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Bacalhau: The Staple of Portuguese Cuisine

By Guest Author

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Bacalhau is Portuguese for dry, salted cod, and is 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, bacalhau 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 of preserving nutrients in the codfish, whereby making it more palatable. Nicknamed fiel amigo, or faithful friend, the cod has remained an integral part of Portuguese cuisine for centuries.

Bacalhau with potatoes

Cod is a very strong-flavored fish, only intensified by the curing process. But despite its strong flavor, there are a considerable amount of Portuguese who enjoy this traditional dish considering there are 1,001 different ways of preparing it! You can boil it, fry it, stew it, grill it, roast it, make it into meatballs or mash it into a pulp!

If you visit Portugal, I suggest the following 4 Portuguese Salt Cod 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 sumptuous 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.

Pasteis de Bacalhau: While this isn’t the easiest of Portuguese recipes, and does take some time and effort, the crispy crunch of that outer crust to get to the salty smooth potato and cod inside is worth it. Especially if served with a tall glass of frosty Portuguese cerveja or chilled vinho verde on a hot summer’s day!

Pasteis de Bacalhau

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 percent 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 to find the best place to enjoy this delectable dish. Then savor the myriad of other dishes Portuguese has to offer beyond Bacalhau; thereby allowing everyone to enjoy the same experience well into the future! If you’re keen to explore a wide variety of savory seafood and fish flavors that Portugal has to offer, whether that be an Algarve Oyster Tour, Wine tour in Sesimbra or a private Lisbon Food Tour (to name a few), let us know! There’s no shortage of memorable dishes to experience!

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 World by Mark Kurlansky one of our favorites.

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Since 2005, Catavino has been exploring the Iberian Peninsula
looking for the very best food and wine experiences.

Since 2005, Catavino has been exploring the Iberian Peninsula looking for the very best food and wine experiences.

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