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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 flavor base for spicy foods 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 Barbados’ national dish when paired with fillets of flying fish and is often served with thick stews or roasted meats.
The cornmeal to be used in the cou-cou is first soaked in water for a few minutes. At the same time, all the vegetable ingredients are sliced or cut into cubes and then quickly fried in a pan with butter. A pot of water is brought to a boil before the okra is added and cooked to remove the thickening agents. After cooking, the okra is removed from the pan and some of the water is reserved for later use.
While the water is still boiling, the moistened cornmeal is slowly poured. The mixture is stirred constantly to ensure that no lumps form. Some traditional cooks insist that cou-cou can only be stirred properly with a wooden cou-cou stick – a long, flat wooden utensil, like an oar. One of the reasons for its use is that, as the cornmeal begins to absorb water, it becomes very thick and difficult to stir, which can cause plastic or weaker spoons to break in the pan.
As the cornmeal mixture begins to thicken, the okra and any other vegetables are placed back in the pan and stirred until evenly distributed. Some vegetables that are added in addition to okra can include onions, chives, and green peppers. During the cooking process, each time it appears that almost all the water has evaporated, it is replenished with the water from the original boil of the okra.
Once the cornmeal has absorbed as much water as it can and is soft and the texture of the mixture very firm, the dish is complete. Some recipes call for butter to be added at the end to add richness to the dish. When served, the cornmeal is poured into a bowl greased with butter, forming a dome with a glossy finish. It is unmolded on a plate and a small depression is made in the center so that any sauce spilled on top can well rise and sink into the couscous.