Fish, dendê and coconut milk = Moqueca

8 Oct

When the Portuguese arrived in Brazil in the year 1500 they encountered a rich and varied indigenous culture divided in inumerous tribes, like the tamoios, tupiniquins, potiguaras, tabajaras, etc. Most of the Atlantic coast was dominated by the tupinambás. The culinary culture of these indians included the utilization of the “moquém”, a kind of grill made out of sticks and leaves, covered with ashes, and placed over the fire for cooking or grilling. The first known document describing the “moquém” is a letter of the Portuguese priest Luis de Grã, dated of 1554, where he states that when they wanted to eat human flesh the indians would grill them over the flames in a “moquém”. In 1584, another priest, Fernão de Cardim, comments that not only human flesh, but also fish and potatoes were used by the tupinambás in the preparation of their “moquecas” (something made in the “moquém”)

Tupinambás preparing human flesh with a "moquem" - Drawing by Theodore de Bry around 1540.  Notice the white man in the background: He's Hans Staden, who lived among the tupinambás after his ship sinked along the coast of São Paulo

Tupinambás preparing human flesh over a "moquém" - Drawing by Theodore de Bry (1540). Notice the white man in the background: He's Hans Staden, who lived among the tupinambás after his ship sank near the coast of São Paulo

During the first half of the XVI century, specially due to the lack of labor force required for the production sugarcane, the Portuguese started to introduce slaves from Africa, mainly in the northeastern part of Brasil. With them came several culinary ingredients and practices, among which the use of dendê oil. Dendê comes from a palm tree ( Elaeais guineensis) from the African coast, particularly from the Guinea region. The coconut (Cocos nucifera), on the other hand, also a palm tree from the areas bathed by the Indian Ocean, was taken to Europe by Portuguese travellers and later (around 1530) introduced in Brazil.

Coconut milk and dendê oil

Coconut milk and dendê oil

Mix all these ingredients, along with some extra onions (originally from Europe), tomatoes and bell peppers (both from Latin America) and local sea products, as well as such amazing and diverse culinary cultures (European, African and native Brazilian), and you have a real borderless dish, the “moqueca“.

The present day “moqueca”, which obviously is no longer prepared with human flesh, consists of layers of vegetables (diced or sliced onions, tomatoes and bell peppers) and of fish and/or shellfish (prawns, octopuses, squids, etc), in a clay pot sprinkled with dendê oil and coconut milk.

Moqueca - first layer (diced onions, tomatoes and bell peppers with some coriander)

Moqueca - first layer (diced onions, tomatoes and bell peppers with some coriander)

Moqueca - second layer, fish and/or shellfish (shark in this case)

Moqueca - second layer, fish and/or shellfish (shark in this case)

Moqueca - third layer (more vegetables with the added dendê oil and coconut milk)

Moqueca - third layer (more vegetables with the added dendê oil and coconut milk)

I prepared this shark “moqueca” a few days ago for a couple of friends. It’s not only easy to mount, but it gets ready in around 30-40 min over medium-low fire (a bit longer if the pot is too large). You can mount it ahead and take it to the fire (don’t forget the lid) after your friends arrive, while you are having a cold beer or a glass of white wine (we had a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, León the Tarapacá).

Moqueca on Foodista
Dende Oil on Foodista
Coconut Milk on Foodista

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