Menu overhauls don't always catch our eye, although they're a necessary part of the evolution of a good restaurant, allowing chefs to stretch their culinary muscles and introduce diners to something new. But when Joseph "JJ" Johnson, the chef of The Cecil in Harlem, announced recently that he would be turning over his entire menu, replacing his popular gumbo with the Brazilian fish stew moqueca (see the recipe), I opened Google Maps immediately to calculate the distance from my desk to a table at the restaurant.
It's a dish I hadn't seen in four years, since my sister and I visited Salvador de Bahia—a city that sits just below the knuckle of Brazil that juts out into the South Atlantic and is the birthplace of moqueca Baiana and Afro-Brazilian culture.
One hot day, we hopped a cab to the outskirts of town, searching for the dish at Paraíso Tropical, a restaurant run by chef Beto Pimentel, using ingredients he grows at his organic farm across the road. Settling down at a small table on the balcony of the restaurant, just the two of us, we felt like we had a guest at our lunch: A long branch of a tree was reaching out toward us, close enough that I could touch it. There are few walls at this restaurant, as if someone stopped building halfway through, leaving the surrounding forest to keep claim over its territory. It's the sort of place that could exist only in a city like Salvador, where life is lived outdoors.
Even before the clay pot of bubbling moqueca reached our table, I could smell it, heady with spices both familiar and new. Loaded with chunks of fish and shellfish, coconut milk and an inferno of red dendê (palm oil), it's a "roller coaster" of a dish, as Brazilian chef and cookbook author Andre Lima de Luca says. Deep and earthy from the oil and coconut, light and bright from citrus juice and fresh cilantro, it tastes of the sea in that particular way dishes of port towns do.
The stew is complex and beguiling: It has an unlikely combination of flavors that embodies the region's past as a place that was conquered by the Portuguese and Dutch, and served as a hub for the African slave trade for centuries. "When you talk about moqueca, I think you talk about a whole culture that's represented by the Africans in Brazil," Brazilian American cookbook author Leticia Moreinos Schwartz explains.
The dish's exact history is hazy, but general lore is that cooks in Salvador—starting as long as 300 years ago by some accounts—combined local fish from the port with coconut milk, Portuguese refogado (a variation on sofrito) and palm oil brought from Africa to the region through the slave trade to create the dish. But, "Some people say it was from [even] before that, from the Indians," who used a similar word for fish cooked in banana leaves, Lima de Luca says. Complicating matters further, he explains, is a similar dish claimed by Spirito Santo, a region further south along Brazil's coast. "It's so old that I can't say if it's Indian, African or if this started in Bahia or in Spirito Santo. There are too many theories about it," he says.
But it's this kind of conversation that Johnson is playing out on the plates at his restaurant, where he focuses on foods that grew out of slavery, particularly African slavery (a sharp reminder that some of the world's most flavorful dishes stem from periods of brutality). When I ask him why he changed his menu, he explains, "Afro-Asian-American cooking is this huge conversation. I don't want anyone to believe it's one dimensional."
With that objective in mind, Johnson doesn't feel tied tightly to tradition. His rendition of moqueca is thoroughly his own, replacing coconut milk with a milk made from cassava, and leaving out palm oil because of environmental concerns. Instead of its familiar red hue, Johnson's is verdant, colored by a broth made of jalapeño, collard greens and spinach, with its taste of the sea coming from smoked salmon, salt cod and prawns. It is deeply flavorful and equally as beguiling as the one I had in Salvador.
I just looked at the map again. That bowl is only 37 minutes from my desk.
Please check your inbox to verify your email address.