Brazilian fish stew – rich, creamy curry like fish stew made with shrimp slowly simmered in a broth flavored mainly by coconut milk and red palm oil.
I’ve traveled to South America on a few different occasions and each time I was struck with how closely linked black people in the respective regions were to Africa. There just isn’t the same level of assimilation you see in the U.S. African rituals and culture are on prominent display in places like Brazil and Columbia, countries hugely impacted by the African slave trade.
I’ll detail my trip to Colombia in a later post, particularly it’s classic fish stew. This post is all about moqueca baiana, not to be confused with moqueca de Capixaba.
What is moqueca?
Moqueca is a fish stew and basically one of the national dishes of Brazil along with couve mineira aka Brazilian collard greens. Bahia and Capixaba represent the two versions of moqueca.
What is the difference between moqueca baiana and the Capixaba version?
Both are seafood based, but besides this, they differ in major ways owing to regional and cultural differences. Itâ€™s literally a tale of black and white. Capixaba originated in the southeastern Brazil state of Esparto Santo which is white and European. It is lighter, bright, and softer, based on a broth infused with lime juice.
The Baiana version is more Afro-centric. It originated in Salvador de Bahia which was the center of the African slave trade. Because of this, Salvador contains more people with African backgrounds than anywhere in the world besides Africa. It has been described as the intersection of South America and Africa. Given this, you see the strong African influence on Brazilian culture including music, food, religion, dance, etc. Not surprisingly collard greens and feijoada (slow simmered black beans and pork) are popular dishes. Moqueca de Bahia reflects that African influence in the form of a rich stronger flavored, more varied and almost curry like profile. Coconut milk and red palm oil give it its Afro-centricity while the Portuguese version of a sofrito gives the dish additional complexity.
How to make moqueca baiana
One key step in making moqueca is to first marinate the seafood in lemon juice, garlic, salt, and pepper. Cooking this stew is all about layering flavor upon flavor and this is that first step. Adding the coconut, palm oil, and peppers later are another level. In my version, I include Haitian epis seasoning which is similar to a sofrito or salsa. The Portuguese have their version as well, but I’m partial to epis after making it for my Haitian Soupe Joumou recipe as well as Puerto Rican Sancocho. Epis adds some extra body and sneaky flavor into the dish. Lastly, I’m partial to paprika, so added a dash for additional flavor complexity.
making Brazilian fish stew
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- 3 medium cloves garlic smashed
- 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 1/2 tbsp smoked sweet paprika
- 1 lb red snapper or grouper
- 1/2 lbs fresh shrimp peeled and deveined
- 2 tbsp palm oil
- 1 medium white onion thinly sliced
- 2 medium bell peppers any color, thinly sliced
- 1 cup epis
- 14 oz can coconut milk
- 14 oz can fire roasted tomatoes
- 1/2 cup cilantro leaves and thin stems coarsely chopped
- 3 medium scallions trimmed and thinly sliced
- In a large bowl, combine the garlic, lemon juice, and salt. Add the fish and shrimp and turn the pieces to coat. Cover the bowl and refrigerate 30 minutes.
- In a large, skillet set over medium heat, add half the palm oil. Once hot, add the fish with its marinade and cook until the liquid is nearly evaporated, about a minute
- Add the remaining palm oil, onions, paprika, salt, and pepper and cook, stirring, until the onions just begins to soften, about a minute.
- Add the coconut milk, 1 cup water and epis; increase the heat and bring the liquid to a boil, then immediately lower the heat and simmer. Cook, stirring and turning the fish occasionally, taking care not to break it apart, until the onions are tender and the fish and shrimp are cooked through, 8-10 minutes.
- Add the peppers, tomatoes, cilantro, and scallions; cover and cook until the peppers are softened slightly, about 5 minutes more. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.