Tocană or What’s in a Name?

I remember my mom making a lot of stews when I was growing up because she could use ‘filler’ vegetables, especially potatoes, to stretch a small amount of meat to feed a hungry family of four, with lots of leftovers. Tocană was the word she used instead of stew, however, because, like many immigrants, she interspersed her English with a lot of Romanian words. I was never quite sure what they meant, and, sadly, didn’t always ask, but I managed to figure out the meaning of most of the words, in the context in which they were used.

PS: ‘Zamaă (zeamă)‘ was another tricky Romanian word, which meant ‘soup’, but seemed stew-like to me. Amusingly, in later years, the word ‘soupă’ became part of our family lexicon. And then there were ‘ciorbă’ and ‘bors’ which are types of soups. I may go into that in a future post.

When my brother married a Canadian-born Hungarian girl, she brought other food words into our conversations. Some were very familiar. Like ‘tokány’ which was similar enough to the Romanian word for a stew. But ‘porkolt‘ also refers to a stew. As does ‘paprikash’.

Porkolt, paprikash, and tokany … makes your head spin, doesn’t it? And then there’s ‘goulash’ which can be a soup OR a stew. But I won’t get into that in this post.

Romanian cooking terms almost seem easy in comparison. At least to me, they do.

Romanian pork stew with cornmeal mush and a fried egg

In my recent internet searches, I’ve learned that tocană ‘usually’ refers to a mutton/lamb stew. But my mom has never liked mutton so her tocană was usually made with pork, which seems to be the go-to Romanian meat. Beef was very rarely served at our house as it was not something my mom was that comfortable cooking, to be honest. (You do NOT want to know how she cooked a frozen t-bone steak.)

Anyway, getting back to the tocană, I debated on making a chicken (pui/gaina refering to a chicken/hen) or even a mushroom stew, but I settled for what I felt most comfortable cooking … a pork stew or ‘tocană cu carne de porc’.

One final language aside. Tocană is what you get in a restaurant. Tocăniță (the diminutive form, like saying ‘little tocană’)  is what your mom makes at home … with love.

Romanian pork stew with mashed potatoes

Tocăniță cu carne de porc (Romanian Pork Stew) – serves 3-4

600 gm pork, neck preferred but a boneless pork loin* works as well
2 tbsp finely diced pork fat or vegetable oil
1 large onion, small dice
1-2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 medium carrot, small dice**
1/2 medium sweet pepper (red, yellow or orange), small dice**
1/2 cup chicken stock or water, more water as needed
1 tbsp sweet pepper paste or 1 tbsp sweet paprika
1 teaspoon hot pepper paste or harissa or gochujang
1/2 teaspoon dried summer savoury or thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt, to start
1/4 teaspoon pepper

Optional: 3-4 small potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes

Garnish: 1/4 cup chopped parsley leaves

* As my pork loin was pretty lean, I added about 2 tbsp of finely chopped pork fat trimmed from a pork shoulder, after I had seared it for red chile pulled pork

** This dish was often made in the winter when fresh vegetables weren’t available. Frugal housewives would dry and coarsely grind up various vegetables and use them in their soups and stews. If you have access to a dry vegetable soup mix, use 1-2 tsp, I used the carrots and sweet peppers instead.

Cut up the pork meat into 1/2-3/4 inch cubes.

In a dutch oven, over medium-high heat, render the fat and use it to fry the pork, for about 10 minutes or until it starts to brown. Remove the meat to a bowl and reserve.

Reduce the heat to medium, add the onion and cook until it softens, about 10 minutes. Add the carrots and sweet peppers and the garlic and cook for a few more minutes. Add the thyme, sweet pepper paste and the hot pepper paste and stir into the vegetables. Cook for another minute or so to cook the ‘raw’ taste out of the spices and liven up the herbs.

Add the chicken stock and use it to scrape up the fond (browned bits of flavour) on the bottom of the dutch oven. Add the browned pork, salt and pepper and bring the mixture to a boil. Your meat and vegetables should be just barely covered by liquid. If needed add up to a cup of water, cover with the lid and cook for about 30 minutes at medium heat. Check the meat for tenderness. It should fall apart and the mixture should not be dry but there should be a ‘sauce’ surrounding the meat and vegetables. If needed add some more water and continue cooking the pork with the lid on.

If using potatoes, add the cubed potatoes at this point, another cup of water or as needed to cover the potatoes, and about 1/2 tsp more salt, put the lid back on and cook for an additional 30 minutes. Taste for seasoning. If you like a bit more heat, add more hot pepper paste.

When ready, sprinkle fresh chopped parsley over the top of the stew.

Serve with cornmeal mush/polenta or mashed potatoes (mamaligă sau piure de cartofi) if not using potatoes in the stew. Slices of a crusty bread are a tasty accompaniment to sop up any extra juices.

For a one bowl meal, stir diced boiled potatoes into your finished pork stew. This gives you the option of serving the stew itself in various ways and stew without the potatoes freeze better as the thawed potatoes don’t get too mealy.


12 thoughts on “Tocană or What’s in a Name?

      1. It may be a regional thing too as both of my parents came from the same part of northern Yugoslavia and pork and chicken were common food items in their shopping choices. And potatoes. Lots and lots of potatoes. I’m sure family income when we came to Canada had something to do with it, though, even when things were much better financially, I can’t remember things changing much.

  1. I love pork stews! My mum used to make these very often… I’m crazy for pork anyway (beef could disappear from my menu forever but pork…. I cannot imagine living without it…).
    Your stew looks delicious and I agree about the potatoes. I once made the mistake of freezing a stew with potatoes… it was a disaster!
    I have aways thought only foreigners made a stew called “gulash” (very popular in Poland in this form) and the Hungarian “gulyas” is always a soup, but maybe I’m wrong…

    1. I’m a member of a Hungarian food FB group as I enjoy cooking and eating Hungarian food but the language rigidity is a bit much. Stew is fine as a general term for me. And if it’s a lot thinner … it’s soup. 🙂

  2. Hungarians don’t eat a lot of beef either, however, it did become the gold standard in our house. My dear Mom didn’t do a bad job either and when my dear Dad BBQ’d it, it was damn good (blue, of course). The first time we visited relatives in Hungary, they wanted to make a special meal for us and asked my Mom what my Dad would like, and she said beef. We haven’t had it since beef isn’t really bred for steak in Europe so it was tough and not juicy at all. I however, like to make beef stews because the meat stands up well over long and slow cooking, whereas I find pork or chicken need far less time or they fall apart and disintegrate. I am not a fan of mutton either.
    Your stews look great, I love the fried egg on the polenta, it must have made a delicious meal.

    1. I find a lot of commonalities between Hungarian and Romanian dishes, though, to be honest, there are a limited number of them that I like or cook. Yeast baked goods and sweets/pastries, of course. 🙂

      My steak bbq’s are pretty good. I like them rare not blue though. And my beef stews are pretty tasty. I was especially proud of my last beef pot pie. As to mutton, even though my mom didn’t like it, I DO enjoy the occasional leg of lamb, baby chops, shoulder chops and ground lamb kebabs.

    2. Eva, I can assure you you can eat high quality steak in Switzerland and in my city and there are several restaurants which serve only steaks! You are right about countries where people eat beef rarely (Hungary, Poland, maybe Germany too). In Poland and Hungary most people don’t even know what beef ageing means.
      However in France or UK (also in Switzerland, at least in my city) people eat lots of steaks (in France it’s definitely the majority of beef meals), beef can be excellent (of course at a good butcher’s not in a supermarket) and becomes really very expensive when well fed, aged, etc. and people can pay a fortune for a high quality steak. My husband, a big steak lover, wouldn’t even touch a steak in Poland or Hungary….

      1. Yes, of course you are right Sissi, I should have written in Hungary, not in Europe. We have had excellent beef in France! Have you tried Hester Blumenthal’s dry-aging method? It takes a relatively inexpensive cut of beef and makes it incredibly tender.

    1. Thank you. When I took over the cooking she was ecstatic. I think the only thing she wasn’t always happy to see was white bean soup/stew because that was all my dad knew how to cook and when she wasn’t well enough to cook my dad would make a big pot of it and then she had to eat it for a week straight. I had to promise her … one day only. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s