Moqueca do Peixe: A Homestay Recipe

by kangcuzzi

This is a piece I wrote as my contribution to the Brazil group’s Update from the Field — a regular update we produce to illustrate our time spent abroad. To read the beautiful works of my fellow Bridge Year companions, you can find the whole update here.

Moqueca do Peixe: A Homestay Recipe

A kilogram of fish
An onion
A tomato
A handful of cilantro
A bottle of coconut milk
A splash of dendê (palm) oil

Inês’ Method:

1. Coat the fish with lemon juice to dilute the scent.

I arrive in Bahia as a fish out of water. The Spanish speaker in me deflates upon witnessing a mind-bending transformation of once-known words: estación (station) has become estação, ciudad (city) has become cidade, and the infallible gracias has somehow become obrigada. The Korean in me never finds familiar faces in the sea of Afro-Brazilians, who always ask if I’m Japanese.

In my homestay, I look out the window and gaze at the upper part of my neighbourhood, Candeal, in all its red-bricked and coloured glory, wondering when I’ll finally understand how Salvador works: how to get around, what foods I like, why people live as if time doesn’t exist.

2. Chop the onion, the tomato and the cilantro into small pieces and place them in a pan.

What matters are the small things. Every day I meet someone new in the neighbourhood; some nights, I talk to neighbours about where I’m from, what I love most about Brazil, and what I think about Bahian chilli. I start learning Capoeira Angola at an association on my street with free-spirited Maestre Chico, who sporadically doesn’t show up to class. On those days, I join a group of young girls as they host impromptu fashion shows and catwalks on the street; if I’m hungry, I walk over to a nearby acarajé stand and satisfy my bean fritter addiction.

Likewise, work is a step-by-step endeavour: every day at Canteiros Coletivos — a movement that rejuvenates abandoned public spaces with plants and art — I learn about new plants, their aromas, and how to use spray paint without spilling it. After work, I explore the neighbouring districts of Lapa and Campo Grande, finding different parks, stores and eateries. One day I find a pasteleria (a pastry store) named after my home city, Hong Kong, and the saudades — the nostalgic longing to be near again to someone or something that is now distant — hit me hard.

3. Pour the coconut milk into the pan.

During a work visit to Salvador’s Botanic Gardens, our guide tells me that Bahians love their cocoeiras, or coconut trees. There’s a certain romanticism to them, he says.

I’ve learnt that coconuts do offer warmth for the soul. One hot day, I decide to bring a young coconut to my homestay mother, Inês, after an afternoon’s worth of work. My hope of surprising her at her store, however, dissolves when I realise her store is closed; instead, I find her walking the dog, Flex, at the entrance of our neighbourhood.

When I appear hugging two coconuts to my chest, coconut stains all over my shirt, Inês looks up, surprised— and pleased. She tells me she’ll be home soon, and that I should leave her coconut in the kitchen. Later on that day, she enters my room with a bowl of homemade Oreo fudge ice-cream and offers it to me. Her reciprocal gesture of warmth is as sweet and rich as the ice-cream itself.

4. Add a splash of dendê oil to the mixture.

Dendê oil, Bahia’s ubiquitous palm oil, is a key ingredient when making memories. What was once an overpowering condiment becomes an integral part of the acarajé runs I make with Jordan and Asia post-group meetings and Portuguese class; the maxixe vegetable stew I made with Annie, our fall instructor, after a morning in the gym; and the moqueca I prepared with my work mentors Débora and Thiago to eat in the shaded cool of their garden.

5. Leave to simmer over medium heat for ten minutes.

Some moments are difficult. Sometimes, it takes several attempts until my homestay siblings, Maiana and Marcos, understand what I’m trying to say. It takes me even longer to understand their response. When a taxi driver shows up thirty minutes late, or when my brother takes forty minutes in the shower, the perfectionist in me — who is so used to following exact schedules and times — breaks down in exasperation; it doesn’t help that time here, in Bahia, is an abstract concept that never dictates one’s day. When my ‘bom dias’ (good mornings) are responded to with ‘konichiwas’, ‘arigatos’ or long, unwelcome stares, I wish I was invisible, left to explore the hot streets of Salvador alone.

6. Serve and eat!

But good moments come in generous portions. Despite the enduring tell-tale signs of my foreignness, there are times when I forget I have travelled many kilometres to reach my destination. These are the days when I return from church with my mother, Inês, and we drink her signature chocolate milkshake over laughter and small talk. These are the days I lie on the beach, beneath a hot, Bahian sun, watching my six other Princeton companions enter the sea or share a packet of cheap wafers. These are the days I wake up to birdsong outside my window, from a room I can call my own.