Republic of Cape Verde
Arrrggghhh 10 months have gone by. Darn it. I really wanted to pick up the pace here, but a combination of having too many hobbies and overwhelming perfectionism has stunted me again.
Before we get into the cuisine of Cape Verde, I want to talk a little bit about my research and writing process, in the hope of justifying the ridiculous lapses between these posts. I tend to start my research online, as you might expect; it’s easy, and there is usually an abundant amount of material – or so it seems at first. Once you start comparing the various recipes and sources, though – and especially for cuisines and countries that are less-known in the West – you tend to find that out of ten recipes, nine of them are exactly the same, and came from a common ancestor. Without fail, this root tends to be some Angelfire-era, all-text webpage that does not cite its original source, which makes me very uncomfortable. This is where my work begins to multiply exponentially.
Let’s take this present post as an example: I needed a recipe for cachupa, possibly the most cited “national dish” of Cape Verde. I find a whole bunch of cachupa recipes online, with maybe three distinct versions to be discerned among them. A huge majority of these recipes are from other people who are doing the same cook-around-the-world project, and who have for some reason unquestioningly relied on that Web-1.0 page of dubious origin. As I dig deeper, I then start Google-searching in the source language (Portuguese, in this case), and I start to find more versions of the recipe, which now need to be translated and converted from the metric system in order for me to compare them to the English-language versions. Lots of these recipes are found on message boards, and none seem to match the original versions that I have already found in English.
This is where I put the project down, drink a beer and go play guitar or read for a couple of months until I calm down.
Then I start all over again, this time beginning with published academic database searches – JSTOR, WorldCat, etc. I eventually find some source-language, published recipes for cachupa, but they also have to be translated and now I’m noticing that the Portuguese spoken in Cape Verde is not exactly the same as that which is spoken in Portugal. I start emailing friends and coworkers who speak Portuguese for help, but no one seems to be able to clear up the details (WTF is “grão,” for instance?). Emails to the Cape Verdean embassy go unanswered, as expected (for the record, no embassy has ever written me back, ever). And where am I supposed to find farinheira? Relatedly, what is farinheira??
Only so much can be done online. Eventually, after a physical trip to a Portuguese grocer in Connecticut and a quick, in-person confirmation of the murkier points of Cape Verdean cuisine, I am ready to finally start cooking.
For those playing along at home, this initial research stage already took me SIX MONTHS. Then I gotta find time to cook everything, take photos the whole time while chopping and stirring, edit the photos (badly), and then finally write some extremely engaging and relatable text, like this. So, yeah – that’s why only two of these get done per year. My methodology is definitely extreme, but I don’t think it’s fair or appropriate to just pick up my iPhone and say “Siri, find me a recipe for cachupa” and then cook the first ridiculous thing that comes up. That’s the whole point of this blog, actually – to NOT do that.
Anyway. Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way – hey guys, woooooooooo let’s cook some Cape Verdean food!
Since the dishes of this tiny West African island are essentially a fusion of Portuguese and African cuisine (punctuated by New-World ingredients), I wanted to be sure to hit some of the really unique highlights of what truly makes Cape Verdean food “Cape Verdean.” In that interest, we’re going to cook an octopus stew, some sweet-potato-empanada-sort-of-things that are stuffed with fresh tuna and chilies, and finally that legendary cachupa, a kitchen-sink soup that includes anything and everything that a family might have on hand. Because it takes a while to make, it’s usually reserved for special occasions like weddings, but because I am a lunatic I am just going to make it for lunch.
Cape Verde is also really famous for lobster, but come on, I’m not a god-damned Rockefeller over here. Let’s just relax. You wanna mail me a lobster, go ahead and I’ll cook it.
Now, octopus – THAT’s a poor man’s sea creature. The stew is called “Polvo à moda do Zé do Lino,” which took a tremendous amount of effort to translate. I speak reasonable Spanish and fluent Italian, so Portuguese has shown itself to be sort-of-understandable to me in a drunken, slurred kind of way. Despite that, some of the words there just didn’t make any sense to me; “polvo,” ok – octopus. “À modo,” “in the style of,” got it. “Zé do Lino?” What the hell is that? Why is it capitalized? And why do some versions of the recipe write it as “Zé de Lino”?? Oh god, here we go.
It turns out that in Portuguese “Zé” is short for “José” – ok, now we have a name, José do Lino, potentially “José from Lino.” Unfortunately, “Lino” is not a town that I could locate in Cape Verde, so it couldn’t be that easy. They do have a town called “Banana,” though, which rules.
At this point I begin to go desperately insane. I again ask all of my Portuguese-speaking contacts to look into this, but no one knows anything. My guy Bernardo even asked a friend from Cape Verde. No luck there. Like a reverse culinary Grinch, my ulcer grew three sizes that day.
I again started scouring the web using Portuguese keywords and eventually found an article that mentioned this dish – it was an interview with a respected Cape Verdean cookbook author named Maria de Lourdes Chantre, who wrote a book called, simply enough, Cozinha de Cabo Verde. The article I found had a parenthetical phrase after the title of the recipe, which stated “polvo à ‘Zé do Lino’ (guarda da casa que tinha na Baía das Gatas) [the guard of a house I had in Baía das Gatas]”… so, what? Is it really named after her security guard?? WHERE IS THIS TAKING ME?!?
I needed to see her cookbook for myself, but it’s long since out of print (of course), and a used copy goes for about $200 on Amazon. No, thank you. Luckily, the New York Public Library has a copy, so I dragged my ass up to Harlem to visit the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The staff there helped me out a ton and I managed to get copies of recipes for all of the dishes we are making in this post, and this time from a VERY reputable source. That night, finally, I slept like a baby, despite never having been able to definitively pin down the elusive Zé do Lino. I guess I’d make a really crappy private detective.
After all that work, there’s really not that much to this recipe – Zé do Lino must have designed this recipe so he could cook it while he was also guarding the house. Just throw the cut-up octopus into a pot, cook it until it leaks out all of its retained water, and then add some aromatics and simmer a while longer. It’s funny, an octopus cooking all by its lonesome sort of smells like potato salad for a while. The outer skin gives up its purple tint along with all of its water, and turns everything else in the pot indigo. Once you add the onions and chilies, though, it starts to really meld into a more appetizing mixture.
This dish is really not much of a stew, since you never actually cook with any added liquid. Instead, it’s more like a confit that is seasoned with onion, tomato, chilies and olive oil. Really very easy and kind of foolproof, which is welcome when cooking something as temperamental as a cephalopod. De Lourdes Chantre suggests that this dish, and really any fish or meat stew, be accompanied by pirão, a polenta-like porridge made from yucca flour, rendered salt pork and onion. Mine came out a little lumpy, unfortunately – next time I will whisk harder:
I’ll warn you now, the next couple of dishes require a lot of work, but they are very much worth the time it takes to prepare them.
Pastel com diabo dentro, or “pastry with the Devil inside,” made me so, so happy. This is exciting, I love a dish like this – it’s such a familiar concept but unique and hyper-local in its components. The flavors – tuna, chilies and starch – occur together in lots of Italian dishes as well, and weirdly reminded me of my staple diet of spaghetti, tuna and chilies when I was studying in Florence.
The process is basically this: mince up some fresh tuna and saute it with onions and chilies. Then make a dough of mashed sweet potatoes and cornmeal, and fill little packets of this dough the tuna mixture. Then deep fry the pastry packets and serve with more chilies. It’s your basic empanada or pastel recipe, but with a Cape-Verdean mindset and ingredients.
But waaaaait, wait wait – what exactly do we mean by “sweet potato”? We’ve been through this exhausting distinction before, but for the benefit of those who are just joining us, let’s review. The term “sweet potato” is chronically misused, or rather overused. It can encompass several potatoey members of different genera, and leads to all sorts of confusion. The orange-fleshed, brown-skinned sweet potatoes that we know in the U.S. are part of the variety of tuber known botanically as ipomoea batatas, although this genus also includes other tubers that are genetically similar but have different colored flesh and skins. I’ll tell you one thing, it is sure as shit not the same thing as a “yam,” which comes from the dioscorea genus and includes things like igname and nagaimo. The misapplication of the terms “yam” and “sweet potato” for the same vegetable have given me chronic migraines, so it’s important to know the difference when you are trying to be sensitive to context of the cuisine that you are studying.
In the case of our diabolical empanadas here, I wasn’t sure at first. The Caboverdean recipe listed “batata doce,” and searches for images of “batata doce” and “cabo verde” almost exclusively yielded photos of the brownish-skinned, pale-orange-fleshed variety that are easy to get in the U.S. A few others showed a pale yellow or even white skin, with white flesh. Which to use? My options were the American sweet potato and the boniato/batata/white sweet potato from South America, which is drier and less sweet than the orange variety, but also less dense in texture. Both are part of ipomoea batatas, so either would probably work, and both seem to appear in the Cape Verdean culinary lexicon.
Looking at photos of the finished “pastel com diabo dentro” in Google image search, I noticed that basically all of them have a strong, yellow-orange hue – too dark to have gotten this hue from just cornmeal. I went with the readily-available and botanically-correct American sweet potato. If anyone from Cape Verde reads this and knows I am wrong, just let me know and I will cook it all over again.
What you do is just boil the sweet potatoes and mash them with the cornmeal. Knead for a bit, and you’ll end up with a moist, slightly sticky dough.Once that is ready, wrap it in plastic and refrigerate it for a while, to make it easier to work with. While that cools, you can prepare your filling, which is dead simple – just marinate some chopped tuna with onion, garlic, vinegar and malagueta, a red, extremely hot chili in the capsicum frutescens genus.
Eventually, this mixture will get a quick saute and then be left to cool, before being stuffed into rounds of rolled out sweet-potato dough.
These packets get a hot, quick fry in oil or lard and come out steaming, with a crisp crust that slowly softens into a warm mealiness as they cool. Best to enjoy them hot, right out of the fryer.
I need you to hear this: THESE ARE BEYOND DELICIOUS. Of all of the dishes I have cooked for the blog so far, this one is in the top three, for sure. The sweet-potato-cornmeal dough made me think of a corn dog when it first hit my teeth – crisp, sweet, dense and substantial, with a hit of that smoking hot, I’m-having-fun-at-the-county-fair fry oil smell. Then, the acids from the vinegary tuna start to creep out, and finally the chilies hit your tongue, activating every zone of your taste buds at once. I was blown away by how good these were, and I ate way too many of them at once. It reminded me just a little of brik, a North-African phyllo packet stuffed with tuna and an egg and deep fried.
If I made them again and felt like changing the traditional recipe for my own taste, I would just leave the tuna mixture raw when packing it into the dough – a little rare is fine with me, and might have kept the filling juicier. Overcooked tuna can get a little chalky.
OK, let’s make our last dish, the famous cachupa rica – don’t worry, you only need a few ingredients:
Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahah just kidding it’s a huge pain in the butt. You’re going to need a ton of hard-to-find stuff and it makes enough food for like ten people, even after scaling it down. Seriously, don’t even try to cook this, just go to Cape Verde and eat it there, it will be easier.
This dish was an immense challenge, especially because there was very little specific guidance to be found. Not unexpectedly, pretty much all of my global-cooking compatriots seem to have taken the easy way out and done the diminutive cachupinha [“little cachupa“] version of this dish (a much simpler soup of fresh corn and sausages) or used a reprehensible amount of substitutions, so I had to be the one to do the whole shebang. It’s fine, no, really, I’ll do all the hard work. Thanks guys.
Let’s take apart what we’re working with here. At it’s core, cachupa is a continued iteration of the Caboverdean reliance on corn as a main staple, a vestige from the island’s role as a way-station between the New World and Africa during the Atlantic slave trade. While probably uninhabited prior to Portuguese settlement in the mid 1400s, Cape Verde was later used to cultivate numerous non-native, New-World crops such as corn, chilies and tomatoes. Cachupa is a literal melting pot of all of these ingredients, along with native foods such as plantains, cassava and igname, a decidedly Portuguese measure of salty pork.
These pork products are distinctly Iberian – aside from the salt pork/bacon in front, from left to right we have morcela (made from pig’s blood), farinheira (a smoked sausage made with wheat flour), chouriço (made with smoked dried peppers) and linguiça (a fresh pork sausage).
Grains are also a big part of cachupa rica, the translation of which caused me some vexation as well. Some were easy – feijão manteiga translated easily as lima beans. OK, no problem there. The mind-bending “grão” did eventually give itself up as none other than the humble chickpea, a fact that was confirmed by the nice gentleman at Wayside Market in Waterbury, Connecticut (my hometown, and home to a large Cape Verdean community), where I miraculously found all of the ingredients that had previously eluded me. A new one that I thought I had never seen before was feijão pedra, or “rock bean,” but some research showed that this was actually our old friend the lablab bean, which we encountered during my post on Burma. There, they were fried until crisp. Here, they are getting stewed along with everything else (especially because I found out the raw beans are poisonous – whoops!). And of course, corn once again takes center stage, in the form of semi-crushed grains of corn, commonly called samp.
OK, so first you get your chicken – wait, did I mention there’s a chicken? There’s a chicken. You have to cook a chicken, too, as a side dish. Yes, a side dish to the stew. I know, it didn’t make any sense to me either – I sort of assumed from the pictures I had seen and the descriptions I had read that this was a one-pot stew, with a ton of stuff in it. But really, it’s an assembly of three separate dishes – a bean-and-sausage stew, a braised chicken and some boiled veggies. Serving them all separately but at the same time was not what I pictured, but it is smart – it keeps all of the flavors distinct. Cooking so many ingredients together would mean that you end up with a muddy, bland pap. This was way, WAY better.
The chicken gets simmered with tomatoes, onions and – you guessed it – chilies, with a little water added to make a thick sauce. The vegetables, on the other hand, get boiled with a little rendered salt pork and then drained.
So how does this all taste? The sausages each have their own personalities; the morcela is cakey in texture and tastes strongly of cumin and iron, as you might expect; the linguiça is fleshy and porky, like conventional or Italian sausage; the chouriço is smokey and fatty, with big bits of lard lolling around in each bite; and the farinheira was the newest to me – I had never heard of it before this. I lost one in the stew, since it split open when the flour inside of it expanded to about four times its original size. I lowered the heat for the other one (always buy a spare!!) and it held together nicely. It has a lighter, sweeter, less aggressive flavor than the more macho smoked sausages, and the texture is very soft and bready. I guess if you crossed sausage with a boiled Eastern-European bread “dumpling” you’d sort of get the idea.
Cape Verde, you have astounded me with your bounty. You take everything you have, old and new, and use it harmoniously and deliciously. Thanks for showing me an exciting and delicious cuisine that deserves a lot more attention than it gets. Oh, and your cosmic disco is pretty awesome, too.
Now you go:
Note: the following recipes are all translated and adapted from Cozinha de Cabo Verde by Maria de Lourdes Chantre
Polvo à moda do Zé do Lino (Octopus in the style of Zé do Lino)
2 lbs. octopus
2 bay leaves
4 tablespoons of olive oil
2 very ripe tomatoes, chopped, or l tablespoon of tomato paste
2 cloves of garlic, mashed or minced
l large onion, finely chopped
3-4 piri-piri chilies, whole or minced
Wash and remove the ink sac from the octopus, preferably in sea water. Beat the octopus very well (presumably with a stick or against a rock) to make it “tender.” Cut the octopus into bite-sized pieces and place it over low heat it in a pan with the bay leaves and 3 tbsp of olive oil.
When all of water that it releases has evaporated (after about 15 minutes or so), add the chopped tomatoes (or tomato paste), chopped onion, mashed garlic cloves, the chilies and another tbsp of olive oil.
Continue cooking over low heat, stirring constantly, until the garlic and onions have softened and any remaining liquid has reduced into the thick sauce. Adjust for salt and serve.
1 lb. yucca flour
1 small onion, minced
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 lb. fresh salt pork, finely chopped
salt to taste
boiling water (twice as much as the volume of the yucca flour)
In a medium-sized pot, combine the olive oil, salt pork and minced onion. Let them brown over low heat.
Once the onions are soft and the pork has rendered fully, add the yucca flour and boiling water. Mix well with a whisk and bring to a boil, stirring constantly to prevent sticking or burning. Stir until any lumps have broken apart and the pirão has thickened dramatically and just started to adhere to the sides of the pot (think: polenta).
Remove from heat and serve immediately, with octopus stew or any other fish or meat stew.
Pastel com diabo dentro (Pastry with the Devil Inside)
1 lb. sweet potatoes
2 cups fine cornmeal
½ lb fresh tuna
1 medium white onion
1 tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
6 red chilies, minced
1 splash (“gulp”) white vinegar
1 tsp (“modicum”) tomato paste (optional)
Oil for frying
Mince the tuna and season with salt, chilies, garlic and vinegar, and set aside to marinate while you prepare the remaining ingredients.
Slice the onion thinly and place them in a frying pan with the 1 tbsp of olive oil, adding the tomato paste if desired and frying until they are soft and lightly browned.
Add the tuna mixture to the pan and let it simmer until the tuna is just cooked through. Remove from heat and let cool completely.
Peel and boil the sweet potato in well-salted water until it is soft. Mash it thoroughly, adding 1 tsp salt and handfuls of cornmeal until it forms a cohesive ball of dough. Pull off golf-ball-sized chunks of this dough, and flatten them on a piece of plastic wrap to form thin discs about 4-5 inches in diameter.
Take each disc and place 2 tbsp of filling in the center. Fold the disc in half and seal the edges very well. Store the formed packets on wax paper until you have used up all of the filling.
Fry the packets in small batches in a deep pot (or individually, if the pot is small) in very hot oil until they are golden brown. Serve hot!
Makes 9 packets.
Cachupa Rica (scaled down to 6-8 servings)
2 cups dried cracked hominy (samp [milho cuchido])
1/2 cup small dried chickpeas (grão)
1/2 cup dried stone/hyacinth/lablab beans (feijao pedra)
1 cup dried lima beans (feijao-manteiga)
1/2 pound fresh pork sausage, uncut (linguiça)
1 smoked pork sausage, uncut (chouriço)
1 smoked blood sausage, uncut (morcela)
1 farinheira sausage, uncut
3/4 lb chicken parts
1/16 pound salt pork, sliced
1/2 large onion, sliced into rings
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 pound firm tomatoes, seeded and quartered
1/2 small Savoy cabbage, one whole quarter
1/2 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
1/2 pound yucca, peeled and cubed
1/2 pound igname, peeled and cubed (dioscorea alata)
1/2 pound green plantains, peeled and sliced 1 inch thick
1/2 teaspoon salt
Olive oil, as needed
Red chilies, to taste
Place hominy, chickpeas, and stone and lima beans in a large pot, add water to cover, and soak overnight in refrigerator (this prevents fermentation). The following day, drain everything, rinse well, and once again add cold water to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer 1 hour. After 1 hour, add whole sausages to mixture and simmer 1 more hour, or until beans are tender.
While the beans cook, season chicken with salt and crushed red pepper and set aside. In a large pan, heat the olive oil. Add onions and garlic and simmer until onions are transparent. Add tomatoes and simmer 5 minutes. Remove half of the tomato-onion mixture and place in a pot with the chicken pieces and 1/2 cup of water. Bring to a boil, then simmer until chicken is tender, approximately 30 minutes, adding more water as necessary to keep a little sauce in the pot.
In another large pot, cook sliced salt pork until fat cooks out. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon fat. Add sweet potatoes, yuca, igname, cabbage and the remaining tomato/onion mixture to the pot, with enough water to barely cover. Simmer until vegetables are tender, 25 to 30 minutes, adding more water if mixture begins to stick. Add plantains during last 5 minutes of cooking.
To serve, remove sausages from beans and cut into 1-inch pieces. Return sausages to bean pot. Place the beans and meat mixture in a soup tureen or a large deep dish. Serve the vegetables on a large platter, and the chicken in a deep covered dish.