Sort-of Secret: Mamaliga, a monthly pop-up spotlighting home-style Romanian dishes and drinks
The sort-of secret: Mamaliga, a Romanian food pop-up from the chef at Thai Favorites BBQ
You may have heard of it if: You’ve been to one of Palcu-Chang’s other pop-ups, like Safta’s Falafel
But you probably haven’t tried it because: It runs monthly and in limited quantities
Mamaliga, or cornmeal porridge, is a staple starch for many cultures—Romanian, Moldovan, West Ukrainian and Abkhazian, among others. (Its relative, Italian polenta, might be a more familiar touchpoint for the uninitiated.) It appears in many forms, from soft and decidedly porridge-like to thick and sliceable, is sometimes made with cheese, and can be served as a standalone meal or a side dish—especially with stew.
For Haan Palcu-Chang, raised in part on his grandparents’ Romanian cooking, a version has made its way onto the menu of a monthly pop-up he’s named after the iconic dish. Baked with sour cream and topped with kashkaval (sheep’s milk cheese) melted to a perfect golden brown, it’s hearty, pillowy soft, and a direct line to Palcu-Chang’s culinary heritage. “This project is definitely a nostalgic thing for me,” he says. “It’s about maintaining a connection to the old country, so to speak.” The pop-up runs out of Favorites Thai BBQ, where he’s the head chef, with a menu that’s switched up a bit on a regular basis.
Palcu-Chang serves his mamaliga with a Romanian pea stew called mancare de mazare cu pui, which manages to be both soul-warming and summery. Fresh sweet peas (his grandparents used canned) are stewed with dill, parsley and tender chicken thighs. In the broth—which is red with the addition of tomato—bright vegetal top notes hum above a deep, chicken-y bassline. Whether or not you have old-country roots, eating this stew alongside mamaliga is a transportive experience.
But first, there’s a Romanian appetizer platter. There’s sourdough bread to eat with whipped cod roe—where the roe subs in for egg yolks in a briny, creamy mayonnaise-style sauce—or a gorgeous eggplant spread. It’s basically Romanian baba ghanoush, and with the help of eggplant well-charred on cast iron, is super smoky without tasting burnt. “My uncle was a metalworker. He would cut these huge slabs of iron, which we put on our stove to char the eggplant until it was black on the outside, soft on the inside,” says Palcu-Chang. “The outside is totally inedible, but the smoke penetrates the inside flesh and gives it that flavour.”
Also on the appetizer platter is a steaming Moldovan-style meat croquette, stuffed with grated potato and flecks of herbs. It’s served with strong but lightly sweet Romanian mustard and salam de Sibiu, a clean, dry “peasant salami” made mostly of beef. A whole green onion, meant to be munched alongside the meats and spreads, tops the dish.
For dessert, there are plum dumplings, or galuste cu prune. Whole Italian plums (also known as prune plums) are encased in potato-based dough and rolled in breadcrumbs seasoned with sugar and cinnamon. Topped with sour cream, the dish is tart, homey and gorgeous with the plum’s purple hue. It goes beautifully with the homemade vishinata—sour cherry liqueur made from fermented local, organic cherries steeped for months in grain alcohol to extract every last drop of flavour.
Romanian food may not currently have much of a foothold in Toronto’s restaurant scene, but this pop-up is a standalone argument that there needs to be more of it. Keep an eye on Mamaliga’s socials for the next date.