Knack South American Cooking: Bahian Coconut Fish Stew (Brazil)

by Liz Caskey on October 18, 2010

Coconut milk and fragrant veggies make this one-pot dish a breeze

A traditional Brazilian fish stew common in the northeastern state of Bahia, this dish has its roots steeped in the country’s colonial history. The flavorful, savory recipe combines fresh fish, onions, garlic, tomatoes, cilantro, coconut milk, and chilies and is slowly cooked, traditionally in earthen pots or vessels made of black clay.

The predominant African influence in the cuisine of Bahia comes from the three million slaves brought to Brazil under Portuguese rule starting in the 1500s who left their print on the regional style of food.

Moqueca is a revered dish not only in Bahia, but throughout Brazil. Besides fish, it can be made with crab or shrimp, seafood commonly found on Bahia’s shores. Yield: 4–6 servings


1 1/2 pounds grouper, snapper, or monkfish, cut into bite-sized pieces

Juice of 2 limes

1 teaspoon salt

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 large yellow onion, finely chopped

1 red bell pepper, finely chopped

1 green bell pepper, finely chopped

2 tomatoes, thinly sliced

2 1/2 cups coconut milk

2 malagueta peppers, or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne

3 tablespoons dende oil

4-5 green onions, white and green parts, finely chopped

1 bunch cilantro, washed and roughly chopped

Place fish in a plastic bag. Add marinade of lime juice, salt, malagueta pepper[EMC4] , and minced garlic. Marinate 4 hours in refrigerator.

Heat vegetable oil in a large pan. Sauté yellow onions and bell peppers until soft. Add tomatoes ; cook for 5 minutes.

Nest fish among vegetables. Top with some onions, peppers, and tomatoes. Whisk coconut milk with malagueta chili pepper ; pour over fish. Add dende oil and half the green onions and cilantro.

Simmer 15 minutes covered. Remove lid, cook another 20  minutes. Add green onions and cilantro.

Cooking Tips

Prepare Vegetable Base

  • Sweat the vegetables rather than brown them. The onions should be transparent and the peppers soft.
  • You can slice the peppers and onions instead of chopping them if you prefer.
  • Keep the heat on medium to avoid burning the vegetables and to slowly cook them.
  • As the vegetables cook, they will render their juices.

Poach Fish Fillets

  • Gently place the fish fillets in the pan to avoid breaking.
  • Place the fish on top of the soft vegetables and tomatoes to form a protective bed from the heat. Spoon some of vegetable mixture over the top.
  • The addition of the coconut milk will poach the fish.
  • If you find dende oil too heavy, cut back to 1 or 2 tablespoons for the nutty flavor.

Green Light

Modern health proponents consider coconut milk a miracle food that helps cure and protect our bodies. Additionally, coconut has many electrolytes and nutrients, and it has been proven that its short-chain saturated fat can help the body burn fat. It is also dairy free and an alternative for the lactose intolerant. Coconut can also help relieve rashes, sore throats, and ulcers, and improve the functioning of all major systems.


White rice is a fundamental component of many South American cuisines, particularly Brazilian and Peruvian. Short-grain white rice is simply steamed until fluffy and served as a side. It is not unusual to see “double carbs” like rice and potatoes, or rice and bean. A large percentage  of the population gets most of its daily calories from wholesome carbs like rice.


Ivy Manning October 18, 2010 at 6:32 pm

Oh Liz,

This looks delicious! I have a jar of dende oil, no idea why, so as soon as we’re done with this epic kitchen remodel, this is going to get made. Yum. Thanks for the recipe!

Liz Caskey October 18, 2010 at 6:43 pm

It is sooo tasty. Add the dende little by little. It is powerful stuff and I think you have to taste as you go since all those oils are still artisan-made. I also have several other recipes using the oil in the book (whose names I cannot remember because I had to translate them to English (vatapa, bobo de camarao). I remember one chef telling me that each tablespoon takes an hour off your life (coronary blockage). But then again, we all love foie gras…

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