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At first glance, it might be easy to dismiss the national dish of Cape Verde, cachupa, as not much more than a basic rustic bean and meat stew. In fact, it fuses foods from four continents into a single pot, and the result is both a point of national pride and a dish so complex that it can support a thousand variations. So important is cachupa to Cape Verdeans that each island celebrates its own version, and each cook spends a lifetime fine-tuning the perfect blend of flavors from a vibrant, ever-changing palette.
This West African nation, with islands scattered far into the Atlantic, was a frequent harbor for both slave traders and earlier, in the 15th century, for Portuguese explorers. Cape Verdeans were introduced to European beef, pork, and chicken, as well as beans, squashes, and corn from the New World long before these foods became familiar elsewhere. The Portuguese used the islands to farm New World vegetables side by side with mangos, bananas, and papayas from Asia. To these exotic tastes, Cape Verdean cooks added their own seafood, vegetables, and fruits, and the result was magic.
The most basic version is called Cachupa Pobre, a sort of a poor man’s stew that features fewer, more commonly available ingredients. This dish is easier to make as well as being less expensive, so it is eaten with much greater frequency. Dried beans, salt pork, and hominy, or samp, is the foundation, although few cooks are likely to leave it alone at that. Root and other vegetables, marinated tuna, or if affordable, pork, and different types of beans can elevate even the simplest Cachupa Pobre to a dish fit for a king.
Although the ingredients of this version may be simple, the dish’s complex flavors are the result of very slow cooking over a steady flame. For important occasions, cachupa can climb the economic and culinary ladder all the way to the top, where it is renamed Cachupa Rica, or rich man’s cachupa. This version includes a number of marinated meats and sausages and a wider range of vegetables in addition to the basic elements.
Cachupa is not only a very frequent dinner dish in Cape Verde, but it transforms itself into a memorable breakfast dish as well. Frying the leftovers turns the dish into Cachupa Refogada, and the addition of fried or scrambled eggs as well as linguica, or sausages made locally, makes for a filling morning meal.