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Bacalhau: The Staple of Portuguese Cuisine

BacalhauBacalhau is Portuguese for dry, salted cod, and referred to as Bacalao in Spain or Bacala in Italy. Today we take a look at it from a Portuguese perspective. Historically, Bacalhau was the staple for these three predominately Catholic countries during Lent, when meat was considered a forbidden food. And although the recipes have diversified and evolved, it can still be found on the dinner table of Portuguese, Spanish and Italian families in all its glorious forms today.

Although the fiercely independent Basques, from the northern region of Spain called Pais Vasco, lay claim to first curing cod, the Vikings had traveled to the Newfoundland in the 12th century and were said to have hung it in the brutal winter air until it lost four-fifths of its weight becoming durable as plywood. The obvious lack of refrigeration at the time warranted the drying and salting of meat and fish but this technique was also an ancient way for preserving nutrients in the codfish, whereby making it more palatable. Nicknamed fiel amigo, or faithful friend, the cod has remained an integral part of the Portuguese cuisine for centuries.

Yet, for a nation with a significant coastline on the Atlantic Ocean, and access to bounty of fresh native fish, it’s a bit perplexing as to why the non-native Bacalhau remains the star of the show! But as a result of its fame, I demanded it be the first meal I enjoyed when I first visited Portugal over a year ago. Interestingly, since my residency, I’ve only partaken a handful times over the past year. Why?  Because very few Portuguese I’ve met seem to like it! From young to old, there are those who downright detest Bacalhau, while others will just eat it out of tradition (or more like obligation) on holidays. I’ve had mothers and grandmothers prepare Bacalhau for a gathering, but fail to partake in their own creations; whereby leaving me with the delicious leftovers. It’s the American version of the Christmas fruitcake that nobody wants!

On the other hand, cod is a very strong flavored fish, only intensified by the curing process. But despite its strong flavor, I have to imagine that there are a considerable amount of Portuguese who actually enjoy this traditional dish considering there are 1,001 different ways of preparing it. Either the Portuguese were just trying to find ways of making salt cod more palatable, or they do truly believe it’s a wonderfully versatile food. I browsed over the website that features  “1,001 receitas” and there’s a version dedicated to every holiday and geared to every taste. You can boil it, fry it, stew it, grill it, roast it, make it into meatballs or mash it into a pulp! They have regionally specific Bacalhau recipes, “healthy” Bacalhau preparations and recipes featuring fresh, unsalted codfish.

If you visit Portugal, I suggest the following 3 dishes, both because they’re easy to find on any Portuguese menu, and because I find them to be the tastiest:

Bacalhau à Brás: This Bacalhau dish is by far my favorite, and the one I first enjoyed when first stepping upon Portuguese soil. The codfish is cooked up in a “fried rice” style with strips of potato, onion and scrambled egg and garnished with some delicious jumbo Portuguese black olives. The flavor is sumptious and far from overpowering.

Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá: This dish uses virtually the same ingredients as Bacalhau à Brás, but the fish is soaked in milk beforehand and roasted in the oven as a casserole with diced potato and hard-boiled egg. A little on the lighter side in flavor but still tasty and healthier!

Bacalhau com Natas: “Bacalhau with Cream” Literally a potato gratin of Bacalhau made with both cream and béchamel. So if you’re a potato gratin lover, you may like this stronger flavored seafood version, which sometimes includes whole shrimp. Heartwarming and rich.

In the end, although I want to suggest that everyone try the traditional Portuguese bacalhau, I can’t help but ask you to remain cautious, as the codfish, due to overfishing, has decreased in numbers by massive amounts. Today, it’s estimated that offshore cod stocks are at one per cent of what they were in 1977.  If we are to preserve the Portuguese heritage, I can only ask that you do a bit of research beforehand, finding the best place to enjoy this delectable dish, but to then savor the myriad of other dishes Portuguese has to offer beyond Bacalhau; whereby allowing everyone to enjoy the same experience well into the future!

To Portugal’s Fiel Amigo,

Andrea Smith

Editors note: If you want to learn more about Bacalhau’s history DO NOT MISS the book Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the Worldby Mark Kurlansky one of our favorites.

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  • http://www.seeportugal.org SeePortugal.Org

    Not a big fan. Never understood this because bacalhau, I think, comes from the north of Europe. There are so many better fish dishes to eat, fish which are not salted and stacked in supermarkets–which is horrible by the way, think Pingo Doce, that smell coming from the stacked cod–more local and fresh. Something about the old salted cod fish I never got into to. Regardless, an interesting article.

  • http://www.travessiawine.com Marco Montez

    Andrea, good post, though surprising to me. I would have never thought that Bacalhau had diminished in popularity among the Portuguese, but I will take your word for it since I left Portugal about 20 years ago. One thing I can tell you for sure… us Portuguese emmigrants here in the USA still eat it very often, and yes the salted version. In fact that is the only Bacalhau most emmigrants even know of. I cook it myself at least once a month and probably eat it more often than that. Bacalhau com Natas would be one of my favorites along with Bacalhau com Batata ao Murro. You know what I would be having during my last meal… :-)Allow me a suggestion… do a follow up post on Bacalhau sometime in the future, but as it relates to wine pairing. You will have a ball doing your research. It may be one of the best debates in the world of Portuguese food/wine pairing. And since there are 1,001 ways of cooking bacalhau you could end up with hundreds of different wine pairings… wait a second…. I think you could publish a book on this!All the best,Marco

  • Ben

    I share Marco’s surprise that bacalhau isn’t eaten by your friends. The many bacalhau + potato recipes certainly seem like comfort food to me! (and as Marco says, they certainly are for most Portuguese-Americans) I also like the preparation in which large fillet chunks are lightly battered and fried. I’ve even heard of it eaten raw, thinly sliced (though maybe not in Portugal).Many Portuguese seem determined, by tradition, to always have red wine with the main course, even if it’s fish that’s being served. (bacalhau, sardines and other Portuguese favorites are strongly flavored, so this actually works)

  • Andrea

    Thanks for the feedback guys, it was a bit of a difficult article for me to write I must say since I haven't had the chance to eat bacalhau that often here! And believe me, I am also surprised at all the Portuguese I've met that don't like it! But I also have to agree that all those stacks of of it in Pingo Doce and other supermarkets is quite stinky and doesn't really want to make you buy it in the first place, let alone go near the fish dept hahahahaha. I guess I've gotten used to it now! I've had Bacalhau both with red wine and beer and I think it just really all depends on the way the fish has been prepared, good idea for that follow up article then, thanks!

  • http://lagar.wordpress.com Milton

    I must disagree with you. Bacalhau it is very popular in Portugal! But it's not something you eat in every meal. Why can you find it in every restaurant menu? For the sake of tradition? No.Bacalhau became popular because, due to its flesh properties, it was easy to preserve for long periods of time, allowing people (and sailors) to have a regular source of fish protein – faithful friend. And it was cheap. Nowadays bacalhau is expensive.Maybe Andrea spoked to young people who haven't yet developed their taste for it. I would bet they don't like chanfana or cabrito either.

  • Justin Roberts

    Hmm, cabrito, yum. The younger, the better!

  • Ben

    Actually, Milton, I heard that the EU heavily subsidizes the appearance of national heritage foods on restaurant menus – Ah, Just kidding ;)It could be that bacalhau just isn’t “cool” in certain circles these days.And I’ll second the recommendation of Kurlansky’s book – although it doesn’t focus on Portugal too much, it is an excellent read.

    • http://theartichokeblog.com mikey

      If it's not cool these days I 'll bet it'll become trendy sometime soon in the best restaurants of NYC or London. we just have to wait til they wake up and copy all the peasant recipes left to copy.

  • Andrea

    Milton, I have no doubt that Bacalhau is popular with a good amount of the Portuguese population I'm sure, but for some reason, I keep running into all the picky ones! Young AND old, in fact both of my boyfriend's parents and grandparents don't care for it but they still make it on holidays! It also surprises me when i meet Portuguese who don't like Sardines or seafood at all, like how my Italian mother used to tell us when we hated tomatoes that we wern't true Italians then hahahaha :pI guess since there is such a wide variety of foods available now then everyone has their own taste in things. Oh well, I eat almost everything here and I will at least try anything once, so no complaints from me!

  • http://lagar.wordpress.com Milton

    Andrea and Ben. Maybe you are right and bacalhau is uncool and unattractive to some people. Even I don't give it much importance but after a week or two abroad, I really miss a Bacalhau com Broa! ;)

  • Troy

    Milton says it pretty well, about bacalhau being on every restaurant menu. Usually there is one bacalhau dish on the menu, changing every day, and a lot of people order it. But Andrea may be on to something as well…while there are piles of it in every supermarket, I never see young people buying it to prepare at home. We could be in a transitional period in which young people do still like it, but can't be bothered to prepare it. The next generation, however, having never had it at home, won't likely order it out at restaurants. That will be when bacalhau is “lost” to the Portuguese kitchen. Same thing has happened to tripe in many places.

  • gabriellaopaz

    If it is of any consolidation Andrea, I have had Bacalhau prepared several different ways throughout Iberia, and have consistently not enjoyed it. Although I adore salt (to the point of having a Sodium addiction), I find Bacalhau unpalatable. However, give me a fresh fillet of cod, preferably grilled and coated in garlic, butter and lemon, and I'm in absolute heaven. Could it be that I haven't found the right Portuguese recipe among the 1,001 variations? Maybe, or maybe dried, salted cod was perfect in the old days, when people's taste buds were accustomed to such strong, intense flavors?

  • Andrea

    Well Gab, as I said, Bacalhau will never suit everyone, there are some dishes I tried where it's just too strong for me. Personally I prefer to order some of the yummy fresh local fish when I go out to eat here, it's hard for me to pass up something like that which is so hard to get back at home. So it doesn't surprise me though that so many Portuguese Americans adore and miss their fiel amigo, they don't get to see it piled high in every supermarket there and the stench wafting through the entire place hahaha. I guess maybe then something like Bacalhau now for many people is only truly appreciated when you're not able to get it all the time.

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  • http://theartichokeblog.com mikey

    Hey I was in Lisboa on the weekend for the first time and I was looking forward to baccalau. I gotta say I tried it on few different occasions and it got better and better. I even had it on the plane going back to Italy form Lisbon. In the end I think i preferred it steamed with a tomato sauce, but grilled with plenty of garlic and olive oil did the trick too. I can understand it not being to everyone's liking but i love it and I admire all the different ways it's prepared in southern Europe.
    Thanks for your article

  • Dina

    pasteis de Bacalhau with Arroz de Tomate, Bacalhau a Gomes de Sa, Bacalhau com Natas…
    I always get my mum to make these when i go back, i can make it myself too but doesn't taste the same as my mums… Yummieeeeeee.

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