Fish cooked in a coconut sauce

Baracoa, in Guantanamo province, is the oldest and most remote town in Cuba. At the very easterly tip of the country it’s the most Irish of Cuban towns. Add on twenty degrees and you could be home. The weather changes constantly, clouds rolling in dumping rain, the wind from the sea and then sunshine – you never know what you’re going to get. This of course means that it is green. Very green, lush with vegetation and jungle. 

We travelled there from Santiago de Cuba crawling along on a bus that winds up and down the densely wooded mountains on a concrete seamed road. It’s the kind of ride where the gears grind and you know that you are doomed if the brakes fail as the bus climbs higher and higher and the jungle turns to Pine trees.

The bus arrives at a tiny bus station beside the bluest sea with the town stretching back a few blocks, all higgledy-piggledy, it’s still recovering from Hurricane Mathew, which made a good attempt at leveling the town. The houses are single-storey and colourful with the obligatory verandas where families sit and everyone shouts and laughs with the neighbours. In the centre of the town is the Plaza Independencia with a church on one end, the post office, telephone centre and bars all around the tree-shaded centre, where the benches are full of people trying to get an Internet connection, and there is music and dancing at night. The fridges in the bars are empty bar water and rum. The embargoes are really hitting this small town, perhaps because it the last on the delivery route; but the rum is good and there’s ice for the mojitos.

We stayed in a casa particulare, a Cuban bed and breakfast, which is the best bet for breakfast and dinner. Our host, Leonardo, let me into his kitchen so that I could watch him prepare this dish for our dinner. It’s a traditional recipe from Baracoa, a ‘Lechita’, which is fish cooked in a coconut sauce. He made the coconut milk from fresh coconuts and cooked the fish for one hour in the sauce, which had me pretty horrified, as that’s a long time to cook fish. It tasted fine but the texture became a bit like meat. Personally I’d cook the fish for far less time but that is optional. One of the ingredients is achiote, which is the ground up seeds from an indigenous plant that grows in Cuba and Mexico. It gives colour and a little earthy taste. We’ll have achiote in the shop soon, as we need it for Mexican cooking, but I think paprika could be used as a substitute

Lechita de Pescado

1 can coconut milk plus half can water

1tbs achiote paste or paprika  – sweet, not smoked

1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

A large handful fresh coriander, chopped, leaves and stems

1 green chilli, seeds removed if you don’t like hot

A little oil to fry

600g firm, white fish, like ling or monkfish 

Salt and black pepper

Gently heat the coconut milk until it begins to boil then add the achiote/paprika, chopped onion and garlic, chopped coriander and chilli. Simmer for fifteen minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Divide the fish into four portions. Heat a frying pan and add enough oil to just cover the bottom, then fry the fish on each side for a couple of minutes. Carefully lift the fish and submerge into the sauce then leave to cook for a further 10 -15 minutes.

Serve with rice.

We’ll be home by the time you read this.

Looking forwards to the Irish Spring,


Karen Austin

Karen Austin is the co-owner of the Lettercollum Kitchen Project in Clonakilty.

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