Sunday 14 October 2007

moqueca de peixe - fish w dendê oil & coconut

It’s the two year anniversary of Weekend Herb Blogging and Kalyn must be very proud that her event has gained so much popularity.

The special dish I'm offering up tonight was made as part of a seafood feast for friends which included:
Chermoula Baked Snapper
Omani-Style Tuna
Grilled Chipotle Oysters
Ahi Poke (Hawaiian sashimi)

In honour of the anniversary, I decided to cook with an ingredient I had never tried before and so I marched across the street to the specialist grocer that stocks all things African. Among the cassava, cream of palm and fufu flour, I found the red liquid I was after: dendê oil.

Although West African palm oil (which is almost certainly what I have) is much stronger than the Brazilian oil, I decided to cook this Brazilian seafood dish that I had seen on TV. The show had kindly shared the recipe on their website and so I set about creating a feast for my friends.

Moqueca is from Bahia, a province in the north-east of Brazil, where the cuisine has been influenced by its population of Portuguese colonists, African slaves and indigenous peoples. A traditional Moqueca doesn’t need to be plain fish (peixe) but could be made with prawns (camaroa) or a combination of the two. It seems, however, that the most important element in any moqueca is the dendê oil. Many Brazilians would claim that it isn’t a true Moqueca without it.

Moqueca de Peixe was always going to be a borderline dish for me, since it contained a lot of capsicum (peppers): a vegetable which I really don’t like.

Surprisingly the capsicum mellowed and actually enhanced the flavour, adding sweetness. I was quite glad I’d followed the recipe and hadn’t omitted them.

The dendê oil was indeed a unique flavour. It smelt overpowering (and tasted pretty strange on its own) but when it was added to the food it somehow just worked. There was a slight acridity, but overall it added richness and nuttiness and blended well with the coconut cream.

This dish is really quite good and my friends went back for seconds. I would recommend it to anyone wanting something rich and vibrant on their table, where it should be served with Arroz de Haussá (rice cooked with coconut milk).

The flavours are strong so I’d suggest a fruity dessert to follow. Perhaps banana?

The recipe also features my favourite herb: coriander.

Moqueca de Peixe (Fish w Dendê Oil & Coconut)
Recipe by Maria Cristina Rodrigues da Franca Moore. Serves 4-6.
1.5 kg firm white fish steaks
3 large garlic cloves
5 tomatoes, chopped
1 red capsicum, finely sliced
½ small green capsicum, finely sliced
Malagueta chilli (or fresh piri-piri or any small hot Asian chilli)
225ml coconut cream
1 very large onion, chopped
1 bunch coriander, chopped
Juice of 3 limes
5 tablespoons dendê oil
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 tablespoons grated coconut
1. Rinse the fish and pat it dry.
2. Using a mortar and pestle pound and mix the garlic, malagueta chilli, 6 tablespoons of coriander leaves, salt and lime juice together.
3. Spread this mixture over the fish, then spread enough of the onions and tomatoes to cover on top. Leave for half an hour.
4. Pour the olive oil into a large saucepan and add the fish with the seasoning on top.
5. Add the remaining tomatoes, onions, capsicum, parsley, half the dendê oil and 80 mL of the coconut cream.
6. Cover the saucepan and bring to boil over a very low heat for 15 minutes, then add the remaining dendê oil and coconut cream.
7. Add some more coriander leaves and, if needed, cook for an extra 5 to 10 minutes stirring very gently from time to time.
8. When the fish is tender but firm, remove the pan from the heat and sprinkle on some freshly grated coconut and more fresh coriander. Serve with rice.

Palm oil comes from an African tree (Elaeis guineensis) and has been used for centuries as a cooking oil in West Africa.

The red colour of palm oil shows high levels of betacarotene, an orange photosynthetic pigment also found in carrots and a source of Vitamin A. In fact red palm oil is significantly more healthy than clear palm oil because the betacarotene and other compounds somehow have an effect.

Palm oil is so high in saturated fat that it becomes semi-solid at room temperature, something I witnessed over the winter months.

Once the slave trade was curtailed in the 1800s, African nations, such as the Asante Confederacy and Kingdom of Dahomey, began large scale palm oil plantations. Europeans began trading palm oil as an industrial lubricant for machinery and in 1898, B.J. Johnson of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, developed a soap made entirely out of palm and olive oils: palmolive.

Did you know: Napalm is named after a recipe using naphtha and palm oil.

Palm is the world’s second most produced edible oil. Most Westerners would be shocked by this, seeing as we don’t really use it. Or do we?

Palm oil is believed to be in one out of every ten food items in the supermarket due to its comparatively low cost. It’s easily disguised since the red colour disappears after boiling and manufacturers sneakily label it as “vegetable oil” in the ingredients list.

You’ll find palm oil in KFC, Oreos, Kit Kats, Pringles, Ritz Crackers, Sara Lee cakes and Tim Tams (Australia’s favourite cookie). And we haven’t even gotten to its use in cosmetics yet!

On average, Australians consume 10kg (22lb) of palm oil per person every year. I'd imagine the US and UK would be even higher.

There are two major problems with palm oil:
1) After coconut oil, it has the highest saturated fat of all edible oils
2) The production of palm oil has had devastating effects on the people, fauna and flora of many countries it is grown in.

In the early 1900s, the first palm oil plantations were established in Malaysia and were used right up until the 60s as a method to fight poverty with employment.

The industry took off with intensity in South East Asia and led to devastating environmental problems. Rainforests are cleared to make way for plantations and animals, such as Borneo’s orangutans, Sumatra’s tiger and Asian rhinos, are being forced out or killed. The cultures and livelihoods of minority tribes are also in danger.

Throughout the world, 11 million hectares are devoted to palm oil plantations, particularly in the tropical areas of Asia, Africa and South America (the world’s largest producers are Malaysia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Thailand, Colombia and Papua New Guinea). These tropical areas also happen contain a large amount of the planet's biodiversity.

The EU has been looking at palm oil as an environmentally friendly biofuel, and while its emissions certainly beat gasoline, diesel and LPG, the current negative effects of palm oil production cancel out its benefits. Increased demands for palm oil to feed the renewable energy industry will need to be checked against sustainable production.

There are certainly eco-friendly palm oil producers, so just keep your eye out for them because you wouldn’t want to miss out on trying this unique oil and this cultural rich Brazilian dish.

Head on over to Kalyn’s Kitchen for the Two Year Anniversary round-up and hear which vegetable and herb won this year’s vote.

References (photo)



  1. How interesting! I've been so condtitioned to think of palm oil (in it's partially hydrogenated form) as bad I've forgotten that it's also good (in it's regular form)! I've never heard of dende oil. Damn, we think we know something and then we actually learn about it and realize we didn't. Thanks, great post!
    Oh, good looking fish dish, too!

  2. Wow, very interesting post. You do always come up with the most interesting things. I've only heard of the negative aspects of palm oil and didn't know at all that it was used in traditional dishes like this. What a fantastic sounding combination in this recipe! I would love to try it. Thanks so much for helping celebrate two years!

  3. You call this dish borderline?..I'll eat it all. Great ingredients and I'm sure a taste sensation!

  4. wow, you always have something exotic cooking up in your kitcken. Kudos to you!

  5. I first had Mocequa in a Connecticut restaurant. Quite odd if you are familiar with the demographics of that state...anyway, found your blog through the sustainable tag and thought you might like to submit a recipe in my sustainable seafood blog event.

    Hope to see you there!

    The Leather District Gourmet

  6. Oi! Sou brasileira e estou morando em Melbourne. Você tem idéia de onde posso encontrar azeite de dendê por aqui$


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