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Roman mămăligă

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)


One of the founding myths of the Romanian nation is its direct descent from those conquered by the Romans in the 1st century CE Dacians. To what extent is this true? An alternative theory is the origin of the Vlachs, the ancestors of the Romanians, from Romanian-speaking communities from the areas of today’s Albania, who fled from the Turkish threat to the north, to the Carpathians (participating in the ethnogenesis of our Boykos, Lemkos and Hutsuls) and to the Danube lowlands – let linguists and geneticists decide. The fact is that to this day, only in Romania can parents name their children Decebalus, Hadrian, Trajan or Ovid (the famous poet is buried in Constanta on the Black Sea).

While in Romania, apart from the monuments from the times of Roman Dacia, you can come across another – probable – trace of the Roman presence in this region of Europe. However, you don’t need metal detectors, GPR and shovels to look for it – all you need is a restaurant serving the most famous Romanian dish, now known not only in former Dacia but also in Pannonia, Moesia and Thrace (and in Polish voivodship Małopolska) – mamałyga.

Monument to Ovid from Constanta

The name does not sound Roman, the first mentions of it come from the Middle Ages (it was probably brought to Małopolska by Wallachian shepherds – or it is the result of later Austro-Hungarian influence), but it is almost the same as Italian polenta, deriving its name from the Latin pollenta: porridge (today most often corn), cooked in milk diluted with water to a uniform paste.

Over these hundreds of years, we have lost the most important Roman spice – garum (it returned to Europe along with Far Eastern fermented fish sauces), or the tradition of fast-food street food (the Americanization of the lifestyle means that we can use fast food bars again), and pollenta survived. It was not a Roman invention. This dish was eaten throughout the Mediterranean. Pliny the Elder, before he died at the foot of Vesuvius, wrote about the great popularity of this dish in his times, but it was unknown to the writer’s ancestors. How was this dish prepared? The irreplaceable Apicius writes about this. From all kinds of groats. Of course, corn was unknown, but there was roasted barley, millet, linseed and coriander seeds, which are still popular in Mediterranean cuisine (and, of course, salt). Pliny was a wealthy man, hence the variety of ingredients – but the most important was, of course, roasted and crushed or coarsely ground barley. All this was fried, ground and poured with water. And they were reduced.

Pliny notes in his works that the Greeks prepared the dish in a slightly different way than the Romans. For example, they malted barley – the Greek version of polenta was sweeter than the Italian one, and contained millet less often.

Remains of a garum factory from Barcelona

Today’s Italian polenta has become somewhat pauperized over hundreds of years – in times of famine and crop failure, flour and cereal groats were replaced with, for example, chestnut flour – and today, as in mămăligă, corn is used. And just like its Balkan counterpart, due to its ease of preparation and cheapness, it was a dish of the poorer social classes.

The question also remains whether mămăligă and polenta must be the culinary descendants of pollenta. Not necessarily – both of these dishes known in the Middle Ages could have been created completely from scratch, as they are not complicated. However, since they are eaten where pollenta two thousand years ago, they may be a real Roman contribution to the culinary culture of Italy, Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria. The topic would have to be studied by culinary historians.

Author: Adam Adamas (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Pliny the Elder, Natural History
  • M. Gavio de Rubeis, Early Italian Recipes
  • Apicius, De Re Coquinaria

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