The Taming of The Stew

His cries of ‘spice, spice’ herald new beginnings, but at only 4 years old…this little man knows it not. This is the first proper ‘thing’ to come out of our new kitchen ( long before our delicious churros which have been followed by cupcakes and pizza. I’m thankful I can still cook and bake!), or ‘shrine’ as my younger sister calls it. It could pass for one. Small, and walls bedecked with ‘oddities’ that might look like instruments of war…to the uninitiated – roasting needles, an old ice-cream scoop, whisks and a metal jug that some may consider fit for a rubbish heap. Not me.

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And though he says spice, this is not on the level of any Indian curry. He pinches his nostrils together, but not in dislike for the spices, me thinks but rather a force of habit which I will gently help him overcome. With pungent Nigerian soups, he does this same….but will also eat them. This stew is no exception. I surmise that it is the unfamiliar, near-forgotten scents that prompt this behavior.

To be honest, I wondered if the stew would be tasty, cooked in pots of old….. on a stove fresh and new as day. This ‘stew’ came out more than ‘just fine’.

Nigerian Food 101: There is a trinity of dishes in Nigeria = soups, stews and starches (grains and pastes/purees)

The world is full of the best of stews  –  every cuisine has its stalwarts. The Irish call their boozy beef dish ‘Irish stew’, Moroccans cook theirs in tagines, terracotta pots that also lend their name to the dish and Hungarians go wild with paprikash – flavoured with paprika powder and best eaten with Tarhonya, an egg barley pasta which is the Hungarian equivalent of couscous, albeit with larger grains.

In Nigeria and to Nigerians, when you say ‘stew’ – you can only mean one thing: a ‘red’ aromatic dish, made with pureed tomatoes, red onions, and chilli pepper, fried in some oil. That’s stew. Everything else likely falls into the ‘soup’ or sauce category. It is a staple. Known far and wide, in every nook, cranny, creek and grassland of this land.

One of its closest, foreign culinary cousins is a version of ragu from Italia – think chunky rib, beef and pork stews.

In Nigeria, you’ll find ‘stews’ everywhere, in every kitchen – roadside, street corner, palace…a constant in the deep freezers of working mothers (like me), a staple on every Nigerian restaurant menu card. Why? Its versatility. It is an accompaniment that makes an easy meal.

Bread for breakfast, preferably soft, white bread? Pair it with some stew. Lunch or dinner of rice, beans, yams, potatoes, plantains? See what stew can bring to the table. It even lends itself in service to ‘soups’, accompanying them on journeys where they aren’t just passengers. Take okro for instance;  sometimes, it is simply grated, and cooked briefly with some water, a pinch of salt and other light seasonings. And then it is served with some stew.

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Want to make ‘emergency’ Jollof rice? Left-over stew can come to your aid.

So what’s so ‘hot’ about this stew? First of all – it is made with fresh ingredients. In Nigeria, markets are the order of the day and are as popular and common as supermarkets. Every locale/community will have a small market, full of haphazard zinc-roofed stalls held high by steel or wooden rods, and full of food products and produce, retailed in quantities that even the poorest can afford. Pyramids of plum and beef tomatoes are a common sight, arranged by size and price.

It is far cheaper to buy fresh tomatoes here, compared with tinned/canned and so we always go for fresh. I remember the first time I grasped the ‘organic’ concept. I was abroad and perplexed – what was the big deal? We ate organic in Nigeria (a developing country) so how difficult would that be in Europe (a developed country)? This was long before I understood the science behind genetically modified foods, the challenges of managing land use especially for agriculture, trade agreements, the reliance of countries on exports and the myriad of other things that affect what is set on plates before us.

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Point being that though a developing nation, we eat closer to nature because canned/imported fruit and vegetables are far costlier than buying fresh. It’s interesting that when I sit in my kitchen, caressing a tomato or an apple in warm hands, I don’t see the journey this piece of fruit or vegetable has been on. The struggle its endured and just how much people’s livelihoods depend on me holding it my hand.

One of my favourite meals growing up was to have ‘bread and stew’. And so my heart fills with pride when my pot of stew is ‘done’ and my kids come clamouring for some.

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Those are not my fingers

It is often called Nigerian tomato stew or Nigerian red stew to reflect the ingredient or the look of the stew.

There are endless variations when it comes to cooking up a pot of stew.  Some of the most common elements to vary are:

Cooking style/result

  • People begin and end the cooking of stews in different ways: some pre-cook the tomato mixture prior to making the stew (I prefer to do this), while others cook the tomato mixture with the meat/fish.
  • Some people prefer a thick, ‘fried’  stew (that’s my camp) and others like a thin, liquid sauce. As a result, cooking times will vary

Ingredients

  • Proportions of tomatoes, red onions and chilli pepper – some people prefer more onions than tomatoes, and vice versa
  • Cooking oil – there is a difference in the taste profile when vegetable oils are used, versus (red) palm oil; some people use olive oil and coconut oil but vegetable oils (sunflower etc) are more common.
  • Spice combinations – the most common spice profile is a mixture of curry powder (not Indian curry powder but similar to Carribean curry powders), dried thyme with garlic and ginger (fresh or in powdered form).
  • Protein – everything goes from beef, to chicken, fish and offal, and all the permutations in between. Each man to his own. I often make a combination of chicken and beef; occasionally, I make seafood stews, with Tilapia and tiger prawns and lot of chilli pepper.
  • Greens like spinach, pumpkin leaves, water leaf and others are sliced and then added towards the tail end of cooking to yield a vegetable stew

—–♥♥♥—–

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Notes/Tips

  • In Nigeria, red/purple onions are common and are almost always the alliums of choice when cooking. White onions are more expensive and are typically used in salads
  • When pureeing the tomato mixture, let it remain a touch chunky – a smooth mixture will take longer to cook and will not yield the ‘fried’  look and texture that I deem hip in the finest of stews.
  • You could always scoop out the excess oil and use as a flavouring in other dishes.
  • Adjust the taste to suit your needs and palette – sometimes, I add ground cumin to the spice list and that lends a smoky sweetness. Coriander powder, Garam masala….all would work well to give a nice, non-traditional twist to the flavor profile
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My younger sister’s pink polished nail and piece of bread – she was hungry!

Nigerian Tomato Stew

Makes a large pot, but can be scaled up and down to suit needs and preferences

Ingredients
Tomatoes – 1 kg of fresh tomatoes, or two (2) 400g tins
Red onions – 4 to 6 medium onions (3 – 4 peeled and roughly chopped; 1-2, peeled and finely chopped or thinly sliced)
Chili pepper, to taste
2 fresh ‘soup’ chickens, cut up;  or chicken parts about 3kg
500g stewing steak/beef, cut into chunks
1 teaspoon (smoked) paprika powder, extra for cooking meat
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder, extra for cooking meat
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, extra for cooking meat
1 tablespoon curry powder (or to taste), extra for cooking meat
1 teaspoon dried thyme (or to taste), extra for cooking meat
1 teaspoon garlic powder (or to taste), extra for cooking meat
1 teaspoon ginger powder (or to taste), extra for cooking meat
1 – 2 tablespoons of tomato paste
Salt, to taste
Vegetable oil
 
Preparation

I follow a three-step approach in making my stews:

  1. Preparing the tomato mixture – I almost always pre-cook/reduce my tomato mixture to rid it off the harsh edges and smoothen out the flavours
  2. Steaming the meat
  3. Finishing the stew

Important notes

  • The spices listed in the ingredients are for the stew – not the meat.
  • You can halve the quantities for the tomato mix and the meat. Spices – adjust according to your taste
Preparing the tomato mixture

Puree tomatoes with the roughly chopped onions and add some chilli pepper, if using. Pulse till you get a mixed up by somewhat chunky texture. Hard to describe…. it should be well blended but not ‘passata’  smooth.

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Put the mixture in a large pot and cook on medium to low heat, till reduced by about a third.

Steaming the meat

While the tomato mixture is cooking, cook the chicken and beef in a mixture of your favourite spices (curry powder, dried thyme or oregano, etc), with half of the sliced onions – reserve the other half.

Bring to the boil on medium heat, then turn down and simmer till meat is just almost cooked. If you cook the meat till it is soft, it is likely to fall apart in the last stage of cooking.

Remove from heat and reserve meat and cooking liquids.

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 Finishing the stew

In a large pot, pour a couple of cooking spoons of vegetable oil, about 1/2 – 1 cup. Add the remaining sliced onions and all the spices and fry with a pinch of salt till the onions soften about 5 minutes.

Add the tomato paste and continue to stir – 2 to 3 minutes till the onions are coated in the tomato paste.

Add the cooked tomato mixture, some of the stock and the meat.

Stir, and bring to the boil. Then turn down heat, taste and adjust seasonings.

Allow the stew to simmer, (times will vary) till the cooking oil floats to the top. If the stew is still watery cook down some more, if too thick, adjust by adding stock.

When it is ready, serve with whatever your heart desires. Note that like most stews, it benefits from a day’s rest and is much better flavoured on day 2.

Note though, some are not gifted with patience.

Guilty if, and only if charged.

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Antique Cutlery from my collection of beautiful junk/placed on Indigo Adire (a type of Batik)

25 Comments

  1. Love your blog! As a person of Nigerian origin myself living in the western hemisphere, I am often “homesick” and crave Naija dishes. A quick visit to my parents’ home usually satisfies those cravings, but I’m starting to think I’m too old to not know how to find an African store, purchase the goods, and make my own darn stew. I found your website trying to find the secret to making the stew “smoky”- I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s basically a certain smoked flavor I only taste at either Yoruba people’s stew, or at parties (“party” jollof rice/ stew is always the bomb for some reason). I’ve tried many ways to reproduce this flavor but have always fallen short. Do you know of what I speak? Anyway, I’ll be trying your stew (and moin-moin) recipes today.

  2. i don’t think you understand… finding your blog was a God send. i’m excited now my knowledge on cooking Nigerian food basically starts and ends with rice and stew ^^

  3. I agree, a stew in any culture equates to comfort food and is often the food of childhoods – of eating too much rice/potatoes/pulses/bread/grains to soak up more of the richly-flavoured sauce.

    And a small kitchen can be a good kitchen! It forces you to be thriftier with your tools and also keeps unwanted beings from buzzing about your “personal” space =D

  4. That sounds absolutely delicious Oz, so happy you are settled in your kitchen and producing wonderful meals. It’s amazing how many similarities there are with food from different cultures. My favourite childhood breakfasts were slices of white bread dipped in chicken curry. The photos made me very nostalgic 🙂

  5. What a wonderful stew for these colder winter months. Hearty and delicious. Yay for getting to cook in your new kitchen! Thank you for sharing with me. I hope you have a relaxing Sunday!

    • Sunday was wonderful – swimming, eating and lots of good company with family and friends. I hope things are looking up and broken bones are mending. Virtual hugs and 3 big kisses on each cheek – left, right, leeft. Stay strong

  6. this looks so good I used to eat a lot of Nigerian food at university as I had friends from there love it share some pictures of where you live 🙂 what made you go home were you homesick the question of every expat 🙂

  7. Oh, that sounds so delicious, Ozoz! I do love a good, hearty stew and definitely have to have nice, warm bread with it. 🙂 love your beautiful junk too! It makes me smile. 🙂

    • Kindred hearts – I always say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I know there are many who look past form and design…and just love quirky, and eccentric. I hope all’s well sweetie. We have to skype one of these days!

  8. Always partial to a pun in a blog title! As a complete stew devotee myself it was really interesting to learn about the Nigerian version – especially from your kitchen. I can’t think I have ever eaten stew for breakfast.

    • :-), we aim to please. Glad to know that all the thinking paid off :-). Need to keep my Shakespearean devotees happy, don’t I? And if you ever come to Nigeria (its not impossible), we can try a bowl of this, aye?

  9. I think stew is one of my favorite dishes. All those wonderful juices to be sopped up with a hunk of bread. Wonderful for a snowy night…you are so sweet…thanks for your words of cheer.

    So glad you are all settling in.

  10. Hooray for getting to cook a proper meal in your new kitchen. I adore the title of your post, you do Shakespearean foodies proud. I did find it amusing that you said the stew could be scaled down…not in this ladies kitchen, somehow mine seem to grow and then the leftovers somehow tripling in the refrigerator overnight. We are having leftover stew this very night. I’m making some Yorkshire Pudding to breathe a new interesting light into it.

    I think I should like a stew with the chicken, tomatoes and all those lovely spices, especially with some bread for dipping…that’s the best!

    I must have missed you….this may have been my longest comment yet.

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