ARI LeVAUX for Le Montana Newspapers
The smell of fried garlic hit me as soon as I opened the door. Quite possibly the most intoxicating scent on earth. Unfortunately, I was afraid that meant Edna didn’t wait, and that made me sad. I was there to learn how to make mocica, the tomato-based seafood stew that is ubiquitous along the Brazilian coast. The dish varies by region, and Edna Vittoria’s birthplace is widely considered to be the birthplace of Mocka. This version of the dish, called moqueca Capixaba, is the reason I’m there. At my mom’s house in Boston, that is. I actually missed my golden chance to go to Vitoria in real life.
When I got to the kitchen, I realized, for me, that Edna had been waiting for me the whole time. It was the wonderful smell of garlic I’d felt for the first time since I made the rice – which, like most Brazilian recipes, started with fried garlic.
Edna is Capixaba (cah-pee-shah-bah), a person (or something) from the Brazilian state of Espiritu Santo, and its capital is Vitoria. I was on several buses that stopped in Vitoria, heading north from Rio to Salvador da Bahia. I have memories opening my eyes when the bus slowed to a stop. I remember the misty hills and forests on the left and over the city and the gentle coast on the right. I’ve never gotten off the bus, but I’ve always wanted to. It must be.
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The world’s most famous moqueca comes from Bahia, a state north of Espiritu Santo. Salvador, the capital, is where I always headed when I passed through sleepy Vitoria. Bahia has more people of African descent than anywhere else outside of Africa, and Moqueca Baiana contains coconut milk and dendê, a type of palm oil made from imported West African trees. Dendê is very rich, with a heavy aroma and strong flavor that is not for everyone.
On the other hand, Moqueca Capixaba takes its cues from a different ancestral homeland. Since the Moqueca Baiana is European-African, Edna’s Moqueca contains olive oil instead of dendê and coconut milk. This version is lighter, a few more olive and botanical than an Italian cioppino, and worlds away from the moqueca in the north.
But one thing all Brazilians can agree on, at least, is garlic. This is where we start when it’s finally time to cook dinner.
Edna had everything sliced and prepped, but she insisted on cooking for the sake of educating me. I turned the heat to medium under a saucepan, and she asked me to do the Brazilian thing with garlic. It made me tense. The last thing I wanted to do was spoil the garlic, either by burning it or cooking it thoroughly.
The Brazilian garlic frying reflects a level of brinkmanship that you need to get just about anything done in this place. They take it closer to the brim of a burnt one than most. Garlic is often mixed with salt. Sometimes they are fried in a thin, dented aluminum pan without any oil. As long as the inevitable black color is thwarted by moisture before it becomes too bitter, the wonderful flavor is picked up through the food. In the case of Moqueca Capixaba, brown garlic is defrosted by chopped tomatoes and onions, releasing moisture and preventing scorching.
Then I added a jar of sofrito, a Caribbean seasoning sauce common throughout the Iberian diaspora. Edna used a Goya sofrito, with tomatoes, green peppers, onions, cilantro and garlic. Culantro is a broadleaf plant that tastes like very strong coriander. Native to the Caribbean and Latin America, it is now cultivated all over the world. In Southeast Asia, it has names similar to “saw-tooth coriander” and is considered by many to be indispensable to a good bowl of pho.
If you can’t get your hands on a sofrito or coulantro, don’t sweat. Sofrito is basically a condensed version of the other veggies in a mocica, so just use more of everything else—extra tomato, onion, paprika, and cilantro—and the right flavors will be there.
The combination of cilantro and pepper, along with semi-burned garlic, is what creates the distinctive flavor of the mokika. It’s like an off-key jazz chord that you play until it sounds good, and then you build a song around it. The harmonious combination of mokika flavor works especially well with fish, including Edna’s brought swordfish and shrimp.
I can see why Capixabas consider the moqueca to be the original. Without dandy and coconut milk dispersants, the flavors of the other ingredients sparkle more distinctly. Only vegetables, fish and olive oil. And fried garlic, of course.
If it weren’t for cilantro, and a few shakes of Adobo’s spice mix, this might be a European dish.
1 garlic clove, minced or pressed
2 cups of white rice. Edna Joya used Jasmine
Water according to the rice you are using
3 large garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon Adobe powder (Mix a Latin seasoning with garlic powder and other spices. Try to get it either with paprika or with annatto – or mix it yourself like I did)
12 ounce jar of Gioia Sofrito
2 heaped tablespoons of ragu sauce or similar marinara sauce
2 medium tomatoes chopped
1 medium to large onion, chopped
1 pound swordfish (or other tough fish you can cook)
1 pound of ocean fish of your choice, such as rockfish or cod. If you are using thin slices, roll them up and stick them
2 large bunches fresh coriander, trimmed and chopped
Handful of green onions, white part only, chopped
First, make the rice. Put a medium sized saucepan over a medium heat. Add oil, garlic and salt. Stir often, but leave it alone as much as possible. Let the garlic turn yellow to brown. When the scent smells like it’s preparing to go from irresistible to somewhat questionable, add rice. Flip it over to cover evenly. add the water. Cook with the lid cracked over a low heat until tender.
For soup, place a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add olive oil, garlic, salt and saute garlic. Add the Adobo seasoning and stir. Add the sofrito sauce and marinara sauce, followed by the onion and tomato and a little water to dissolve the pot and bring to a simmer.
Taste the sauce and adjust the salt. Add swordfish, arrange chops in sauce, adding water as needed to coat. Simmer on low heat for 30 minutes—while cleaning the kitchen, Edna advised.
Add shrimp with any other quick-cooking seafood. Whatever fish you use should be tough enough not to fall apart. Cook another 10 minutes. Finally, add the chopped bell pepper, cilantro, and green onions. Spread it around the top, stirring very carefully, but don’t disturb the fish. You don’t want to stir the mokika any more than you want to stir the rice.
After another 10 minutes, turn off the heat. Serve it with rice.
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Ari Lufox writes Flash in the Pan, a weekly group food column published in more than 60 newspapers across the country. Although his audience is patriotic, he says he “always writes about Montana. Used.”