French? Portuguese? Senegalese? Brazilian?
A Dark And Soupy Night…
During my last year of high school; I lived with my aunt and uncle in a second-ring suburb of Minneapolis. Through a series of bizarre events they managed to collect an assortment of teenagers from around the world that year, and among them was a girl from the West-African nation of Senegal. One night she prepared a soup for us so amazing that it has remained tattooed into my memory for the 15 years since I first tasted it.
It was a simple, nameless (as far as I knew) fish stew; golden-red stock studded with tender pieces of whitefish and peeled potatoes. Served with buttered baguettes and possibly a sprinkle of parsley, it was a revelation for me. So much flavor and depth; the way it soaked into the french bread; the notes of chili; the briny ocean-taste of the fish.
I hardly remember anything I ate as a teenager, but I have an easier time remembering that fish soup than the name of the first girl I made out with in high school. Honestly; I suspect that soup had a greater influence on me than old whatshername ever did.
Life happened, and I ended up leaving my aunt and uncle’s guardianship before I could graduate high school, let alone get the soup recipe.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the intervening 15 years reverse-engineering the soup on my own . I managed to create a couple reasonable interpretations through trial and error, but once wikipedia came along and I had the means to research the cuisine of Senegal I found myself plunging down a rabbit-hole of arcane soup knowledge that I couldn’t have fathomed before.
Let me show you how deep the soup bowl goes...
The first thing I discovered was that Senegal has a lot of fish stews.
Too many in fact.
Look up Senegalese cuisine on the internets, and about two-thirds of the published recipes seem to describe: “Fish simmered with tomatoes, peppers and spices in a broth served with rice or french bread”
It’s only the wikipedia page on the subject that gave me something resembling a clue; a mention of a bouillabaisse-like soup which is listed as Thiou. Frustratingly, when I clicked on the link it took me to a page on a river which runs through France, but nothing about the elusive stew.
Pictured: Not Soup
The Bouillabaisse thing was a good clue, to an extant. I had tasted and cooked plenty of Bouillabaisse before the onset of my shellfish allergy, and it certainly shared a couple of traits with the Senegalese soup in terms of appearance, technique and flavor. Plus- Senegal was French colony at one point, so the idea of a stew made famous by French sailors being adapted with West-African ingredients made sense.
Except for one problem: the soup could be found far outside of the former French empire.
Pictured: Not Bouillibasse
About five years ago I read a recipe for a Brazillian fish stew called Moqueca that sounded great. The common thread among the many variations was fish, tomatoes and peppers, sometimes with coconut milk added depending on the region. When I ended up making the soup I added cassava, green plantain, sweet, purple & white potato, for the starch, as well as ginger and saffron- both of which gave it a more Afro-Brazilian flavor than is found in the common recipe.
Despite the above additions and the presence of monkfish, prawns, half-cobs of sweet corn and linguiça sausage- this proto-Brazilian stew ended up tasting more like the Senegalese soup of my youth than any previous attempt.
Why was that? The connection between West-Africa and the descendants of slaves in the Brazilian state of Bahia (where my moqueca variation came from) made plenty of sense, but the tomato, onion and pepper base common between the two soups was decidedly European.
As it turns out; the French weren’t the only Europeans who attempted to stake a claim in what is now Senegal. The Portuguese had been there when they were dominating the slave trade, and while their language and culture failed to remain, a fish soup called Caldeirada seems to have left an impression.
The ingredients? Fish, tomatoes, onions, peppers and potatoes- oftentimes with saffron and ginger.
To be fair, there are other variations on this soup from other parts of the world. The Greek Kakavia, the San Franciscan Cipopino, the Catalan Suquet de Peix and the Italian Cacciucco all echo Bouillibasse, Caldeirada and Moqueca- with the differences stemming largely from what’s available to the cooks making them.
This brings me to my recipe (finally!).
It’s not Senegalese, Brazilian, Portuguese or French- and yet it’s a little bit of all of these. I call it “Creole” stew (quotes emphasized), but Meta-Creole stew is a little more accurate. The strength of this recipe is in how well it adapts to improvisation. You can follow it exactly how I write it, or you can sub out certain ingredients to make it more European, South American or African.
It’s up to you. Let me know in the comments how you make it your own.
You’re going to need the following:
- 1/2 pound each: Sea Bass, Cod & Grouper, cut into large chunks
- 2 Red/2 Green Peppers (preferably Cubanelle peppers)
- 1 Sweet Potato, peeled and cut into large chunks
- 1/2 lb of Carrots, washed (not peeled!) and sliced into 2″ chunks.
- 2 large Baking Potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters
- 2 large Yellow Onions, quartered
- 1/2 cup Shallots, chopped
- 1 tablespoon Fresh Ginger, grated
- 1 teaspoon Hot Peppers, chopped
- 1 Garlic Bulb, peeled and chopped
- 15 Saffron threads, steeped in 1/2 cup warm water
- 6 oz. Tomato Paste
- 1/2 bottle White Wine (The other half is for you to drink. Yay!)
- 1 teaspoon each: Fennel Seed & Herbs de Provence
- 3 Bay Leaves
- 1/2 tablespoon each: Smoked Paprika & Cayenne Pepper
- Peels from two Oranges (I used blood oranges because they’re in season, but any orange will suffice. Just wash the damn stickers off)
- Olive Oil
- Kosher Salt
- Chopped parsley (to garnish)
- Good French Bread
Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil on medium high in a large stock pot; when the olive oil becomes fragrant add your onions, shallots and a pinch of salt. Keep them moving around until they are translucent but not browned.
Add your sweet peppers to the mix and sweat them out until they get soft.
Be sure to keep them moving- you don’t want to brown a thing.
Throw in your garlic, ginger, dried herbs and a pinch of chopped parsley. Keep it moving for about 90 seconds and make sure the garlic doesn’t brown.
Add the tomato paste, paprika, cayenne and chopped hot peppers. Stir like crazy (preferably with a wooden spoon) for another 2-3 minutes, making sure tomato paste doesn’t stick or burn to the bottom of the pan.
When it looks like most of the moisture has evaporated; dump the wine in.
Add the potatoes, sweet potato, carrots, bay leaves and orange peel. Bring the heat up to high while you try to mix everything around.
There should be enough liquid to cover everything, but if there isn’t, add only enough water to just cover it. Those starches will produce a lot.
As it just comes to a boil; stir and cover it and lower the heat to medium-low. Let it simmer for about 45 minutes to an hour, or until the potatoes are tender. (The sweet potatoes might dissolve entirely. Trust me, you won’t mind)
Once your starches are tender; gently stir in your fish. Let it come back up to a simmer, then cover it and let it be for another fifteen minutes (not too much longer than that or your fish will dissolve).
While that’s simmering away; slice up your baguettes, brush them with olive oil and toast them under your broiler. When the toast is ready; pull it out and rub each piece with a garlic clove.
Did you make any compound butter? I made some with chopped shallot, parsley and saffron. You should probably do that too; well in advance of making your soup.
Holy balls! Your soup is ready!
Ladle it into large bowls; making sure each serving gets plenty of fish and potato.
Garnish with the chopped parsley and throw a couple slices of toast with some compound butter spread on them.
Pour yourself some more white wine and congratulate yourself for being such a worldly, sophisticated gourmet.