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To go with the feijoada I posted about last, I wanted a light(ish) and more refined starter. Most of the food I cook is very far from refined, let’s face it, and the Afro-Brazilian dishes I enjoy the most tend to be hearty and robust. But I thought moqueca, the Bahian coconut-based fish and seafood stew, might be open to a bit of refinement.

I know there are many different variants of moqueca in Brazil but the kind I’m most familiar with is from Bahia in the North and mixes indigenous with African flavours. I had it when I was in Brazil – although I was in Rio de Janeiro, so I’m sure my Bahian friends will scoff at its authenticity – and it was a truly enormous pan heaped with all manner of seafood, swimming in a spicy lake of coconut broth and with orange dendê oil lapping around the edges. It was a bowl to be reckoned with and as I recall two hungry people could hardly make a dent in it.

But the essence of the dish is, like many a seafood soup, good stock and fresh fish. So I decided to make mini moquecas with a vibrant sauce replacing the traditional soupy stew, and the seafood cooked separately. If I wanted a full-on Bahian experience this might not be the way to go but as the opener to a Brazilian meal, it turned out pretty flavoursome and, crucially, not destructively heavy. We served the moqueca with homemade pão de queijo. Read the rest of this entry »

I love making feijoada, the Brazilian national dish. It looks like a decadent feast of many components, but it’s easy to achieve and you get to watch the magic of black beans slowly becoming silky and thickened. It’s also fairly healthy for such a heavy dish – the central beans, meat and rice are joined with sliced orange, toasted manioc meal, and kale for a colourful and fully rounded meal. It was the perfect relaxed meal to share with our friend K, who had been working very hard and arrived in the middle of an apocalyptic storm. We passed around the pão de queijo and pretended we were in Rio…

The origins of feijoada are somewhat murky. Mr Lemur, who was born in Brazil, always told me that it was a government invention, designed with the optimal nutrition of a poor population in mind. I haven’t been able to find any sources for this story, so I suspect it’s an oddly socialist urban myth. Many people believe it to have originated in the slave quarters of early colonial Brazil, but this one is a bit of a myth too. These days, it is accepted that the dish has a largely European origin, with the Portuguese bean and pork stews similar to French cassoulet adapted for the black beans of Brazil. There are some native elements, such as the use of black beans rather than white, and the farofa sprinked on top of the beans. And it’s certainly true that African bean and leafy green stews, and indigenous bean and manioc dishes are crucial to Brazilian cuisine in general. But while Brazilians would prefer to view their national dish as emerging from native and African roots, this particular ‘national dish’ seems more likely to have developed in the grand homes of the colonists. No matter who invented it, though, feijoada today does represent elements of each of Brazil’s major historical influences: African, indigenous, and European. Even if, like most traditions, this one turns out to be a nineteenth-century invention, it’s a pretty good one. Read the rest of this entry »

Since Mr Lemur was born in Brazil, he has a particular soft spot for Brazilian foods. It’s probably impossible to feed him black beans too often – we even have a local butcher from Brazil who offered to save us pig’s ears for feijoada – and my experiments in pão de queijo (little cheese breads) have been enthusiastically received. We even buy guaraná soda, which reminds him of his childhood in Rio and reminds me, weirdly, of Scottish Irn Bru, so everyone’s happy there. My favourite Brazilian dishes to cook, though, are the Afro-Brazilian flavours typical of Bahia: deep seafood stews like moqueca and vatapá, thickened with nuts and dried shrimp, and based on the rich foundation of palm oil or dendê. I love West African food (I was thrilled to find great Senegalese food in Paris recently) and so it makes sense that the Afro-Brazilian combination of West African nut-based stews with New World chilies, tomatoes and fruits would hit my food buttons. Xinxim de galinha is a classic Bahian dish, combining chicken and shrimp into an earthy stew that feels warm and reassuring even if you didn’t grow up with it.

The main things that you might not have to hand to make xinxim de galinha are dendê and dried shrimp. The shrimp are easily found in any Chinese or Asian store. Look for fairly big shrimp that are nice and pink in colour – brownish and dull shrimp are probably older and the small ones are cheaper and less flavourful. Dendê oil can also be found in many ethnic markets and maybe even the supermarket if you live in a diverse neighbourhood. It tends to separate in the jar but don’t worry, that’s normal. This bright orange oil makes all the difference to the colour and flavour of the dish.

Xinxim de galinha (Bahian chicken stew)

  • 4 chicken thighs
  • 1 onion
  • 4 spring onions
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 2 inches of ginger
  • 1/2 cup of cilantro (i.e. a very generous handful)
  • 1/4 cup of peanuts
  • 1/4 cup of cashews
  • 1/4 cup of dried shrimp
  • 1 small can of coconut milk (165ml size)
  • 3 small green chilies (serranos or similar)
  • hot sauce
  • 2-3 tbsp dendê oil

Roughly chop the garlic, ginger, spring onions and cilantro, place in a food processor with the lime juice, and process till fairly smooth. Pour this mixture over the chicken and marinade for an hour or till you are hungry.

Meanwhile, toast the nuts on a cast iron skillet till golden and process to fine meal. Next process the dried shrimp in the same way until fluffy.

Dice the onion and fry in a heavy-based pan in a generous amount of dendê. Scrape the marinade off the chicken and pat it dry, then brown chicken pieces in the same pan. When the chicken is browning nicely, add the marinade, nuts, shrimp paste and coconut milk and stir well. Add a little water to loosen. Cut the chilies in half and add them, along with hot sauce to taste. (The dish isn’t really spicy but you want to give a little green chili flavour.)

Cover and cook for 30 minutes, turning and stirring often. The sauce will stick easily so you need to keep quite a close eye on it.

Serves 4.

Recipe adapted from The South American Table by Maria Baez Kijac.

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