Why It Works
- A base of tomatoes, onions, and sweet and hot peppers is incredibly flexible and able to create a wide variety of stews.
- Cooking down the aromatic base smooths out the raw vegetal edge, setting the stage for the seasonings to shine.
When you talk about "stew" in Nigeria, you're not referring to a general recipe category but instead a specific group of pepper-and-tomato–based dishes made with meat, seafood, or poultry. Stew is a mainstay of many Nigerian meals, served at any time of day from breakfast to dinner. It is also umami personified, with a balance of sweet, slightly salty, savory, and fresh flavors, layered with the unique character of the meat itself.
Stew exists on a spectrum with variations in thickness and consistency, as well as differing ratios of tomatoes to peppers, although the results are generally red in appearance. Growing up in Nigeria, I noticed two main types: a thicker stew built on a nicely fried aromatic base for rice, beans, and/or bread, and a lighter, soup-like consistency popular when served with swallows like eba.
Across Nigeria, stew can go by many more specific names, which correlate with each rendition's specific consistency, ingredients, and regional origin. For instance, in Yoruba, the language of the southwest, a very liquid, smooth stew is called omi obe (the literal translation is "stew water") versus a thicker, at times chunkier obe ata ("pepper" stew,) and ata dindin ("fried" pepper stew). Please note that in these instances, pepper doesn't indicate an intense heat level, but rather is meant to describe one of the primary stew base ingredients.
Depending on the style of stew and one's predilection, it can be paired with soft, white bread for dipping; spooned over or alongside rice, beans, cooked roots, tubers, or vegetables; served together with other stews—gbegiri (creamy beans), ewedu (green jute leaves), or plain steamed okro (the Nigerian name for okra), with eba alongside; and stirred into other dishes from egg sauce to Jollof rice and Jollof pasta.
Because of how often it features on the Nigerian table, some Nigerians cook a large batch, portion it into containers, and then refrigerate or freeze it to use as desired.
There are four key elements to making stew. First, there's the aromatic base, which is typically a blend of fresh tomatoes, red onions, and peppers (hot and/or sweet); sometimes tomato paste is also added to deepen the tomatoey flavor and color. These days, particularly in the diaspora where home ovens are increasingly used to mimic the smoky flavors of Nigerian outdoor cooking, you'll find people roasting the vegetables before blending to create a smoky, slightly creamier base.
Second, there's the protein, whether a single meat or a mix, including beef, chicken, goat, various types of offal, fish (fresh and dried), mushrooms, and more. Many people cook the protein ahead, often boiling, frying (today also airfrying), roasting, or grilling it, before adding it to the stew base to cook further. The method of cooking the protein comes down to personal preference. Here, I start by cooking beef chuck in a seasoned broth and then reserve the resulting stock to cook the stew; to deepen the beef's flavor, I subsequently roast it before adding it to the stew.
The third critical component of stew are the seasonings, which can include traditional fermented nuts and seeds or more colonial or imported seasonings like curry powder, dried thyme, and bayleaf; aromatics like ginger and garlic sometimes feature as well. Generally, these two approaches to seasoning govern the outcome, so that traditionally stews are wholly traditional, featuring classic indigenous seasoning, and often are cooked with palm oil, which brings me to the fourth element: oil.
The cooking oil is important. In some cases, the oil's own flavor contributes to the overall finished dish, like in traditional recipes where red palm oil (or a smoky version of it) is used. In other cases, flavorless and colorless oils are used and contribute to the texture, not so much the flavor.
As you can see, there are countless ways to make Nigerian stew, but that's what makes it so great. Feel free to make variations of your own using this stew recipe as the base, trying different proteins, different seasonings or cooking oils, or even stirring in greens like amaranth or callaloo. While the term "stew" in Nigeria may not be quite as expansive a term as it is in many other places, the possibilities are still endless.
- For the Stock and Beef:
- One 2-ounce (60g) piece fresh ginger (about one 4-inch knob), peeled
- 4 medium cloves garlic (3/4 ounce; 20g), peeled
- 1 pound 12 ounces (about 800g) boneless or bone-in beef chuck
- 1 medium red onion (8 ounces; 225g), roughly chopped
- 1 medium green bell pepper (5 ounces; 140g), stemmed, seeded, and roughly chopped
- 1 habanero pepper, whole (optional)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons (22g) Nigerian/Caribbean-style curry powder
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme leaves
- 3 bay leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Kosher or sea salt
- For the Stew Base:
- 1 pound ripe plum tomatoes (450g; about 5 tomatoes), cored and roughly chopped
- 1 large red onion (12 ounces; 340g), roughly chopped
- 2 red bell peppers (about 1 pound/454g total), stemmed, seeded, and roughly chopped
- For the Stew:
- 3/4 cup (177ml) vegetable oil
- 1 small red onion (4 ounces; 113g), thinly sliced
- Kosher or sea salt
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon (15g) curry powder
- 1/2 tablespoon (7g) dried thyme
- 3 tablespoons (45g) tomato paste
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 habanero pepper, poked all over with a paring knife (optional)
- Cooked white rice and dodo, roasted yams, or other roasted root vegetables, for serving
For the Stock and Beef: In a blender, process ginger and garlic with 2 cups (472ml) water until thoroughly blended.
In a large pot, combine beef chuck with onion, bell pepper, and habanero (if using). Pour ginger-garlic mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into pot, pressing on solids to extract as much liquid as possible before discarding the fiber. Add curry powder, dried thyme, bay leaves, black pepper, and a large pinch of salt. Add enough additional water to just cover all solid ingredients (about 2 1/2 quarts; 2.5L); stir to combine.
Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to maintain a simmer and cook until the stock is aromatic and the beef is tender, about 1 hour 30 minutes.
Using tongs, transfer beef to a platter and set aside.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the vegetables and bay leaves to the blender and puree with 1 cup (225ml) of stock until homogenous and smooth. Pour pureed vegetables through a fine-mesh strainer back into stock, pressing on solids to extract as much liquid as possible; discard remaining vegetable matter trapped in the strainer. Stir well to combine, then set stock aside.
For the Stew Base: Heat oven to 400°F (205°C). Cut cooked beef into roughly 2-inch chunks; feel free to leave any bones in. Arrange beef in an even layer on a rimmed baking sheet and roast until browned all over, about 15 minutes. Set aside.
In a blender or food processor, combine tomatoes, red onion, bell peppers, and 2 cups (472ml) reserved stock. Blend or process until a smooth puree forms.
Scrape vegetable puree into a 3-quart stainless steel saucepan or saucier. Cover partially with a lid to contain splatter and cook at a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally, until reduced by half, 30 to 45 minutes. Scrape stew base into a heatproof container, cover, and set aside. Wash out pot.
For the Stew: In the cleaned 3-quart pot, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat until shimmering, then add sliced onion along with a large pinch of salt and cook, stirring, until slightly softened, about 4 minutes. Add the bay leaves, curry powder, and dried thyme, and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes longer.
Stir in the tomato paste and continue to cook until tomato paste has lost its bright red color, about 5 minutes; lower heat if necessary to prevent scorching.
Stir in the reserved stew base along with 2 cups (472ml) reserved stock, black pepper, and habanero (if using), and simmer until the stew base thickens and oil pools on the surface, about 20 minutes. Season with salt.
Stir in the beef and continue to simmer until the beef is warmed through, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat and season with additional salt, if desired.
Serve with white rice and dodo, yam, or other root vegetables.
blender, 3-quart stainless steel saucepan or saucier
Make-Ahead and Storage
The stock and stew base can be prepared in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week, or frozen for up to 2 months. In an airtight container, the finished Nigerian beef stew can be refrigerated for a week, or frozen for up to 3 months; I prefer storing the meat and stew separately to help preserve the texture of the meat.