South Africa: Getting into a Stew over Coffee

It was only when I finally moved to Cape Town to be with my partner that I realised I had, in fact, moved in with my own private flavourphobe.

From the very first meal I made us, it was abundantly clear that any thoughts I may have been harbouring about bringing about instant flavour-reform to his palette were a complete waste of time. His tastes preferences were set and I would simply have come to terms with the fact that there wasn’t going to be a belacan-epiphany or a glorious moment of garlic-redemption on the immediate horizon. Regardless how I felt about it, I had made my proverbial table so, for now at least, I was just going to have to eat at it.

For the first few months I dutifully made the plain dishes he enjoyed, but like all good spouses I was really doing what we do best – biding time. An errant garlic clove here, an extra splash of Worcestershire sauce there, little by little I tested the waters and after a while I began to introduce new dishes for his consideration. Some of these offerings were more successful than others, some were downright disasters, although with hindsight the roasted lamb with anchovies was particularly ill considered!

To be honest, at this point in time I was starting to rack up considerably more misses than hits; then I discovered Idaho Stew.

I had never heard of it before, but on paper Idaho Stew fit the bill perfectly; it was a simple, old school beef braise with one small twist – it had coffee in it! It may seem minor now, but please remember that, culinarily speaking, South Africa was a very different place back in 2000. Back then the mere notion of sushi was downright provocative and the thought of cooking a savoury dish with coffee was considered, at best, daring to most South Africans (let alone my dearest flavourphobe)! So yes, back then this humble stew was a risk, but I had to try it, lest I be condemned to making sausage, peas and mash for the rest of my life.

So one night I bit the bullet and dished up my ‘daring’ new stew for dinner. With baited breath I watched as he eyed my latest offering with understandable suspicion. “What is it?”, he asked. “Oh, nothing weird, just a stew” I said, in what I hoped was my most casual voice. “Hmm, okay”, came the reply. Clearly he wasn’t convinced, perhaps the lingering trauma of that damn anchovy lamb was playing on his mind. In spite of his obvious suspicions he took a bite, albeit tentitively and after a moment of furrowed consideration he took another, then another – the stew was hit! It was only once his plate was cleared that I dared divulge the contentious ingredient.

“Coffee? Really? You can’t taste it”.

Wow, he was taking this surprisingly well.

“You can definitely make this again”.

Oh, sweet success!

“But next time may I have it with rice and not mash?”.

Sigh. Okay, so he is still a freak, but I’ll take the win.

To this day Idaho Stew remains a firm favourite in his limited pantheon of acceptable meals and I still make it often, although he normally refers to it as “his coffee stew” suggesting a secret revelry in the kudos of his expanded palette. These days I usually have a couple of handy portions of this stew in the back of the freezer which I whip out for my partner when we have guests and the menu isn’t to his taste. Unfortunately, this seems to have given his much loved “coffee stew” a bad rep as one of “Brian’s meals”, which is, frankly, simply a byword for dull. Normally this would be quite true, but for a change nothing could be further from the truth. Chock full of flavour, Idaho Stew is so delicious even I would happily eat it – which is either a sad indictment the demise of my own palette, or proof that you can teach an old flavourphobe new tricks; thankfully, it is very much the latter!

So coffee in a stew may not have been the belacan-epiphany I’d been hoping for, but I’m still biding my time.

For recipe for Idaho Stew, please click here

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