Moqueca is a Brazilian fish stew from Bahia, a place where Africa meets South America.
While the Peruvian and Mexican kitchens are well-known to many of us, the Brazilian kitchen is to a greater extent unchartered terrain. Until recently I had only heard of caipirinha and bolinhos. But then I watched Masterchef Australia where one chef made an orange fish stew he called moqueca. I googled and found the recipe of a delicious fish stew with a strong cultural significance.
Moqueca turned out to be one of the most loved Brazilian dishes, particularly in the historic state of Bahia in the northeast. According to Lonely Planet Bahia is a state where South America meets Africa. Brazil is the story of slavery, sugar slavery. About 4 million Africans were deported to Brazil, mostly to Bahia, during the Transatlantic slave trade which lasted from the 16th century to the 19th century. Brazil was the last area in South America to abolish slavery as late as 1888. The African slaves impacted strongly on Brazilian society, from samba and capoeira to moqueca.
Rice is integral to moqueca. It was the slaves who brought rice to North America and Brazil. In Bahia slaves were allowed to grow rice on plantation land. Moreover, the use of red palm oil (dendê), okra, bananas and coconut milk is also due to the African heritage.
With a large coastline, Bahia offers fish and seafood in abundance. If you visit a market in the biggest city in Bahia, Salvador, you will find bags of prepared fish and seafood ready to be marinated in lime. This is the beginning of moqueca. Add to this tomatoes, pepper, coriander, palm oil and coconut milk.
Moqueca is more than a fish stew – it is also a marker of identity. There are two competing versions of moqueca in Brazil. Moqueca baiana from Bahia and moqueca capixaba from Espírito Santo. The Bahia version differs by using coconut milk and red palm oil and showcases its African heritage. Moqueca capixaba on the other hand enhances, according to social anthropologist Jane Fajans, its white and European history.
Here I use coconut milk, but omit palm oil as it is hard to come by. I substitute fresh fish with salted cod. After all, Brazil and Portugal are two countries with a strong love for salted cod, a love that makes salted cod from Norway a staple at Christmas. If you cannot find salt cod, do try it with fresh fish as the Brazilians do.
Brazilian fish stew (moqueca)
A very simple shellfish stock:
300 g prawns
500 ml water
1 celery stick
500 g salt cod
juice of 1 lime
4 tbsp cooking oil
2 garlic cloves
1 red chili
2 big tomatoes
250 ml shellfish stock
300 ml coconut milk
a small thumb fresh ginger
1 red pepper
1. Soak the salt cod according to package instructions, usually about two days with exchange of water twice a day. Saveur has described the process more closely.
2. Shellfish stock: Peel and cut the vegetables. Peel the prawns and place the shells in a pan with the vegetables and water. Place the prawns in the fridge for later. Let the stock simmer for an hour, until reduced. Press through a sieve.
3. Meanwhile, cut the fish in small filets and toss with the lime juice in a bowl. Refrigerate for an hour.
4. Finely chop the garlic, onion and chilli. Add the oil to a wide frying pan and gently fry for 10 minutes.
5. Add chopped tomatoes, stock, grated ginger and coconut milk and simmer for 20 minutes.
6. Add the salt cod and continue boiling for 15 minutes.
7. Remove the pan from the heat and add the prawns. Adjust the seasoning with pepper and scatter chopped coriander. Serve with rice.