Moqueca is a heritage Brazilian dish with a lineage that goes back well over 400 years. Hailing from a region now delineated the the state of Espirito Santo on Brazil’s central coast up to the Northeastern states of Bahia, Pernambuco and Para. Its origin most likely derives from a method of cooking used by indigenous Brazilian Indians called moquém in the Tupi language, simply refering to fish or meat, tubers, vegetables and fruits wrapped in leaves then slowly roasted over a fire. This method of preparation allows the ingredients to cook in their own juices, creating a flavorful and more nutritious result than simply roasting over an open flame.
Over the 16th, 17th and 18 centuries, the dish evolved to what we now know as moqueca as it was embellished by African slaves in Brazil to include dende and coconut milk, and moved from leaves to cooking vessels more suitable for the time, specifically pots known as “panela de barro” (literally clay pot), which allowed for the preparation of the dish in larger quantities. By the mid 19th century, moqueca had become a well-referenced, common dish throughout Brazil.
The basic ingredients of a moqueca are onions, peppers, tomatoes, cilantro, seafood or chicken, coconut oil, olive oil and red palm oil (dende). You will also find regional variations of moqueca like that stray from that canon, like “moqueca capixaba,” a version which originates from in state of Espirito Santo (just north of the state of Rio de Janeiro). It is made without and coconut milk (ubiquitous in other more African-influenced versions), using urucum (achiote) and ripe tomatoes to achieve its deep red color. Other regional versions feature local native meats, fish and other seafood, vegetables and fruit. Most types of moqueca are served with rice, pirão (cassava grits) and hot sauce made of local peppers.
Whatever version of moqueca you find yourself partaking of, at its best it should be an experience that connects us to the cultural heart of Brazil and its people.