How Italians Added Flavor To Plain Polenta During World War II

There are some iterations of a dish that seem to exist across a multitude of cultures, countries, and cuisines. One of those dishes happens to be porridge. From congee in China to grits in the Southern U.S., porridge is a dish that has taken on a variety of forms over time. The Italian version is a dish called polenta, which became a staple meal in Italy during World War II due to it being inexpensive and easy to store for longer periods. However, having to eat polenta so often quickly became a flavor nightmare.

On its own, polenta has a subtle sweet taste and a natural corn flavor but is rather plain overall. To infuse more flavor into the dish, Italians would rub their bites of polenta against a dried herring to implement some of that fish flavor without having to use up the fish meat. This way of eating polenta is referred to as "pica sö," which refers to the rubbing action, and the herring would sometimes be swapped for dried anchovies. By doing this, Italians could get the salty, seafood taste of the fish for the illusion of a more filling meal. You can almost think of this technique as another way of seasoning the dish, versus adding an actual ingredient into it.

Enjoying the flavor of fish in modern polenta

While we may not have to rub our polenta on dried herring to give it more flavor today, that doesn't mean you can't pay homage to this resourceful way of enjoying polenta. There are a variety of ways you can bring this fish flavor into your polenta at home. One of the easiest ways is to use polenta as a base and serve your seafood on top. A mild white fish pairs excellently with the buttery taste of polenta. You could also opt to do a play on shrimp and grits.

Mixing in tinned fish such as tuna or anchovies may not be a traditional way to enjoy polenta but it will bring a salty, rich flavor addition to the dish. This is a great way to add some protein to your meal and, depending on the type of tinned fish you use, it can be cheap as well. If you're worried about your polenta tasting too fishy, you could use an anchovy paste, which will give you more control over the amount of fish flavor being added. If you don't eat seafood for personal or health reasons, adding dried seaweed can give you a similar oceanic tasting note and bring some more salty flavor to the polenta.