At a recent family gathering my relatives clamored for a traditional dish made from cornmeal, of which my father is the acknowledged master: fried cornmeal mush. Mush has a long tradition in American regional cooking, as well as in the cuisine of immigrants. While my father’s family eats mush in a Yankee kind of way, my mother grew up with mamaliga, the Romanian equivalent craved by her father, a Romanian-born Jew. When I arrived in the Zakarpattja area of Ukraine to do fieldwork, I settled in a village near the Romanian border and was soon introduced to tokano, the local dialect word for cornmeal mush. A popular Romanian dish, mamaliga cu branza (cornmeal mush with cheese) had a local version as well, which carried the Zakarpattja-flavored moniker of tokano z bryndzju, or cornmeal mush with sheep’s milk cheese. Tokano was so important that craftsmen carved special spoons, a kind of wooden spatula called a tokanych, specifically for stirring the porridge.
It’s high summer now, but tokano z bryndzja tastes to me like early fall, when the shepherds bring their sheep back down from their summer home in the mountains. Tokano z bryndzju has three key components: cornmeal mush (tokano), fried bacon or unsmoked porkfat with drippings, and bryndzja. Bryndzja (also called brynza or bryndza) is a sheep’s milk cheese associated with the Zakarpattja region. Although it is available in other parts of Ukraine, the times I have purchased it in the store I found it so oversalted that I could barely eat it. True bryndzja should be firm but springy, like dry feta, lightly salted with a fresh taste. It can also be eaten as a fresh cheese, although your chance to snag a piece before it gets salted, formed and dried into a harder cheese is fleeting. Bryndzja comes in large round loaves called holovky, or heads. The closest thing to it I’ve had outside of Ukraine is ricotta salata, which makes a reasonable substitute in dishes requiring bryndzja.
But back to my beloved tokano z bryndzju. The dish is simple: make a batch of cornmeal mush, spread 1/3 in the bottom of an enameled metal bowl. Top with a layer of melted bacon fat and crumbled cheese (you can use feta or grated ricotta salata). Repeat twice. Tokano z bryndzju should be eaten hot, soon after it is made, when the cheese is still melty and the cornmeal mush has not yet set up. The resulting dish is decadent, rich, satisfying. If you find yourself with cornmeal, thick cut bacon and ricotta salata in the house and a yen for something indulgent, stir up a batch of tokano, cut the bacon into chunks and fry it slowly, and then layer away. While I was always given enormous bowls to polish off on my own, I recommend serving this as an appetizer for the table. The dish is not usually served for breakfast and it does have the quality of a “treat” as in most rural households bryndzja must be acquired directly from a shepherding family.
Recipe: Tokano z bryndzju
3-4 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 cup cornmeal
3-4 cups water
1 1/2 cups grated ricotta salata
Place bacon pieces in a frying pan over medium heat. Fry, stirring, until the bacon is cooked but not completely crisp. Set aside bacon in its fat.
Bring three and a half cups of water with the pinch of salt to a boil in a saucepan. Slowly pour in the cornmeal, stirring constantly. Continue stirring until the mush begins to boil. Continue stirring until the mush is thickened and fully cooked, 10-15 minutes. (If you have your own way of preparing mush or want to substitute a polenta recipe, please be my guest. There are as many variations on this dish are there are names for it across Ukraine and Romania, and all of them are delicious). Have a medium-sized heat-proof bowl, preferably one with a gradual slope to the sides, ready.
Remove the cooked cornmeal from the stove and pour 1/3 into the bowl. Spoon 1/3 of the bacon and about 1/2 tbsp bacon fat over the mush, then sprinkle 1/3 of the cheese on top. Repeat twice, ending with a layer of cheese. Allow the dish to sit about 5 minutes. The heat from the mush and bacon fat should melt the cheese. Bring straight to the table. To serve cut through the dish from top to bottom with a spoon, so that each serving has all of the layers in it.