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Cou-cou is a Caribbean dish made primarily from okra and cornmeal. Depending on its preparation, cou-cou can be a very neutral-tasting base for spicy food or it can have a character of its own when made with spices and vegetables. The way cou-cou is cooked is similar to the way soft Italian polenta is made, except the addition of okra can make the mixture much stiffer. It is part of the national dish of Barbados when paired with fillets of flying fish and often is served with thick stews or roasted meats.
Cornmeal to be used in cou-cou is first soaked in water for a few minutes. At the same time, any vegetable ingredients are sliced or diced and then fried briefly in a pan with butter. A pot of water is taken to a boil before okra is added and cooked so the thickening agents are drawn out. After cooking, the okra is removed from the pot and some of the water is set aside for later use.
While the water is still boiling, the moistened cornmeal is slowly poured in. The mixture is constantly stirred to ensure that no lumps form. Some traditional cooks insist that cou-cou can only be properly stirred with a wooden cou-cou stick — a long, flat wooden utensil like a paddle. One reason it is used is that, as the cornmeal begins to absorb water, it becomes very thick and hard to stir, potentially causing plastic or weaker spoons to break in the pan.
As the cornmeal mixture starts to thicken, the okra and any other vegetables are added back into the pot and stirred until evenly distributed. Some vegetables that are added besides the okra can include onions, scallions and green peppers. During the cooking process, each time it appears that the water has nearly all boiled away, it is replenished with water from the original boiling of the okra.
Once the cornmeal has absorbed all of the water it can and is soft and the texture of the mixture is very firm, the dish is complete. Some recipes call for butter to be added at the very end to add richness to the dish. When being served, the cornmeal is emptied into a bowl that has been buttered, forming it into a dome shape with a glossy finish. It is unmolded onto a plate and a small depression is made in the center so any sauce poured over the top will well up and sink into the cou-cou.