliga, I like how the whole mess is turned out and adorned with dairy products when consuming. I think this will be a fun way to expand the experience of a family meal- a soup or stew (chili?). Thanks.
FirebrandChef April 13, 2021
So for those of you who don't know, and I'm not trying to take away from Eastern European culture. The history goes back to the precolumbian Americas. In the US it is called "grits". "Grit" is within the range of course grinding of grains. Chicken feed is/was called "chicken grit". With an -s ending it is specially corn grit for human consumption. In fact on the polenta package I get which is from italy it is labeled "Yellow Maize Grits" in English. Polenta to sound more fancy, or when detached from the American south where it is popular in Southern cooking and African American Soulfood and usually nixtamalized (Aztec invention) and/enriched. These processes increase nutritional value and used to be by enforced by regulation/law. Today, I don't know for sure, but it is still practiced. It was one of the things that helped with malnutrition the past. Europe saw many health issues from non nixtamalized corn products, and it quickly became associated with poverty and Southern & Eastern Europe. Shrimp and grits, chicken and grits etc. Are popular in the US. I also have several recipes, some posted on my Instagram and Facebook. I will try this recipe 😍
Andi May 15, 2023
"Polenta" is of latin origin and means "dust." It referred to small grains like barley. The term came into use in Olde English to denote a meal of finely ground grains or chestnuts. When corn arrives across the pond, it is used in the same fashion and likewise called polenta.
Janet November 12, 2017
My beautiful Romanian Grandmother used to make this as a side dish to go along with her delicious chicken stew (stew was made w/lots of onions & a creamy tomato base). We would soak our Mamaliga chunks in it. Just fabulous!
r_sawa April 23, 2013
My parents (1st generation Canadians of Ukranian descent) used to eat mamaliga dipping it by the spoonful in butter milk. My seven siblings think this is gross. I, on the other hand, entertain no such foolish notions or delusions ...

I make Italian versions regularly, but tonight I do it in homage to my parents!
Sagegreen August 21, 2011
I thought this sounded like polenta. Love your recipe for it!
Nostrovia_ca August 21, 2011
Thank you! When I was growing up people used to either look at me quizzically or giggle when I said "mamaliga," so I've always referred to it by the much more commonly known polenta. But now that I'm on a mission to share my Eastern European culinary heritage, I figure there's no need to be shy about the Romanian name.
Sagegreen August 21, 2011
With my Hungarian background and great new friends in Belarus, I support culinary heritage from eastern Europe!!!
Marilyn A. January 7, 2020
My grandparents were from the south of Russia. She would often make me mamaliga for lunch. I loved it. She usually served it with melted butter and cottage cheese. Such comfort food. We were kosher and when she served it for a meat meal, usually for a dinner, it would be wit a lamb stew. Equally delicious! Thanks for sharing your recipe.