Spicy West African Fish Stew

I love this dish. It’s packed with flavor, specifically the flavors of West Africa. It also incorporates a few more “exotic” ingredients typical of East Africa and its trade connections. In that way, we can say this spicy, sweet, tomatoey fish stew is in honor of the great Bantu expansion, when the Bantu peoples of West Africa embarked on many waves of migrations which successively took over much of the continent south of the Sahara.

Paired with fufu or with corn porridge, let this dish and all it’s many flavors transport you to Africa.

RUSTIC AFRICAN FISH STEW

2-3 filets White Fish, cooked*
1/4 cup palm oil
2-4 pounds Tomatoes, rough diced (or a large can of whole peeled tomatoes)
1 lb. fresh Red Chili Peppers, de-seeded and sliced (African or Jamaican varieties best here)
1 Head of garlic, peeled and smashed
1 small ginger root, peeled and minced
1 onion, sliced
2 tbsp. black peppercorns, coarse grind

1 tbsp. ground tumeric
2 lbs. mixed bitter greens *
2 tbsp. tamarind paste*
2 tbsp brown sugar
1/2 cup vinegar

*On the fish:
-Stews, especially in Sub Saharan African, are meant to be like… well, a stewpot! Throw in what you have! Incorporate last night’s dinner! So that’s what I did, in my case it was some char grilled tilapia.
– This recipe works great with raw fish too, if you’d rather use that. It has a stronger seafood flavor though. I’ll include down in the instructions how to cook it both ways.

*Note that tomatoes and chilis are only in African cuisine post contact with the New World and the Columbian Exchange, but these days are pretty quintessential to African cuisine. Additionally, tamarind, ginger, and black pepper are ingredients from East and Central Asia, which made their way around Sub Saharan Africa via trade networks across the Indian Ocean

*Before I got cooking, I went outside and harvested some wild and garden greens to cook into my stew.

Dandelion, frisee, and arugula.

Once your ingredients are picked and prepped, the cooking part is pretty simple.

In a stewpot or dutch oven, warm up the palm oil over medium heat and saute the onion, ginger, and black pepper for a few minutes until a little soft.

Add the hot red pepper, tumeric, and the smashed garlic cloves and continue to cook for 5 more minutes, when things are just starting to brown up. Add the vinegar and deglaze the bottom of the pot before adding in all the tomatoes, sugar, and tamarind paste.

Bring the mixture to a boil, then immediately turn down to a simmer. Cook on low for 1-2 hours.

When everything is nicely melded and cooked down, add the greens. It will seem like a lot, but cook down quite quickly.

This is when you’d add the raw fish if that’s what you’re using. Let the fish simmer in the sauce until it flakes apart. If using pre-cooked fish, add at the very end of cooking, turning off the heat as soon as you do. Flake the fish apart and let it warm up in the still hot mixture.

With Plantain and Cassava Fufu.

Plantain and Cassava Fufu

Have I told you about the feeling of fullness yet? Reading about the reverence many West and Central African cultures give to how it feels to have eaten and to be satisfied by a skilled cook, was a revelation to me. It was a perspective on what makes good cuisine that I hadn’t considered before.

So what better way to appreciate this (for me) newfound culinary philosophy than to make the starchy staple which has come to epitomize it: fufu! It’s not bread. It’s not porridge. It’s a kind of starchy, doughy, hybrid of both.

Likely first invented in what is modern day Ghana, fufu is a deceptively simple yet ingenious way to eat your daily carbs. Just about any carb will do: yams, sweet potatoes, corn, plantains, and cassava being the most common across Sub Saharan Africa today.

I’ll be making my very first fufu with the latter two, Cassava (or yuca) and plantains. We’ll be cooking, pounding, and somewhat binding the rich starches in these African staples into a creation that’s simultaneously food and a spoon for eating other food.

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17th Century Coffee

Ready for a brief caffeinated interlude before the next episode?
Do something really simple but fun for yourself and make a cup of 17th Century style coffee (after you listen to Episode 23 of the History of Food and hear how coffee changed the world of course). It’s an interesting exercise, and actually pretty tasty!

Coffee beans are coffee beans, whatever century you’re in, but modern inventions like roasters and the coffee filter have changed much about this magical beverage. Today we’ll be starting with raw, green, coffee beans, roasting them ourselves in an oven, then boiling them in a pot the way people did when coffee first got popular.

Raw coffee beans just smell like regular beans, or lentils, which is slightly disconcerting if you’re not expecting it. But have faith, and just wait until we get roasting.

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Agedashi Tofu

Here in this classic dish we have two essential elements of Japanese coming together: Soy and the Sea.

I couldn’t say I did any historical Japanese cooking if I didn’t make something with Dashi, the ubiquitous broth of dried seaweed and smoked fish flakes that’s essential to so many dishes. The unique flavor of Dashi is said to be that of the Sea itself.

And tofu, originally invented in China, was a vital source of protein for Buddhist monks abstaining from meat, but of course other people enjoyed it too. Tofu gets such a bad rap these days, but when its treated simply, fried up perfectly to be crispy on the outside and creamy within, it’s really tasty!

Both of those things come together simply and deliciously in Agedashi Tofu, a dish still popular today but some version of which must have been eaten for many centuries in Japan. Shallow fried tofu in Dashi, or “ocean stock” if you like, garnished with some nice veggies.

Let’s start by making Dashi.

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How to make Sushi

Sushi represents the ultimate and most definitive attempt in the long history of Japanese cooks distilling good food to its purest essence. It represents the quest to make a single, perfect bite. Fresh fish. . . perfectly cooked sweet and sticky rice. . . a little dab of soy sauce. I’m inclined to think they succeeded.

It’s true that chefs spend lifetimes mastering the art of Sushi making, but what most people don’t know is that it’s actually not intimidating at all to make a simple, more relaxed version at home. I’d even go so far to say that Sushi is easy to make. It’s just difficult to MASTER.

Before we get to rolling, let’s give what we’re making today context with a brief the history of sushi in Japanese cuisine. . .

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Polenta with Salsa Pomodoro

Polenta may not sound so exciting, but when made with love, it can be one of the most delicious and satisfying dishes you’ve had in some time. When the exotic foreign mystery grain of maize came to Europe via the Columbian Exchange, Europeans treated it like they did every other grain. They ground it and cooked it into porridge, adding their own local ingredients like dairy products. Today, this creamy and cheesy cornmeal porridge is still a favorite staple of Italian, especially northern Italian, cuisine.

A little while after, tomatoes followed to the old world, and though not considered edible at first, gradually evolved into items of culinary interest, onward to a destiny of being a beloved ingredient across the continent today. Salsa Pomodoro just means tomato sauce, but being the original Italian word for tomatoes, it hints that the first of these american fruits to arrive in Europe may have been yellow, and not red.

I’m still using some red tomatoes here because they look better with Polenta, but I’m also using some yellow ones to honor this original appearance. Though the original preparation was a simple but tasty dish of raw tomatoes with olive oil, cooking into sauce must soon have followed. But this is not your every day tomato sauce. Here, onions, mushrooms, a little anchovy, all make for a very rustic, meaty concoction, an acidic umami bomb that is not blended, packed with fresh herbs and resulting in a sauce that is simultaneously deep, bright, chunky and yet saucy, a full of flavor to counterpoint the rich polenta.

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Pork Mole

To further explore Episode 20, the Columbian Exchange, we’ll be making some classic recipes that were only possible once Eurasia and the Americas began mixing their ingredients.

To start, I can’t think of a better example than Mexican mole sauce. Mesoamerican chocolate and chili peppers bring the strongest and most unique flavors to this dish, but they’re used with Old World bread, sugar, spices, nuts, and seeds, and of course pork. Pork is ubiquitous in Mexican cuisine today but wasn’t around until Spanish colonists brought their pigs en masse to the New World, shaping a new cuisine in the process.

Mole has a reputation for being complicated, but it’s really not. It just has a lot of ingredients. Basically though, you just need to cover five bases for a good mole sauce: spiciness (from chilis), acidity (from chocolate, tomatoes, and citrus), sweetness (from dried fruit and cane sugar), spices, and thickeners (nuts, seeds, and bread).


To be extra authentic, pick up a cone of pilonciillo sugar from a Latin grocery store. Also, a more classic chili for this recipe would be pasilla negro chilis, but I am using the varieties I grew in my garden and dried this past summer. I’ve got chipotle, ancho, and cayenne.

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Renaissance Ravioli (Arab style pasta)

Pasta with raisins and cinnamon? It may sound strange (to a westerner), but this was how people ate pasta when it first came to Europe. And believe me or not, I swear to you it’s delicious.

You see, the art of noodle making diffused westward from China via the Arab empires in the early middle ages. Pasta was among the cultural markers left on Europe when Muslims were living in Spain and Sicily. These Middle Eastern immigrants brought with them Middle Eastern ingredients, preparing their tagliatelle, ravioli, etc. with things like dried fruits and spices.

By the 13th and 14th centuries when pasta was really getting popular in European cooking, people still ate it this way, in addition to using more local ingredients like butter and cheese. By the Renaissance, professional cooks were making countless types of sophisticated noodles and stuffed pastas.

And so, after studying many of these recipes, I humbly present my own take on Medieval into Early modern style ravioli, stuffed with ground “capon” (sub chicken!), herbs, onions, boiled eggs, and a lot of Parmesan cheese. I know, I know. “Seriously, raisins?” you’re still thinking. . . but you’ve got to trust me on this. The contrast of salty and sweet and a little spiced across this dish, is really good!

Boiled and finished in a saffron butter. We’re also going to be making homemade raisins as stuff from the box isn’t going to cut it for this recipe. We want the tangy, still slightly juicy bite of one freshly dried in the oven.

That’s the key to making raisins in pasta taste good. So here’s how:

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Medieval Tart Flight

Or little pies, really. . .

While cookbooks were certainly written during the Medieval period, they are few and far between compared to the amount produced during the early modern, or “Renaissance” period. And because those later Europeans had similar tastes, by reading their recipes we can learn a lot about the way people ate centuries before them as well.

And like we’ve said before, what people ate was pies. Or tarts. Similar really.

Think of just about any old world ingredient, and you can bet there’s a Medieval recipe for baking it into a pie. With such a wealth of options, it was almost impossible to choose just four, and I feel like I’m leaving some key representations of the period off the table… perhaps there will be a tart flight part 2 in the future…

Until then, I present a humble few. . .

An Apple and Gruyere Tart…

A Marzipan Torte…

An onion tart, or an early version of quiche as we know it today…

And a peach, cherry, and red wine pie

These mainly 16th Century recipes are not all sweet pies, or rather not only sweet. They blur the line between savory foods and desserts, and would be on the table at any time alongside any kinds of other courses.

To get started, we’ll need to make a big batch of pastry crust. . .

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Cinnamon Soup

This was a fun one. I don’t normally make purely authentic recipes on this blog. As all the posts the last two years show, I prefer taking inspiration from the past rather than trying to recreate it. But with so many primary recipe sources written during the late middle ages, I figured I should probably try some of them.

This recipe comes from Le Menagier de Paris, a kind of instructional manual for a housewife of 1393. I picked it because it felt particular evocative of the era to me. Poultry Broth, thickened with almonds and heavily spiced? I mean what sounds more Medieval than that?

BROUET DE CANELLE

Cut up your poultry or other meat, then cook in water and add wine, and fry: then take raw almonds with the skin on unpeeled, and a great quantity of cinnamon, and grind up well, and mix with your stock or with beef stock, and put to boil with your meat: then grind ginger, clove and grain, etc., and let it be thick and yellow-brown.

Mm, thick and yellow brown! We’re subbing in black pepper for the grains of paradise which I don’t have access to, but otherwise I followed this recipe pretty much to the letter, even the “great quantity of cinnamon”. Eep. The end product is definitely unusual to my modern palate, but not bad at all! It tastes more like Indian food than European to me, but for the late middle ages, that’s to be expected.

My interpretation of this recipe is 1 part ground almonds, 2 parts chicken meat, 4 parts chicken broth, and then like .5 parts of the cinnamon and spices. Your quantities may vary.

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