Is #TheStew Actually That Good?

Why the New York Times’ viral chickpea curry isn’t exactly a recipe at all.

Photo illustration of various #TheStew attempts.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Kelly Christian/Instagram, Lisa Larson-Walker/Instagram, Jackie/Instagram, Ecrin UÇAR/Instagram, and Nibble a Little/Instagram.

As much of the country hunkers down in preparation for this week’s subzero visit from the polar vortex, cans of chickpeas and coconut milk will undoubtedly disappear from grocery store shelves as shivering Americans set out to make—or remake—#TheStew. If you somehow haven’t encountered #TheStew yet, you’ll gather from the hashtag that, for one thing, it is viral. Aside from tasty, mouthwatering virality, #TheStew is also flavored with (in addition to the garbanzos and coco milk) the simple mix of aromatics, spices, wilted leafy greens, and mint that its creator, food writer Alison Roman, selected when she ladled it onto the internet in her New York Times cooking column back in late November.

Or it would be, that is, if anyone followed the recipe. When you look at stew-cookers’ Instagram captions or dig into the (always heated!) NYT Cooking comments, the weird thing about this wildly popular recipe is that few people are actually adhering to the instructions. Talking to friends and colleagues, I’ve heard general agreement that it needs a fair bit more of the onion/garlic/ginger base (with many cooks adding carrots and celery), and almost everyone I’ve surveyed is doubling the turmeric alongside additions of cumin, garam masala, smoked paprika, and other warm, savory spices. I won’t even wade into the 2-cans-of-full-fat-coconut-milk war—“You could live on that many calories for a week, use water!” “Why are you such a fat Nazi!”—nor the controversy over the chickpea mashing and whether this thing should actually be called a soup. (It’s an ethnically catholic curry.)

When I made it, I stuck with the liquids but felt called to edit just about everything else, from adding tomato paste and cinnamon to Instant-Potting the beans from scratch. Even the crisping of some of the chickpeas for garnish—which is the only sort of novel part of the original recipe—is better accomplished, for my money, by roasting a batch separately, which supplies both your decoration and a snack for later.

All of this riffing and diverging raises a pair of questions: If a recipe needs so much doctoring, is it actually “that good?” And if it isn’t, in and of itself, “that good,” why did it get so many people off of their phones and into their kitchens?

The question of quality is a tricky one, because from what I can gather, no two people have actually tasted the same #TheStew. Cooks of all skill levels seem to take the recipe as an invitation to … cook something else, freely making substitutions of both ingredient and technique. And even those who did follow Roman’s recipe to the letter achieved fairly different results thanks to the varying consistencies of brands of coconut milk and the relative dustiness of the turmeric in the back of their cabinets. I’m not saying #TheStew is the Fyre Festival of cooking—there is for sure food there when you get to the end, and you probably don’t need Andy’s services to free up a carton of chicken stock. But it’s fair to ask: Does #TheStew even exist? Hard to say!

Rather than judging #TheStew recipe “bad” or “good”—in its platonic, unadulterated, best-ingredient -and-timeline form, it’s certainly fine—I would posit that it is not a recipe at all. What Roman has rather craftily done here is presented to us, in socially optimized disguise, a basic cooking method as opposed to a distinct dish. And in attracting lots of folks unfamiliar with that method to trying it out, she has done a good thing indeed. Knowing how to make a simple coconut milk curry is great! You can do it with chicken or shrimp or other proteins. You could keep the chickpeas and add sweet potatoes, as Nigella Lawson has elsewhere on the NYT Cooking site. In fact, just type “coconut milk curry” in the Times’ or any similar database and you’ll find many delicious variations on #TheStew’s theme, all of which can yield bright, warm overhead photos for your Insta.

Understanding #TheStew as a method helps explain why some people found it perplexingly rudimentary, while others found it revolutionary: That’s how learning a new technique works. But it doesn’t quite solve the mystery of why it broke through in a moment when lots of people like scrolling past pictures of food on Instagram but fewer are actually creating it from scratch themselves. There’s surely more than one explanation for this, not least that the NYT Cooking team worked to make it so (and other food outlets after them—a frothing viral stew lifts all bowls!), knowing that Roman had enjoyed a similar moment with #TheCookies earlier last year.

But I keep thinking about the word stew itself. While its aptness here is debatable, its effectiveness is incredibly clear. Soups can let you down, but a stew is invariably hearty and comforting; it evokes feelings we crave in the winter, both the natural and, these days, the political sort. (The president’s ignorantly claiming that the weather shouldn’t be cold if the climate is warming? More stew, please.) Contra curry, it also has an air of unfussy ease. Who couldn’t figure out how to throw a stew together if they wanted? And it feels wholesome, an association that Roman underlined in her column by explicitly situating #TheStew in the trendy, self-care/indulgence zone of the “healthy-ish.” No one can object to a stew: It’s substantive, sustaining, and democratic—common ground in a world with increasingly little. Considering that, it’s no surprise that when Roman’s particularly accessible recipe hit our feeds, we proved hungry for it.

So make #TheStew this week! Or whenever. And however, as your tastes decide. Just whatever you do, finish it with something acidic. Lime, vinegar, white wine, anything you have—I respect your method, Alison Roman, but it was madness to leave that out.