A stew that captures the essence of the sea
By Yewande Komolafe
Daniela Narcisco, a Brazilian cookbook author and food historian based in Florianópolis, the capital of Santa Catarina, Brazil, describes moqueca as “a wonderful addition to any celebration.” And this seafood stew, built on a few simple yet deeply flavorful ingredients, is pleasing: Its vibrant broth is luscious and light, and evokes the essence of the sea.
Ideal for both small gatherings and celebrations, moqueca also serves as an everyday meal across Brazil.
Variations exist throughout the country. In the northeast state of Bahia, moqueca draws from the rich culture of its Afro Brazilian population. It begins with sautéed garlic, onion, tomatoes and sweet peppers, followed by coconut milk and the freshest seafood you can find. An added hot chile is critical for depth, as is red palm oil, known as azeite de dendê in Portuguese. Another well-known version is the Indigenous- and Portuguese-influenced moqueca capixaba from Espírito Santo, south of Bahia, that has a base of olive oil and annatto seeds. And everywhere, there’s a vegetarian alternative that replaces seafood with yellow plantains.
I love the many versions of moqueca, but I am drawn to Bahia’s because I know it from childhood as the familiar fish stew included in my family’s Easter celebrations in Lagos, Nigeria. Ozoz Sokoh, author of the blog Kitchen Butterfly and curator of Feast Afrique, was born and raised in Nigeria and noted, “Dishes we have always associated with Easter weekend celebrations — mingau, frejon and kanjika, a spiced jelly pudding of cornstarch and coconut milk — are dishes present on both sides of the Atlantic.”
The Brazilian dishes Sokoh discussed arrived in West Africa with formerly enslaved people from Brazil who settled in Lagos in the 19th century. That powerful connection between the continents left a lasting impact on Nigerian cuisine.
Common among moquecas is the use of a wide, shallow cooking vessel that allows the seafood to cook evenly and the liquid to reduce into a creamy sauce. Mara Salles, chef and owner of the restaurant Tordesilhas in São Paulo, considers a wide clay pot as fundamental to the process. “The clay pot ensures the moqueca comes bubbling and colorful to the table,” she said. “A wonderful experience.”
Salles serves it with traditional accompaniments of acaçá, a rice side dish with a puddinglike texture, and farofa made with toasted manioc powder. She also offers pirão, a creamy manioc side dish utilizing stock from the fish used for the moqueca.
The stew remains the centerpiece. The broth lingers on the palate with a slowly building bouquet of floral flavors, a bit of heat and the umami of the seafood. That is the brilliance of moqueca: a simple combination with deeply satisfying results.
Moqueca (Brazilian Seafood Stew)
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Total time: 40 minutes
6 head-on prawns or large head-on shrimp (about 12 ounces)
12 ounces cod fillet, cut into 1-inch pieces
3 tablespoons dendê oil (red palm oil; see Tip)
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 small yellow onion, chopped (1 cup)
8 ounces sweet baby bell peppers or 2 bell peppers, any color, sliced into 1/4-inch strips (2 cups)
1 pound fresh tomatoes, cut in 1-inch-wide wedges (2 1/2 cups)
1 whole hot chile, such as red Scotch bonnet or bird’s-eye, pierced all over with the tip of a knife
1 (13.5-ounce) can full-fat coconut milk
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Steamed rice, for serving
1. Use a pair of kitchen scissors to cut along the length of each prawn deep enough to expose and remove the vein. Place the fish chunks in a large bowl and season with 1 teaspoon salt. Squeeze in the juice of 1 lime and toss to coat. Set the prawns and fish aside while preparing the sauce.
2. In a large, shallow Dutch oven or large, deep skillet, melt 2 tablespoons dendê oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until softened and fragrant, 1 minute. Add the onion, stir and cook, stirring until translucent, about 2 minutes.
3. Increase the heat to high, add the peppers, tomatoes and chile. Season with salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until the peppers are softened and any liquid from the tomatoes is beginning to evaporate, 4 minutes.
4. Pour in the coconut milk, stir and reduce the heat to medium. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the liquid thickens and reduces to a creamy sauce, about 10 minutes. Taste, adjust the salt, if necessary, and stir in 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro.
5. Carefully place the prawns in the sauce in a single layer and cook for 2 minutes. Turn the prawns to cook the other sides and add the cod. (Discard any juices in the bowl.) The fish will be partly submerged. Cook until the fish is tender and just cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes.
6. Remove from heat, drizzle in the remaining 1 tablespoon dendê oil and sprinkle with the remaining 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro. Slice the remaining lime into wedges. Serve immediately, with steamed rice and lime wedges for squeezing.
Tip: Dendê oil, also known as red palm oil, is available online or at West African or Caribbean markets.