Eastern NC Fish Stew is a Simple and Delicious Dish to Cook in December — Real Food Explored
Let me introduce you to Eastern North Carolina Fish Stew. I remember eating this stew often while growing up on the coast of eastern NC. I didn’t think much of it then, but now I recognize the culinary and cultural significance of this dish and I am excited to eat it every time it is in front of me in all of its piping-hot glory. It’s especially good on cold nights. In fact, it has become semi-tradition for my family to prepare this on Christmas Eve for a warm post-church service meal.
Eastern NC fish stew is simple and delicious in a way that is difficult to imagine until you try it. In fact, the simplicity of fish, potatoes, and eggs cooked together in broth is why this stew ascends the sum of its parts. This simplicity also lends to why Eastern NC fish stew is a shining example of the evolution of highly localized American cuisine over the past 100–200 years.
Fishermen along the coast needed to sustain themselves using ingredients that were available and affordable. Fish, potatoes, onion, eggs, and a little salt pork fit this description perfectly. These ingredients would mostly keep well, even for fishermen out on the water. The fish would of course, always be fresh.
How to make it
Eastern NC fish stew is made by sauteing bacon in a pot until browned and then adding chopped onions and potatoes along with just enough water to cover before bringing to a boil and simmering until the potatoes are done. Large chunks of fish are then added and cooked through. Finally, fresh eggs are cracked on top, which gives the stew some texture and unique touch. Once the eggs are finished cooking, the soup is seasoned and ready to serve, usually with bread for sopping up extra broth.
The key to this dish is to layer it correctly with the potatoes and onion at the bottom of the pot and the fish intermingled with cooked eggs on top. This is achieved by A) not adding too much water and B) NEVER stirring! The other tip I have is to add a fish head to the broth. The fish head is rich in collagen and will improve the consistency of the broth.
Other than maybe a bit of bread, Eastern NC fish stew needs no accompaniments and is best eaten as a one-bowl meal. This dish is hyper-nutritious. Fish is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and eggs are a rich source of choline. Both of these nutrients are important for brain development. Potatoes provide starch for extra energy and a modest amount of potassium.
This dish gets an A+ rating from me for both deliciousness and nutrient profile. I also like how it tells the story of coastal fishermen creating something amazing from what they had available. This “something” added value to their lives and is a dish that has stuck with culture even today. It’s intriguing how humans have been able to create dishes like this one that serve the dual purpose of providing nourishment and making the current cuisine more interesting and delicious.
Eastern North Carolina Fish Stew
1–2 pounds fresh fish*
1 fish head (optional)
2–3 pounds russet potatoes
1 yellow onion
Eggs (as many as desired)
A few pieces of bacon or salt pork
Salt, pepper, hot sauce for serving
1. Cut bacon into small pieces and cook in a large stockpot until browned.
2. While bacon is cooking, peel potatoes and cut them into large chunks. Slice onion.
3. Once the bacon is browned, add potatoes and onion and barely cover with water. Add a large pinch of salt. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for 15 minutes or potatoes are cooked through.
4. Add fish and fish head, if using. Cover the pot and simmer for 10 minutes. Add more water if fish cannot be submerged.
5. One fish is cooked through, carefully crack the eggs on top, and cook to your desired consistency (usually somewhere between 5–10 minutes for me).
6. Taste for seasoning and serve in bowls, making sure each bowl has some of each component of the stew.
7. Serve with hot sauce and bread if desired.
*Drum, sheepshead, and speckled trout are traditionally used but any firm-fleshed fish will work well. Steaks work better than fillets because they have more structure and will not fall apart in the broth.
Originally published at https://realfoodexplored.com on December 12, 2020.