Nigerian Beef Stew

Nigerian Beef Stew

Overhead view of beef stew served with plantains and rice
Serious Eats / Maureen Celestine

When you talk about “stew” in Nigeria, you’re not referring to a general recipe category but instead a specific group of pepper-and-tomato–based dishes made with meat, seafood, or poultry. Stew is a mainstay of many Nigerian meals, served at any time of day from breakfast to dinner. It is also umami personified, with a balance of sweet, slightly salty, savory, and fresh flavors, layered with the unique character of the meat itself.

Stew exists on a spectrum with variations in thickness and consistency, as well as differing ratios of tomatoes to peppers, although the results are generally red in appearance. Growing up in Nigeria, I noticed two main types: a thicker stew built on a nicely fried aromatic base for rice, beans, and/or bread, and a lighter, soup-like consistency popular when served with swallows like eba

Overhead view of a serving of beef stew
Serious Eats / Maureen Celestine

Across Nigeria, stew can go by many more specific names, which correlate with each rendition’s specific consistency, ingredients, and regional origin. For instance, in Yoruba, the language of the southwest, a very liquid, smooth stew is called omi obe (the literal translation is “stew water”) versus a thicker, at times chunkier obe ata (“pepper” stew,) and ata dindin (“fried” pepper stew). Please note that in these instances, pepper doesn’t indicate an intense heat level, but rather is meant to describe one of the primary stew base ingredients.

Depending on the style of stew and one’s predilection, it can be paired with soft, white bread for dipping; spooned over or alongside rice, beans, cooked roots, tubers, or vegetables; served together with other stews—gbegiri (creamy beans), ewedu (green jute leaves), or plain steamed okro (the Nigerian name for okra), with eba alongside; and stirred into other dishes from egg sauce to Jollof rice and Jollof pasta. 

Because of how often it features on the Nigerian table, some Nigerians cook a large batch, portion it into containers, and then refrigerate or freeze it to use as desired.

There are four key elements to making stew. First, there’s the aromatic base, which is typically a blend of fresh tomatoes, red onions, and peppers (hot and/or sweet); sometimes tomato paste is also added to deepen the tomatoey flavor and color. These days, particularly in the diaspora where home ovens are increasingly used to mimic the smoky flavors of Nigerian outdoor cooking, you’ll find people roasting the vegetables before blending to create a smoky, slightly creamier base.

Base of the soup
Serious Eats / Maureen Celestine

Second, there’s the protein, whether a single meat or a mix, including beef, chicken, goat, various types of offal, fish (fresh and dried), mushrooms, and more. Many people cook the protein ahead, often boiling, frying (today also airfrying), roasting, or grilling it, before adding it to the stew base to cook further. The method of cooking the protein comes down to personal preference. Here, I start by cooking beef chuck in a seasoned broth and then reserve the resulting stock to cook the stew; to deepen the beef’s flavor, I subsequently roast it before adding it to the stew.

The third critical component of stew are the seasonings, which can include traditional fermented nuts and seeds or more colonial or imported seasonings like curry powder, dried thyme, and bayleaf; aromatics like ginger and garlic sometimes feature as well. Generally, these two approaches to seasoning govern the outcome, so that traditionally stews are wholly traditional, featuring classic indigenous seasoning, and often are cooked with palm oil, which brings me to the fourth element: oil.

The cooking oil is important. In some cases, the oil’s own flavor contributes to the overall finished dish, like in traditional recipes where red palm oil (or a smoky version of it) is used. In other cases, flavorless and colorless oils are used and contribute to the texture, not so much the flavor.

As you can see, there are countless ways to make Nigerian stew, but that’s what makes it so great. Feel free to make variations of your own using this stew recipe as the base, trying different proteins, different seasonings or cooking oils, or even stirring in greens like amaranth or callaloo. While the term “stew” in Nigeria may not be quite as expansive a term as it is in many other places, the possibilities are still endless. 

For the Stock and Beef: In a blender, process ginger and garlic with 2 cups (472ml) water until thoroughly blended.

Garlic blended in blender
Serious Eats / Maureen Celestine

In a large pot, combine beef chuck with onion, bell pepper, and habanero (if using). Pour ginger-garlic mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into pot, pressing on solids to extract as much liquid as possible before discarding the fiber. Add curry powder, dried thyme, bay leaves, black pepper, and a large pinch of salt. Add enough additional water to just cover all solid ingredients (about 2 1/2 quarts; 2.5L); stir to combine.

Two image collage of vegetables being cooked in a pot and then broth strained into pot
Serious Eats / Maureen Celestine

Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to maintain a simmer and cook until the stock is aromatic and the beef is tender, about 1 hour 30 minutes.

Stew boiling
Serious Eat / Maureen Celestine

Using tongs, transfer beef to a platter and set aside.

Removed beef on a platter set aside
Serious Eats / Maureen Celestine

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the vegetables and bay leaves to the blender and puree with 1 cup (225ml) of stock until homogenous and smooth. Pour pureed vegetables through a fine-mesh strainer back into stock, pressing on solids to extract as much liquid as possible; discard remaining vegetable matter trapped in the strainer. Stir well to combine, then set stock aside.

Two image collage of overhead view of blended stock and straining stock back into the pot
Serious Eats / Maureen Celestine

For the Stew Base: Heat oven to 400°F (205°C). Cut cooked beef into roughly 2-inch chunks; feel free to leave any bones in. Arrange beef in an even layer on a rimmed baking sheet and roast until browned all over, about 15 minutes. Set aside.

Two image collage of beef pieces before and after in the oven.

In a blender or food processor, combine tomatoes, red onion, bell peppers, and 2 cups (472ml) reserved stock. Blend or process until a smooth puree forms.

Overhead view of Stew base blended in blender
Serious Eats / Maureen Celestine

Scrape vegetable puree into a 3-quart stainless steel saucepan or saucier. Cover partially with a lid to contain splatter and cook at a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally, until reduced by half, 30 to 45 minutes. Scrape stew base into a heatproof container, cover, and set aside. Wash out pot.

Stew base reduced by half
Serious Eats / Maureen Celestine

For the Stew: In the cleaned 3-quart pot, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat until shimmering, then add sliced onion along with a large pinch of salt and cook, stirring, until slightly softened, about 4 minutes. Add the bay leaves, curry powder, and dried thyme, and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes longer.

Two image collage of onions cooking in oil with spices added to it
Serious Eats / Maureen Celestine

Stir in the tomato paste and continue to cook until tomato paste has lost its bright red color, about 5 minutes; lower heat if necessary to prevent scorching.

Overhead view of stew after losing it's bright red color
Serious Eats / Maureen Celestine

Stir in the reserved stew base along with 2 cups (472ml) reserved stock, black pepper, and habanero (if using), and simmer until the stew base thickens and oil pools on the surface, about 20 minutes. Season with salt.

Two image collage of overhead view of oil pooling as stew base cooks down
Serious Eats / Maureen Celestine

Stir in the beef and continue to simmer until the beef is warmed through, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat and season with additional salt, if desired.

Two image collage of stirring beef into stew
Serious Eats / Maureen Celestine

Serve with white rice and dodo, yam, or other root vegetables.

Overhead view of finished beef stew
Serious Eats / Maureen Celestine

Special Equipment

blender, 3-quart stainless steel saucepan or saucier

Make-Ahead and Storage

The stock and stew base can be prepared in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week, or frozen for up to 2 months. In an airtight container, the finished Nigerian beef stew can be refrigerated for a week, or frozen for up to 3 months; I prefer storing the meat and stew separately to help preserve the texture of the meat.