Stews for Around the Fire

Here in New York, we’ve been willing the universe to make fall last as long as possible because, as Andy says every single morning in ominous, Game-of-Thrones-like tones, winter is coming. In normal years, I don’t usually care that much. Cold weather is the season of cozy food — braised meats, red wine, warm-your-bones stews, and friends and family around to share it all with us. This year, though, that scenario is looking increasingly unlikely, so we have taken to inviting people to eat dinner with us spread out around our little Home Depot fire pit, extra sweaters piled on the patio chairs that always end up getting used.

Among other things, this means we’ve been very into food that can be served in bowls, preferably with only a fork or a spoon. (It also means that we never have to tidy up our kitchen before people come over!) In other words, we’ve been very into stews. In the past few weeks, we’ve made chili, Belgian beef, and minestrone. It’s liberating in a way. No one is expecting a five-course, James Beard Award-winning meal when they are wrapped in a blanket, sitting on a patio chair alongside the family dog. (Do you like how I write that as if I’ve ever entertained that way?)

All this to say, it was no surprise that Hawa Hassan’s Digaag Qumbe (Chicken Stew with Yogurt and Coconut) caught my eye when I was flipping through her book, In Bibi’s Kitchen (co-authored by Julia Turshen) last week. The book is devoted to sharing the stories and the recipes from African grandmothers who hail from Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa, Madagascar and Comoros. This stew is from Hassan’s native Somalia, and seems to make the most of all my favorite ingredients and flavors (coconut, yogurt, ginger, a toasted spice mix called Xawaash that is making my house smell really freaking good right now). She recommends serving it with a banana alongside for the most authentic Somali experience. “The combination is not well known in the United States, but you can help it become known — it’s great.”

I’m in! Now, just have to figure out who’s coming over.

Digaag Qumbe
This stew is incredibly quick cooking. Serve over cooked rice or on a bed of spinach. Serves 4.

2 medium vine-ripened tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 jalapeño, stemmed and coarsely chopped (use less or leave out if you don’t want things too spicy)
1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
½ cup plain yogurt
2 tablespoons Xawaash Spice Mix (below)
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more as needed
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil or canola oil
1 large red onion, finely chopped 2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 baking potato, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 carrots, cut into thin coins
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 cup full-fat unsweetened coconut milk
Large handful of cilantro leaves, finely chopped
Cooked rice and bananas, for serving

In the jar of a blender, combine the tomatoes, jalapeño, bell pepper, tomato paste, yogurt, xawaash, and salt and puree until smooth. Set aside.

Warm the oil in a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot set over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and ginger and cook, stirring occasionally, until just beginning to soften, about 5 minutes. Stir in the blended tomato mixture, bring the mixture to a boil, then immediately lower the heat, cover, and cook until very fragrant, about 10 minutes. This initial cook- ing forms the base of the sauce. Stir in the potato, carrots, chicken, and coconut milk. Cover the pot and cook, uncover- ing it to stir occasionally, until the vegetables are tender and the chicken is cooked through, about 30 minutes. Season the stew to taste with salt. Serve hot, sprinkled with the cilantro, over cooked rice, and with bananas alongside (don’t slice the bananas, just serve them whole and take a bite as you eat the stew). Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a few days and rewarmed in a heavy pot set over low heat (stir while you heat).

Xawaash Spice Mix
Xawaash (pronounced HA-wash) touches just about every Somali dish. It’s like the garam masala of Somalia, and the mix of flavors is truly the flavor of the Indian Ocean. Each Somali home cook prepares hers differently and this is Hawa’s.
Makes about 1 1/2 cups. (I halved it, since the stew only called for 2 tablespoons.)

One 2-inch piece cinnamon stick
1/2 cup cumin seeds
1/2 cup coriander seeds
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
6 cardamom pods
1 teaspoon whole cloves
2 tablespoons ground turmeric

Place the cinnamon stick in a small zip-top bag, seal it, and bang it a couple of times with a rolling pin, skillet, or anything heavy, to break it into small pieces.

Place the cinnamon, cumin, coriander, peppercorns, cardamom, and cloves in a small heavy skillet set over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the smell is very aromatic and the spices are lightly toasted, about 2 minutes. Let cool. Transfer the mixture to a clean coffee grinder and grind into a fine powder (or use a mortar and pestle and some elbow grease). Transfer the ground spices to a fine mesh sieve set over a bowl and sift. Regrind whatever large pieces remain in the sieve and add them to the bowl with the ground spices. Add the turmeric. Whisk well to combine and transfer the mixture to an airtight jar. Store in a cool, dark place for up to 6 months.

From In Bibi’s Kitchen Reprinted with Permission.

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Kati LeTourneau

When dishes like this call for plain yogurt, will greek yogurt work well too? (We always have greek yogurt in the house, almost never have plain…)

Also, way back 12 centuries ago in February, you know, the Before Times, I spent some time in Kenya. I miss the food greatly- this cookbook looks amazing.


This looks absolutely delicious. I’m planning for postpartum and I’m not sure whether this would freeze well with the coconut milk – what do you think?

Thank you!


Might be a little risky – I find that half the time coconut milk separates after it’s been frozen and thawed. I’ll bet if you omit the coconut milk in the simmering part, then stir it in after it’s been thawed, it would be just as good?


Highly recommend!
I’m eating it right now as breakfast leftovers with rice, yogurt, and a cilantro chutney.
I think any combo of veg/meat would be great in the base sauce, just keep in mind differing cook times.


Yum! Just ordered this book. Sounds like a fun winter Covid project – trying some new recipes! Will be perfect while we’re stuck indoors in Boston.


so many stews often call for coconut milk, but i allergic. is there a good substitute? can i just leave it out? thank you!


I was coming here to ask the same question. I’d also love to know if there’s a good substitute. Could cream be used?


This was really delicious–so warm and comforting. Love the complex heat of the spice mix! I’m glad to have more of the Xawaash so I can make this again soon.