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Bougna: fish stew with sweet potatoes

Nina Friend

The pristine, remote waters that surround New Caledonia – a French island territory in the South Pacific – aren’t just known for their beauty; they’re famous for their fish. When Valentine Thomas, a world record spearfisherwoman and an international ambassador for ocean sustainability, received an invitation from local diver friends in Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia, to come and fish in the area, she said, “I could not have passed on that offer”.

Spearfishing, a form of underwater hunting that involves diving hundreds of feet below the water’s surface without any oxygen, isn’t for the faint of heart. And spearfishing in New Caledonia requires a particular kind of bravery – not only because the waters are teeming with sharks, but also because, on some of the islands, they’re fiercely guarded by the Kanak. The Kanak are a Melanesian tribe indigenous to New Caledonia, dating back to roughly 3000 BCE. Today, the Kanak – who make up about 40% of the territory’s population – actively work to protect what’s left of their land, culture and identity. In certain places, if you dare to fish without a Kanak guide, Thomas said, “You enter at your own risk. Of getting shot.”

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Along with the invitation, Thomas was advised to bring a gift for her Kanak guides, in exchange for the opportunity to fish in their waters. So, Thomas arrived at the Isle of Pines, one of the islands that makes up New Caledonia, with an offering: dive gear and spearfishing equipment for her guide’s 13-year-old son.

“It may sound odd how protective they are, but I found it really beautiful,” Thomas said. “They have deep respect for their waters.”

At the end of her trip, Thomas offered to cook for her Kanak hosts, but they insisted on cooking for her instead. “It was touching to receive such hospitality,” Thomas said.

After eating all kinds of fish in New Caledonia, from fresh sashimi to grilled lobster, Thomas’ hosts decided to give her something she hadn’t tasted before: a traditional Kanak dish called bougna marmite, which put the wahoo (also known as kingfish or barracuda) they caught earlier that day to use. As Thomas explains in her book, in the Kanak dialect, bougna means “bundle” or “pack”, and refers to how ingredients are “wrapped inside banana leaves, buried and cooked in ground ovens heated with red-hot rocks”.

After tasting bougna, Thomas decided to create her own version of the dish, which she makes by braising fish in coconut milk with sweet potatoes and spices. Instead of using wahoo, she opts for swordfish, a firm fish that’s more readily available than wahoo and has a presence of its own in New Caledonia. Thomas adds a few additional spices to the recipe, as well as a nori sheet for extra umami. The stew layers pantry staples – like sweet potatoes and coconut milk – with fragrant flavours, like fennel seeds and green cardamom. Cherry tomatoes and pomegranate seeds offer pops of brightness.

Thomas likens bougna to a French pot-au-feu or an Irish stew; it’s casual comfort food that can pull double duty as a weeknight dinner or a celebratory dish. She said, “I can still taste the explosion of flavours in my mouth.”

Bougna is one of 75 recipes in Thomas’ second cookbook, Good Catch: A Guide to Sustainable Fish and Seafood with Recipes from the World’s Oceans. The book, which came out on May 16, showcases Thomas’ unique spearfishing career through the food she has eaten around the globe – from grouper burgers in the Bahamas to snapper tartare in Mexico. 

Both with the bougna and all the other recipes in the book, Thomas hopes to demystify cooking fish, providing readers with the tools to be more confident when working with seafood. The recipes themselves range from traditional – like French-style grilled clams with butter, garlic, parsley and a baguette – to wildly inventive, like fish scale gummy bears. And yet, Thomas always has the same answer when people ask her about the best way to prepare fish: “Just fry it in the pan, drizzle with good quality olive oil and lemon juice, and enjoy it.”

Valentine Thomas's swordfish stew (bougna marmite) (Credit: Andrew Thomas Lee)

Valentine Thomas’s swordfish stew (bougna marmite) (Credit: Andrew Thomas Lee)

Swordfish Stew (Bougna) recipe
By Valentine Thomas

Serves 6


Step 1
In a large, deep ovenproof pot, combine the swordfish with the cumin, salt, paprika, celery salt, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, cardamom, nori, garlic, onion, butter, sweet potatoes and coconut milk. Cover and refrigerate overnight.  

Step 2
The next day, preheat the oven to 175C/350F. When the oven is heated, add 3 cups water to pot and stir to combine. Cover and bake for 1 hour. 

Step 3
Meanwhile, cook the rice according to the package directions.

Step 4
Once the stew has finished cooking, remove ¼ cup of the liquid from the pot and mix it with the corn flour in a small bowl until the corn flour dissolves in the hot liquid. Add the slurry to the stew and stir to combine. Simmer for 5 minutes to thicken. Stir in the cherry tomatoes.

Step 5
Serve the stew over the rice, garnished with chopped parsley and pomegranate seeds. 

Courtesy: BBC