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Tru Bahamian Must Eat: Stew Fish

a close up of a bowl of food on a plate

Bahamians love breakfast, and what we refer to as ‘breakfast’ will certainly not conjure up images of eggs, toast and jam, pancakes & maple syrup.  Our breakfasts are almost entirely savory.  We want that hearty stick-to-the-ribs experience that’ll give you energy for the day and ensure that lunch does not find you famished. Typically, you’ll find us devouring boiled fish, tuna and grits, sheep tongue souse & stew fish in the morning. 

 

Origin of Stew Fish

a close up of a bowl of food on a plate

Credit: Instagram @eat_tiffood 

Like Louisiana and Eastern Cuba, the Bahamas welcomed Creole immigrants after the Haitian Revolution who brought their culture, belief systems and cuisine to the Bahamas. Being an amalgamation of people from other countries, we have many Bahamians of both recent and older Haitian heritage. It is natural that their cooking methods were merged with other classic recipes and available foods. Stew fish is similar to a New Orleans gumbo as it shares common roots. 

Stew fish uses a classic roux adopted from Creole immigrants who made the Bahamas their new home.  With so many of our savory foods having African roots, our Creole ancestors taught us how to fuse French cooking methods with African flavorful soups and stews utilizing seafood.  It was a resounding success. Cooking with roux (browned flour and oil) is a classic French cooking technique. West Africans would mix these cooking techniques with other classic flavour profiles still prevalent in Nigeria, Senegal, Benin & The Ivory Coast. Today, these savory breakfast flavors are also explored by our American neighbors in their classic southern shrimp and grits.

 

What is Stew Fish?

a close up of food

Credit: Instagram @justharry12

 

Turbot – an inexpensive staple of the Bahamian diet.

Stew Fish is a classic Bahamian breakfast.  Historically, stew fish was made from Turbot – which our American neighbors call Queen Triggerfish and our cuban neighbors call Cochino. It also has a grand latin name – Balistes Vetula. No matter what we all call it – Turbot is a white fish with a delicious balance of flavor – offering both flakiness, tenderness and moisture when enjoyed in a stew or stew boil. For residents returning to The Bahamas, as soon as the planes touch down, they’ll head to their favorite restaurants for a stew fish or stew burl (aka boil) after a long stint abroad.  Some insist their stew be made from Nassau grouper or snapper. These varieties are highly priced and a jaunt at a local fish market has you competing with a high end restaurant or hotel for the daily catch.

Turbot is frequently harvested when spearfishing and line fishing off a local reef head.  Although praying for a snapper to nibble your bait or grab the hook, we invariably pull in a turbot or barracuda. Both fish make it to the table, where it’s then skinned versus descaled. After gutting the fish, two incisions are made on each side with a sharp knife – along the top of the fish below the fin.  Using the flat of the knife, the skin is peeled back from the tail to the head on each side. The turbot is then cut into steaks. Normally, the fish head is also eaten –  being put aside later for boiled fish or fish stock. Fish head being akin to filet mignon in the islands. Interestingly, the turbot skin was laid in the sun by our ancestors converting it into a scrubbing rag to clean wooden floors. Nothing went to waste.  

Fresh fish is best from the dock to the pot.  But an old Bahamian family trick is to freeze the fish in a plastic sealable bag with clean seawater. Fish frozen in this fashion tastes freshly caught when thawed before cooking – even after spending months in the freezer. And when stew fish is ready to be served, johnny cake on the side is a must, although grits are also preferred! 

 

How to make Stew Fish

a close up of a bowl of soup

Credit: Real Bahamian Recipes

 

Stew Fish Recipe

2 to 3 lbs Turbot cut into steaks

3 tbsp. of vegetable oil (⅓ cup if not using bacon) 

4 slices of bacon

2 medium onions (one cube – one sliced)

1 stalk of celery (finely diced)

1 small potato (cubed)

1 carrot (peeled and sliced)

¾ cup of flour

2 tbsp tomato paste

3 sprigs fresh thyme

6 cups water

2 tbsp dry sherry

Salt and pepper to taste

 

Rub

2 tbsp of sea salt or kosher salt

1 small Serrano or cayenne pepper (we prefer ¼ habanero)

2 cloves of garlic

 

Pepper Sour Marinade (AKA Old Sour)

 2 large sour oranges (replace with orange and lemons if you can’t source sour orange)

3 key limes

1 Serrano or cayenne pepper sliced (for more spice: omit Serrano and replace with ¾ of a habanero diced finely)

8 allspice berries

 

Grits (AKA Hominy)

1 cup yellow grits

2 ¾ cup water

¼ cup evaporated milk

1 tbsp butter

1 clove of garlic (chopped)

Pinch of salt

 

Fish Preparation

Seasoning the fish requires two things: a marinade and a fish rub. 

The rub is easy  – salt – preferable sea salt, hot peppers and garlic. Using your fork or a mortar and pestle crush the hot pepper and garlic into the sea salt. Rub the turbot liberally with this rub. Sprinkle with crushed black pepper and set aside.  For the marinade, juice two sour oranges and three key limes. Add slices of one hot red pepper and about 8 allspice berries – we call this old sour or pepper sour sauce. Sit the turbot steaks into a bowl and pour half of the marinade over it.  Cover fish with slices of a medium onion and set aside for 20-30 minutes. Set aside the remaining marinade to enjoy with the completed dish.

 

Directions

Now that your fish is marinating it is time to prepare your roux – the classic signature feature of this dish.  Fry four slices of bacon, remove and set aside for other use. Add 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a heavy frying pan/skillet and add onion, celery, potato, thyme and carrot.  Sauté until the onions are caramelized on medium heat. Remove vegetables with a slotted spoon and set aside. Pat turbot dry and fry in the herb infused oil.  Turning fish to sear well and brown on both sides. Fry until crispy and take care that it does not burn. Remove from the oil with a slotted spoon and set aside.

After lowering the heat, stir in the ¾ cup of flour and stir slowly to brown. Ensure the flour does not burn. After the flour is a dark golden color slowly add 2 cups of water.  Return the herbs and fish to the pot and then cover with the remaining water. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cook for 20 minutes on medium heat.  Cover the pot and cook for another 10 minutes on low heat.  Stir in the dry sherry right before serving. To plate, place a serving spoon of grits at the bottom of a bowl, cover with slices of turbot and a liberal amount of stew fish broth.  Add a tablespoon of the reserved pepper sour sauce. Serve with a side of Bahamian johnny cake. Serves 4 people.

For grits, bring salt, garlic, water and evaporated milk to a boil, and add the grits – incorporating well to ensure no lumps. Add butter and mix well. Reduce heat to low and simmer for five minutes.

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