Gustavo told me about moqueca several years ago, and of course I tried to make it based on various recipes I dug up online. It wasn’t until we got to Brazil, though, that I had the real thing. (And learned the secret to making it taste “right”!) This vegetarian moqueca recipe is based on what I learned there.
I was fascinated by the fish traditionally used in the dish: cação. (Its name has nothing to do with chocolate, as far as I can tell). Attempts to translate the name only turned up “shark,” which surely couldn’t be right, could it?
Yes. It was. To my amusement, Gustavo’s family had never realized that cação is shark meat. They were as surprised as I was!
Naturally, my vegetarian moqueca doesn’t include shark. Feel free, though, to use fish if you’re not vegetarian! Add white fish like cod or tilapia in Step 3 along with the pepper strips, and stir relatively little afterward to keep the fish pieces intact.
Now, back to the secret to making moqueca taste “right”: red palm oil. This definitely adds a distinctive flavor to the dish. If you can’t find sustainable palm oil, though, please substitute coconut oil or another oil of your choice. For more information on the problems with non-sustainable palm oil, read this link.
Note: you can make substitutes for just about any ingredients in here based on what you have on hand. Kabocha squash is my favorite for this recipe, but you can definitely use a sugar pumpkin, butternut squash, or other similar option instead. If you don’t have San Marzano tomatoes specifically, other canned tomatoes will work too. And feel free to swap out the bell peppers for other veggies if you prefer! Every variation I’ve made on this dish has been delicious, and the richness of the sauce means it’s very forgiving.
- 1 medium yellow onion
- 1 pound assorted bell peppers
- ½ kabocha squash (or substitute pumpkin, butternut squash, etc.)
- 2 tablespoons red palm oil
- salt to taste
- 1 14-oz can of peeled San Marzano tomatoes
- 1 13.5-oz can of coconut milk
- cilantro for garnish
- rice for 4
Prepare the vegetables:
- Finely dice the onion. Cut the 1 pound of bell peppers into bite-sized strips. Peel, gut, and cube the 1/2 kabocha squash.
Fry the onions and canned tomato:
- In a large pan, heat the 2 tablespoons of palm oil (or substitute) until it begins to shimmer, then add the diced onion and salt to taste. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion begins to turn golden, then add the canned tomatoes (along with their juices).
- Fry, stirring constantly, for several minutes. The tomato sauce should begin to darken just slightly. As you stir, break up the whole tomatoes into pieces.
- Add the coconut milk and stir to combine.
Cook the squash and bell peppers:
- Add the cubed squash to the mixture. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the squash begins to soften, 8 to 10 minutes.
- Add the pepper strips. Continue to cook over medium heat until the pepper strips are tender, around 15 minutes.
Season and serve:
- Taste the moqueca and add salt, if necessary. Serve with rice, garnished with fresh cilantro.