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Home Food A Stew That Captures the Essence of the Sea

A Stew That Captures the Essence of the Sea

Daniela Narcisco, a Brazilian cookbook author and food historian based in Florianópolis, the capital of Santa Catarina, Brazil, describes moqueca as “a wonderful addition to any Easter celebration.” And this seafood stew, built on a few simple yet deeply flavorful ingredients, is pleasing: Its vibrant broth is luscious and light, and evokes the essence of the sea.

Although moqueca is not reserved for saints days, it is well suited to meals for Easter, Good Friday or any other time religious observances require a pescatarian-friendly dish. Ideal for both small gatherings and celebrations, moqueca also serves as an everyday meal across Brazil.

Variations exist throughout the country. In the northeast state of Bahia, moqueca draws from the rich culture of its Afro-Brazilian population. It begins with sautéed garlic, onion, tomatoes and sweet peppers, followed by coconut milk and the freshest seafood you can find. An added hot chile is critical for depth, as is red palm oil, known as azeite de dendê in Portuguese. Another well-known version is the Indigenous- and Portuguese-influenced moqueca capixaba from Espírito Santo, south of Bahia, that has a base of olive oil and annatto seeds. And everywhere, there’s a vegetarian alternative that replaces seafood with yellow plantains.

I love the many versions of moqueca, but I am drawn to Bahia’s because I know it from childhood as the familiar fish stew included in my family’s Easter celebrations in Lagos, Nigeria. Ozoz Sokoh, author of the blog Kitchen Butterfly and curator of Feast Afrique, was born and raised in Nigeria and noted, “Dishes we have always associated with Easter weekend celebrations — mingau, frejon and kanjika, a spiced jelly pudding of cornstarch and coconut milk — are dishes present on both sides of the Atlantic.”

The Brazilian dishes Ms. Sokoh discussed arrived in West Africa with formerly enslaved people from Brazil who settled in Lagos in the 19th century. That powerful connection between the continents left a lasting impact on Nigerian cuisine.

Common among moquecas is the use of a wide, shallow cooking vessel that allows the seafood to cook evenly and the liquid to reduce into a creamy sauce. Mara Salles, the chef and the owner of the restaurant Tordesilhas in São Paulo, considers a wide clay pot as fundamental to the process. “The clay pot ensures the moqueca comes bubbling and colorful to the table,” she said. “A wonderful experience.”

Ms. Salles serves it with traditional accompaniments of acaçá, a rice side dish with a puddinglike texture, and farofa made with toasted manioc powder. She also offers pirão, a creamy manioc side dish utilizing stock from the fish used for the moqueca.

The stew remains the centerpiece. The broth lingers on the palate with a slowly building bouquet of floral flavors, a bit of heat and the umami of the seafood. That is the brilliance of moqueca: a simple combination with deeply satisfying results.


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