This dish is summer in a bowl, equal parts comforting and exotic.
Bobó de Camarão (sometimes called Shrimp Bobó) is a shrimp chowder dish from coastal Brazil, thickened with mashed cassava (mandioca). This stew was likely inspired by a similar, traditional West African dish made with yams, which was brought to Brazil by West African slaves during the transatlantic slave trade from the 16th to 19th centuries. Other signature flavors from this dish include buttery red palm oil (dendê) and creamy coconut milk (leite de côco).
Red palm oil, originally from West Africa, is a controversial ingredient: the majority of palm oil is produced in Southeast Asia, where deforestation of palm oil trees has negatively impacted orangutan populations. For this reason, I prefer sustainably-harvested palm oil, like this one from Nutiva; their oil is part of the “Palm Done Right” international campaign, grown and harvested in Ecuador without contributing to deforestation or habitat destruction.
Given that red palm oil requires such careful consideration, you may be wondering why bother with it in the first place. Red palm oil is high in antioxidants and vitamins A and E, and has a health-promoting fatty acid profile (about 42% each saturated and monounsaturated fats)–in truth, it has one of the best nutrient profiles among cooking fats. And from a culinary perspective, the oil imparts a rich flavor, velvety texture, and has a high smoking point (about 350F). Over the past few years, I’ve come to prefer making popcorn in red palm oil, which adds a pleasing yellow color to the final product. If you don’t have access to sustainably-harvested red palm oil, never fear: this dish is also delicious when made with coconut oil or olive oil.
This dish is relatively simple overall, but does require a few phases: first, you’ll make a seafood stock using the shrimp shells, then boil the cassava and make a flavor base using tomatoes, onions, and peppers; next, you’ll blend the flavor base with coconut milk, pan-fry the shrimp, and put it all together. To save time, you can use peeled shrimp and pre-made seafood stock. But even then, this isn’t a dish I’d recommend you first tackle on a busy weeknight–it really benefits from an unhurried cooking environment, when you can play some relaxing music and envelop yourself in these tropical aromas. It’s worth the extra bit of effort and planning.
Bobó de Camarão - Brazilian Shrimp Stew (Gluten-free, Paleo, Primal, Perfect Health Diet)
2 lbs shrimp, head and shell-on (see note below)
1/2 tsp salt, more to taste
2 tbsp butter, divided
1/2 bunch cilantro, divided
8 black peppercorns (about 1 tsp)
1 lb fresh or frozen cassava, peeled and cut into 2” chunks
1 medium onion, diced (about 1 cup diced)
2 medium tomatoes, quartered (about 1 cup)
1 medium yellow bell pepper, diced (about 1 cup diced), divided
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2” fresh ginger, peeled and grated (or 1/4 tsp ground ginger)
1 (13oz) can coconut milk
4 tbsp sustainably-harvested red palm oil, divided
1 spicy red chili pepper (optional), seeds and ribs removed, diced
1. Peel the shrimp and set aside the heads and shells (I like to keep the tail ends on the shrimp, but feel free to remove them as well). Toss the peeled shrimp in a bowl with a pinch of salt, then refrigerate while you prepare the rest of the meal.
2. Warm 1 tbsp of the butter in a stockpot over medium-high heat. Add the shrimp heads and shells and a few pinches of salt, and sauté until the shells are bright pink and starting to crisp at the edges, about 3 minutes, stirring often to prevent scorching. Stir in 6 cups of water, 1/2 tsp salt, the stems from the cilantro, and the peppercorns; bring to a simmer, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 45 minutes. Strain the shrimp stock and set aside, discarding the shrimp shells and other solids. Wipe the stockpot clean.
3. Add the cassava pieces to a saucepan and cover with enough water to cover the cassava by 1”. Bring to a boil and simmer until easily pierced with a fork, about 20 minutes, then strain and mash with a fork or through a ricer to create a fine, dry mash. Discard any hardened pieces.
4. As the cassava cooks, prepare your vegetables. Warm the other 1 tbsp of the butter in the stockpot over medium heat. Add the onion, tomatoes, and all but 2 tbsp of the yellow bell pepper, and sauté until very soft, about 10 minutes, stirring often. Stir in the garlic and ginger and a pinch or two of salt; sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds, then ladle in 2 cups of the seafood stock. Simmer until half of the liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes, stirring often.
5. Transfer the vegetables to a blender; rinse and wipe the stockpot clean. Pour the can of coconut milk into the blender and blend everything at high speed until uniform, about 1 minute, then strain through a mesh sieve into the stockpot to collect any unblended tomato skins and other solids. Heat the stockpot over medium heat and whisk in the mashed cassava and 2 tbsp of the red palm oil, and stir until incorporated. Add any of the remaining seafood stock as needed to create a chowder-like consistency. Bring to a simmer then reduce heat to low to gently bubble as you prepare the shrimp.
6. Warm the remaining 2 tbsp of palm oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering, about 2 minutes. Add the shrimp and brown on each side, about 1 minute per side, in batches if needed to prevent overcrowding. Gently stir the browned shrimp into the soup along with the remaining 2 tbsp of yellow bell pepper and the spicy red chili pepper; increase heat to medium and simmer until the shrimp is bright pink and curling, about 3 minutes. Season with salt to taste, then remove from heat and serve atop white rice, garnished with chopped cilantro.
** To shave off nearly an hour’s cooking time, use peeled shrimp and 6 cups seafood stock instead of peeling the shrimp to make your own stock.
** Cassava is often found at Asian or Latino food markets; if you can’t find it fresh, try looking in the frozen aisle. Frozen cassava is sometimes available in conventional supermarkets as well.