The national dish, “catchupa”, is a stew of hominy and beans with fish or meat. It means home to Caboverdeans everywhere. Catchupa is a slow boiled stew of hominy corn, beans, vegetables, spices and marinated pork or tuna. It is often described as the staple food of the Cabo Verde Islands.
At any given moment an inventory of the ingredients in a kettle of catchupa may even be a pretty good index of the economic health of family in Cabo Verde.
What’s in the catchupa might depend more on whether someone in the household has a reliable job and can afford to supply the kitchen from the village market place or store. Most Caboverdeans who reside in the countryside maintain gardens to grow a little mandioca, beans and perhaps some greens to fatten a pig for their catchupa. If it’s to be a wedding or other very special occasion, folks somehow manage to get together and make sure that the kettle overflows with sausage, marinated meats, and vegetables. We call this a “Catchupa Rica”.
Cooking catchupa from dry ingredients may require as much as four hours over a slow but steady flame. Years of drought have made firewood scarce. Locally produced charcoal is seldom in adequate supply. In rural area, women and children spend many hours each day gathering firewood (lenha). Despite government subsidies to make bottled gas easily available to all the cost to many poor families is prohibitive. Gradually the effects of drought and its continuing impact on agricultural production and the availability of affordable fuel have combined to transform the culinary tradition of Cabo Verde.
Catchupa rica has become expensive in Cabo Verde Islands and something a family can only hope to serve on special occasions. Years ago imported rice was served on these special occasions. “Canja de galinha”, the thick chicken and rice soup is one such dish, and is still served for weddings, funerals or First Night celebration or perhaps to nurse a sick relative to health.
Today rice which cooks under twenty minutes is fast replacing corn as the staple of Cabo Verde. For Caboverdeans scattered in immigrant communities around the world, it’s always a special occasion when friends gather to share a well-made kettle of catchupa. These festive occasions are called catchupada. In spite of the amount of time it takes and the rising costs of making a catchupa rica in the United States or Europe, Caboverdeans everywhere will still make an effort to bring added significance to a social gathering by setting a pot of catchupa on the table.
Caboverdeans trust in the “power” of catchupa to transform a simple meal into an occasion for storytelling and sharing memories. Catchupa can teach a lot about Caboverdean culture. Recipes for catchupa vary from island to island and from household to household. On Brava island catchupa is called muntchupa. What’s in a kettle of catchupa may also depend on whether it has been a year of rain or a year of drought. In a good year there will always be greens, mandioca, potatoes, maybe squash, yams, and plenty of pork meat. In a dry year you might have to make due with corn, a handful of beans and a piece of salt pork. Catchupa recipes can be easily adjusted to accommodate household preferences. Marinated chicken, beef or fresh tuna can substitute for pork. And for a vegetarian offering corn, beans and greens are one of nature’s healthiest combinations.
But the best is yet to come – leftover catchupa for breakfast! To really prepare yourself for a day’s work on a fishing boat or a night on the town, nothing sticks to your ribs quite like catchupa guisada. Fry up a few ladles of catchupa on top of some browned onions and let it heat up slowly until it begins to dry out. Some folks let it cook up until it is almost crispy on the bottom. Serve it with a fried egg on top “catchupa ku ovo strelado” and you’re ready for anything life has to offer.