One of the many idiosyncratic parts that make up the entire of my quirky self, is the fact that I judge people on the basis of how they pronounce certain food-related words. So yes, those who say “tomahto” curry fonder favour with me. This, as opposed to those who brandish the more millennial-esque “tomayto”. Thanks to their exposure to the American way of pronouncing the name of the humble tomato.
And it’s the exact same prejudice when it comes to some of my favourite winter dishes that I choose to pronounce “stee-u”. Much to the chagrin of those who insist it is “stu”. Yes, the one pot, slow-cooked wonder that is a stew is loved by me, beyond reason in almost all its myriad iterations. Wholesome, heart-warming versions that I’ve been lucky to tuck into in almost every country I’ve visited. And if that visit happens to coincide with the colder months of the year, then even better. For, a stew is best savoured with a hearty dose of that apt Danish word called hygge (pronounced hu-guh) which means, creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with good people.
Speaking of Denmark, one of the most intriguing winter dishes you can have there is a stew called millionbof. Literally meaning ‘million steaks’, this stew consists of ground beef that is simmered in a rich, dark gravy alongside onions and a variety of spices. This classic stew is usually accompanied by mashed or boiled potatoes and beets on the side.
The stew and Scandinavian connection shows up hundreds of miles away in the most unlikeliest of places. Having studied in the wonderful city of Liverpool, along the River Mersey in the North West of the UK, I learnt that the affectionate moniker of scouse that is bestowed upon the gregarious Liverpudlians comes from the full form of a rather simple meat and potato stew. One that’s quite similar to the famous Irish stew.
Apparently, scouse is a contraction of lobscouse, which was a type of Norwegian stew. Once popular among sailors in the maritime stronghold that was once Liverpool who brought the recipe back home with them.
On a winter trip to Hungary, I soon discovered that one cannot really escape that gentle, slightly smoky hum of the country’s national obsession called paprika. Yes, the all-pervasive spice in its dark red, medium-coarse form called rózsa finds prime position in the national dish.
Better known to most as goulash, gulyásleves is by itself a very basic meat and potatoes kind of stew that gets elevated to high gastronomic heaven when a dash of paprika and cream are added to it. Similarly, halászlé, the humble fishermen’s stew—made using river fish like carp or pike fished from the Danube—takes on a spicy hue when the warmer édesnemes variety of paprika is added to it.
Similarly, a healthy splash of red Burgundy wine that goes into perhaps the most famous stew of all time—a classic bœuf à la Bourguignonne—elevates it to an unparalleled gastronomic high. Also called beef Burgundy, this French beef stew is slow braised in red Burgundy, and beef stock, typically flavoured with carrots, onions, garlic and a bouquet garni of aromatic herbs. The garnish is always pearl onions, mushrooms and lardons of bacon.
Another classic French stew, this time using an entire fisherman’s catch of seafood is the bouillabaisse originating in the port city of Marseille. This stew is always topped with a classic rouille which is a thick sauce made from egg yolk and olive oil with breadcrumbs, garlic, saffron and cayenne pepper.
A slightly different US version of this topping called a roux finds itself as the thickening agent in a typical Louisiana stew called a gumbo. This seafood stew—made mainly by the state’s African American community—is what many refer to as the “love child” of a bouillabaisse and traditional East African stews thanks to the copious amounts of okra (ladies finger) that go into it. In fact, in The Central African Republic, okra is often referred to as gombo. Bits of the smoky French-influenced andouille sausage finish off this hearty one pot wonder.
On the other hand, still in the US, I was amused to note how similar a creamy, thick New England clam chowder (generally served in a hollowed out bread shell) was to a stew served thousands of miles away. Called kurīmu shichū, the Japanese way of pronouncing ‘cream stew’ this is a popular yōshoku (Western style) Japanese dish. Consisting of meat, usually chicken or pork, and mixed vegetables, onion, carrot, potato and cabbage, cooked in thick white roux.
The definition of a stew is very simple: any dish with meat, stock and vegetables cooked on low and slow together with a few spices is one. And while this might apply to almost all our desi curries, there are a few like the Goan sorpotel and the Kerala ishtew that are more closer to what are perceived as Western stews. While the former is very closely related to the Brazilian stew of feijoada, the latter—that uses coconut milk as its base—has the most interesting cousin rather far away.
The Indonesian stew of brongkos from the island of Java consists of diced goat meat, hard boiled egg and tofu, along with black-eyed peas or red kidney beans and diced carrots, all simmered for hours in coconut milk. This is further flavoured with spices, herbs and condiments like bruised lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, bay leaves, salt, and palm sugar along with a local fruit called black kluwek that gives the stew a rich dark blackish red hue.
Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.