Who founded America? George Washington? Thomas Jefferson? America had founding fathers alright, but they aren’t the ones you’re thinking of. Would you believe that African slaves and Indians were the true minds and bodies behind birthing America’s culture?
It’s all true. Come listen to the story of how American ingredients , cooked by African Slaves, for the benefit of European colonists, created soul food, which created Southern food, which is the foundation of ALL American food. Period.
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.
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.
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.
It’s a brief retelling of Aegean history, a story you’ve heard before, though perhaps not from a chef’s point of view. Come for the history, stay for the foods that made them special. By mastering the sea, the olive, and the grape vine, the Greeks found their own winds toward civilization.
Music by Michael Levy of Ancient Lyre. His original composition “Plato’s Symposium” and the whole album The Ancient Greek Tortoise Shell Lyre and much more are available from all major digital music stores and streaming sites.