Tuesday, February 6, 2018

You need to know about Chilau

The first thing you need to know is how to pronounce Chilau. Is it “Shee-Low,” “Chill-Aww,” “Shill-Oww?” I’ve heard all three, as well as every combination in between. Like the dish itself, the pronunciation is amorphous, ad-hoc, it’s about whatever works.

Chilau is a mysterious thing, though it’s most directly associated with Florida’s Gulf Coast, and with Tampa Bay specifically, it’s possible to live on the coast or the bay for your whole life without encountering it. It’s one of Florida’s most unique contributions to cuisine, but you’ll have a hard time finding it on the menu of any restaurant, with the notable exception of Tampa’s long-gone, but much beloved, Seabreeze fish house, which served what is often considered to be a definitive Chilau. The dish, however, defies solid definition, as it is a kind of home-cooked improvisation, and it can vary greatly in style and flavor.

On a basic level, Chilau is a just a kind of tomato-based seafood stew, not completely unlike Cioppino. But while Cioppino sits solidly in an Italian-American flavor profile, Chilau is a creolized mash-up of cultural influences. Chilau is a riff on Caribbean, African-American, Italian, Spanish and Cuban flavors, all applied to whatever you happen to catch, or whatever looks good at the fish market. It can vary in texture from similar to tomato soup, to something like a seafood chili, all the way to a chunky pasta sauce, depending on preference. And it can be mild and sweet, or punishingly spicy.

How to Chilau:
In a way, Chilau is more of a cooking method than a specific recipe, so it’s hard to put down exact amounts of anything or write out a specific recipe. Traditionally, Chilau was made with fresh caught blue crabs from Tampa Bay, but in recent years, pollution has hurt both the availability and the quality of the Bay’s crabs (though I have heard rumors of some secret crabbing spots around the Safety Harbor/Upper Tampa Bay area). Fresh Blue crabs are amazing, but Chilau can be made with nearly any combination of seafood. I’ve heard of it made with catfish, mullet, oysters, scallops, lobster, shrimp, pretty much anything delicious from the water.

Anyway, here’s my method for a medium-ish pot of the goodness:
Start by heating some olive oil or some butter in a deep pot, then add a chopped onion, five or six minced cloves of garlic and some chopped peppers (bell peppers, jalapenos, or chilis, whatever, depending on spice preference). Sautee that for a bit, then add your fish (about a half pound is good). When your fish cooks a bit, you can add in a couple of chopped tomatoes (fresh or canned), a can of tomato paste, and some white wine, light beer, or stock (the amount depends on your texture preference, I like a medium stew-like texture myself, while some people make it more like a pasta sauce). Add salt, pepper, a couple of bay leaves, oregano, thyme, and red chili flakes to taste. When it has a good bubbling boil going, then add your shellfish (Note: if you’re using whole crabs, you’ll need to par-boil them in water for a bit then chop them into quarters before adding them to the Chilau, but you can just throw lump crab, claw meat, or shrimp straight into it.) When the shellfish is cooked through, it’s ready. It can be eaten straight, or on top of white rice or pasta, or slapped onto a slice of toasted Cuban bread.

Chilau is a muddle, more jazz than symphony, and it allows you to riff on it to make it your own. I’ve heard of people putting in chopped green olives, saffron, sour orange, mushrooms, Old Bay, chorizo, rum, various secret spice combinations, bacon, parmesan cheese, or whatever you happen have on hand that looks good in the pot. I prefer mine heavy on garlic and chili peppers, with fish, crab, and shrimp, spooned onto some al dente pasta. Chilau is about what works, about what tastes and feels good, and other than a few basic amorphous ideas, there is no real right or wrong way to do it. It’s a mash-up of cultures and food traditions, something that developed out of people making the best of whatever they happened to pull out of the gulf that day, and it's beautiful.

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