It was an opportunity not to be missed. Without delay, I messaged Sail, the 4th co-conspirator in the regular dinner catch-ups of a group of my work & ex-work colleagues.
“The (fish-hating) cat’s away, let’s play”, I said. “Nigerian fish stew at my place on Friday? Cub & I are cooking.”
The response was immediate.
“Yeah baby”, said Sail.
So last night, the three of us celebrated. As Cub summed it up: Beer + Curry + Friday = 🙂 (except in my case it was ginger cordial & soda water, but still definitely smiley).
Strictly speaking, I wouldn’t call it a curry. I’ve never heard the West Africans I know refer to their spicy stews as curries (although maybe some of them do), and it doesn’t have all the spices I associate with curry — relying instead on chillies, palm oil and fresh ingredients for the heat and flavour.
Here is the recipe, from the wonderful and mouth-watering Dooney’s Kitchen: Iye Gbuyi’s Fish Imoyo – ‘Obe Eja Tutu’
Dooney’s a Nigerian expat in the UK, “IT Project Manager by day, and a cook the rest of the time”, who is passionate about Nigerian food and dedicates all her spare time to cooking, catering, inventing fusion recipes, refining her kitchen techniques, and promoting Nigerian food to the world through her blog. She’s inspiring and fun.
However, if you’ve never cooked West African food before, you might find aspects of her recipe a little mystifying, so I thought that, drawing on my own experiences of Ghanaian cooking, I’d provide some explanation and Australian translation so you too can cook with confidence, West African style. Well, at least with more hope that it will turn out the way it’s meant to.
I’m not going to reproduce the whole recipe, because Dooney describes most of the techniques with clarity and enthusiasm. Anyway, it would be stealing. Think of this as filling in some small gaps.
First, the ingredients:
Dooney suggests ‘2 pieces’ of hake, which is apparently what’s known as gemfish in Australia. Unfortunately gemfish is on the red list in terms of sustainability. We used farmed barramundi, which is on the green list. It’s a pleasant white-fleshed fish that also happens to be native to Australia. Two medium-small fish cut into steaks (+ head) were enough for three of us, once Cub got over his aversion to eating the head. You can find other sustainable options in the Marine Conservation Society’s Sustainable Seafood Guide.
This is where it got a tad confusing. Tatashe is actually a species of chilli, but we got a bit side tracked into thinking perhaps it was what we know as banana pepper or perhaps even one of the smaller, sweeter, less spicy bell peppers. We ended up deciding to use a single red capsicum (not spicy), mainly because the only shop open nearby was Aldi and that was all they had. It worked fine. Next time I think we’d shop around for something more closely resembling tatashe, although perhaps with caution, because the recipe also calls for another variety of chilli …
…. which is apparently the third hottest chilli in the world. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been growing habaneros for years because they are DadaK’s preferred chilli. They do have a lovely flavour as well as being very pretty to look at – orange and kind of squashed. When I first started growing habaneros they were hard to find in green grocers but they’re a bit more common now.
Cub and I decided we’d only use two, instead of the three the recipe calls for, because I don’t have a high tolerance for chilli (although it’s getting better), and Cub, although a big chilli fan, had traumatic memories of eating a whole raw habanero. Imagine our surprise, then, when they turned out to be not very hot at all … maybe because they were end of season & a little pale? Or perhaps because I had to grow them in a pot? Next time we will be more bold and use three (and probably scorch ourselves silly).
Before you start to get alarmed, thinking … ‘Palm oil?! Isn’t that destroying rainforests and killing orang utans …?’ please check out my post on palm oil & sustainability. It’s a traditional food in Central and West Africa that’s, so far, not farmed on a damaging industrial scale.
In the comments on her recipe, Dooney reassures a reader that you can use ordinary vegetable oil instead of palm oil. It’s very generous of her but I’m sorry, I don’t agree. Palm oil addict that I am, I think this flavoursome orange oil is what makes the dish special, and it can’t be substituted with anything. In Sydney you can buy it at African food stores such as the International African Market near Newtown station. Make sure you buy the Ghanaian product, not the Malaysian one.
I asked Dooney how much to use and she said ‘two kitchen spoons’ – which I took to mean tablespoons, but then decided that wouldn’t be quite enough. I used a larger serving spoon to measure and I think it was just the right amount – you could taste the palm oil but it wasn’t overpowering. Not that I mind being overpowered by palm oil.
Cub wasn’t keen to use an artificial flavouring like this but I argued for authenticity. We settled for one chicken stock cube, which I thought would add flavour without being too strong. To be totally authentic, it probably should have been Maggi ®, which appears to have a total monopoly on the condiment market in West Africa. You can also get prawn stock cubes from Asian stores, which might be a good choice, if used with great care. My son AM and I once ruined a dish by using too many.
Dooney doesn’t mention a crucial first step – perhaps because she’s writing for a familiar and mostly Nigerian audience that is used to West African cooking techniques. Although I guess you could figure it out anyway, from the pictures, this step is:
Roughly chop the tomatoes and blend them with the chillies and (in our case) chopped capsicum. This is the ‘blended pepper mix’ that you add at the beginning of step 2.
When I’ve cooked, or watched DadaK cooking, Ghanaian food, he usually boils these vegies before blending with the cooking water, but Dooney makes a point of saying in this case, blend them raw (and without any added water). I also chopped and added some of the onion to the blender, rather than frying all of it, because I’m used to it being part of the mix and I couldn’t help myself, I had to include it – I thought it would taste better with the onion infused into the mix this way.
They’re my only comments on the method. After that, Cub & I followed Dooney’s instructions faithfully, although there was a minor crisis when Sail rang the doorbell at the exact moment that I was helping Cub get into an apron (protecting his favourite shirt from potential palm oil splashes, it’s hard to get out of your clothes, once it gets in), and only seconds before the point at which the onions were ‘not quite burning’ and we had to add the blended pepper mix.
“Hi”, says me, flinging open the door to Sail, then rushing back to the kitchen without pausing for the usual hugs, air kisses and welcoming chit chat. “Sorry, you’ve arrived at a crucial moment!”
Thankfully, the onions were saved and the stew was not spoiled.
Although Dooney introduces her stew with a story about rice and stew, this imoyo is better eaten with other starches, as she says herself in the comments. So it was time for me to dust off my cooking skills for ‘solid starches’.
I was hoping to be able to cook yams, which are in season at the moment … but sadly they were not available at the shop where I bought them last year, so I settled for green bananas (also known as plantains) and, because I was half expecting Cub’s partner and AM to be there for dinner as well, some cassava. You can buy cooking bananas and frozen cassava at Vietnamese grocery stores.
When it turned out that it was just going to be the three of us, I left the cassava in the freezer and called DadaK for a quick reminder on how long green bananas take to cook.
“Around fifteen minutes”, he tells me, “from the time you put the pot on the heat. You’ll see the skins start to crack and then they’re done. But … have you cooked them before ….?”
He pauses, his doubt in my culinary abilities oozing down the phone line.
Yes, I assure him, it may be ten years (surely not!) but I do remember that after you’ve peeled the cooked bananas, you have to scrape off the fluffy surface with a knife, so they’re nice & smooth and lose that slightly acrid banana peel taste. He doesn’t sound convinced.
Starch, it turns out, is a bit of an issue for this meal.
Sail, nursing an Italian beer while Cub and I peer into the imoyo, trying to decide if there are ‘bits of palm oil floating around the pepper’ and it’s time to add the fish, wants to know what starch we’ll be consuming with the meal?
I lift the lid on the banana pot. Oh dear. Just as well I had the cassava back-up plan; Sail is allergic to bananas.
Lucky we found out in time to whip the cassava out of the freezer and into the pot. Cover with water, add salt, cook for 20 or so minutes, it’s all good.
Well, to be honest, DadaK would have disapproved of the final result — the cooking was a bit uneven. The cassava chunks ended up variegated, with fluffy translucent bits and white opaque bits — but Sail had no complaints. It was edible. And I’m not fussy. And I wanted the cassava to be on the table at the same time as the rest of the meal. Which it was.
If you can’t find cassava or green bananas, or don’t trust yourself to cook them, potatoes would be a reasonable substitute. I think the stew would also go very well with polenta. Or be adventurous and try out Dooney’s own suggestions for Nigerian starchy solids.
Traditionally this dish would be eaten by breaking off pieces of banana or cassava and with your right hand and dipping the chunks into the stew. I love eating that way, but Sail and Cub said they were comfortable with being ‘uptight white people’ and requested forks (although Cub soon resorted to fingers).
Dooney mentions in the comments on her post that this dish would be nice with okra. Based on my Ghanaian food experience, I would briefly boil small okra pods in a small amount of water, to be served separately for diners to add to the dish.
There was no okra to be found at the shop, so Cub made an Iranian salad: tomato, Lebanese cucumber and finely chopped red onion with olive oil and salt. Yummy and refreshing.
So there you have it. Our Nigerian fish stew adventure. The barramundi imoyo was delicious, and we agreed we’d make it again any day.
We finished our evening with fruit salad and lots of laughter, and I went to bed with the rich, comforting aroma of palm oil stew still lingering to warm my dreams.