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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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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Ghormeh Sabzi (Herb and Meat Stew)

Here is a modern Persian recipe, for one of the national dishes of Iran, that could have been and surely was also cooked in ancient times.  Ghormeh Sabzi is a flavorful stew of LOTS of cooked herbs, with meat and a legume.  The final texture resembles an Indian Saag or cooked greens dish, but this Persian version made entirely of herbs is a bit more tangy and pungent.

My version of Ghormeh Sabzi combines lots of parsley, coriander (cilantro), mint, and green onions, Goat meat, and chickpeas, to substitute for red beans which are usually found in the modern version, but were unavailable in the Old World. A stew fit for a King of kings!

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Egyptian Cassoulet (Broad Bean and Salted Meat Stew)

Here is yet another invented Egyptian recipe (because the Egyptians left no recipes that we have found).  Cassoulet is a much later french dish, variations on a peasant stew with salted meats and legumes.  It’s very possible the Ancient Egyptians, of course loving both of those ingredients, would have eaten something similar.

This dish may appear simple, but it’s packed with the deepest flavor you can imagine.  It’s hearty and filling too, and goes great with a loaf of Multi-grain Bread.

In early Egyptian history, the presence of meat makes this an elite dish.  But wild water fowl like ducks could have occasionally been caught by both rich or poor, and later on, especially during the New Kingdom, pork became more affordable to those not of the upper crust.

Finally, Egyptians grew old world broad beans, particularly a variety called a lupine, which required soaking for several days to make non-toxic.  We’re going to substitute Fava Beans, which are indigenous to North Africa.

That gives us the 3 main ingredients we need to make this all day stew.  Duck, Salt Potk, and Fava Beans.  Let’s make Egyptian Cassoulet. Continue reading “Egyptian Cassoulet (Broad Bean and Salted Meat Stew)”

Boiled Boar Dinner and Lentil Salad

Simple and hearty today. We’re going back for a taste of the  ancient Near East.

Thanks to the famous Greek historian Herodotus, most anthropologists believed that Egyptians avoided pork either for religion or out of disgust, but evidence has shown that first wild boar, and then domesticated pig as well as their fat as a cooking medium  were consumed regularly up until the New Kingdom. In this late period, when a rising sort of middle class could afford to eat pork, the elites may have shunned it to distinguish themselves. After that, pigs were considered a lower class food.

We’re tracing Egypt from the very beginning, so for this dish I’m gonna say pigs are not yet domesticated. Luckily, I’ve got the shoulder of a wild boar. Boar is interesting. It cooks like pig but will remind you more of beef than of pork.

Why boil it all? Well first off, it’ll really be more of a heavy simmer. But the long cook time needed to make pork shoulder tender will work well with a lot of liquid, keeping the meat nice and juicy and forming a flavorful broth in the process.  Secondly, pottery changed cooking in the Neolithic. Pottage, or soups and stews, were very popular all over the Near East.  Even though we’re using this recipe to kick off History of Food’s Egypt episode, this is a dish you could probably find all over the fertile crescent and beyond.  Anywhere there was wild boar to be domesticated, and pots invented to cook it in.

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The Best Lentil Soup

Lentil soup has become a punchline, a shorthand meat eaters use to make fun of how boring the vegetarian diet supposedly is.  But this is WRONG! Lentils are amazing, and lentil soup can be one of the most simple and transcendent things you ever cook if you do it right.

The ancients of the Near East sure knew how to use lentils, and other pulses similar to it.  For most of antiquity, lentils were considered a poor man’s food.  Common folk could not usually afford meat, but lentils and chickpeas would have been a great protein substitute.
This supposed peasant food is nutritious, satisfying, and quite packs a lot of flavor with a few simple ingredients. Using modern versions of the ingredients available since the Neolithic on is enough to make a creamy, hearty, and healthy soup.

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1 cup red lentils (But you can substitute other colors too)
4-5 cups water
1 large onion, diced
1 fat carrot, diced
3-5 cloves fresh garlic, mashed
1/2 cup Tahini water (see recipe)
Crushed coriander, cumin, and mustard seeds (or just use Garam Masala spice)
1 cup Yogurt (leave out for vegan version)
1/2 bunch Coriander (cilantro) or Parsley leaves chopped

(Makes 3-4 bowls)

  1. Coat the bottom of a stockpot with sesame oil (or butter) over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and carrot. Season with salt and the ground spices. Saute until the onion is starting to soften, but not fully cooked.
  2. To make tahini water, take an empty Jar of tahini and fill with quarter cup of water, closing and shaking vigorously to clean the jar and make a liquid. (Or simply whisk the water into 2 tablespoons of tahini in a bowl.)
  3. Add the lentils and lightly toast for about 2 minutes. Then add water plus tahini water. Turn up the head to high and bring to a boil.  When boiling, immediately turn down to a simmer.
  4. Simmer for 1-2 hours,  stirring the bottom occasionally. Use the back of your spoon to mash some of the fully cooked lentils against the side of the pot for a creamy consistency.  Add water if desired to adjust consistency.
  5. Mix the chopped herbs and Yogurt together. Add half to the soup and stir in, and reserve the other half for garnish at the end.  Ladle the soup into bowls and then add a dollop of the herb yogurt to serve.

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Simple Lamb and Barley Stew

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Lamb is seared and then cooked with barley and vegetables, that are authentic in name, but are modern and more substantial domestic versions of very different ancient ingredients.

This is a very simple, but delicious dish that means to simulate the kinds of things the earliest farmers along the Euphrates River and the East Mediterranean Coast might have eaten. Continue reading “Simple Lamb and Barley Stew”