Codfish in Portugal
Updated: Jun 29
Codfish is a crucial element of Portuguese gastronomy and national identity, it is an ingredient that accompanied Portugal in the times of discoveries and dictatorship, but most of all it has been a delicious dish that to this day continues to gather families around the table. For the Portuguese this is more than just an ordinary fish, it is one of the most important Portuguese delicacies. Codfish has a lot of stories to tell, so if you are ready to listen, buckle up and dive into the world of codfish with us.
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Wherever you go, codfish comes following, right? I mean, oh my Cod, mighty Cod, what’s going on? Well, don’t be so surprised, since this is probably the biggest and most important part of Portuguese cuisine. But why so if it even cannot be found on the Portuguese coast? Good question, since the answer to that one is quite long. It is even said that there are 365 recipes to prepare codfish, you know, one for each day of the year just to be sure. Some even go that far, saying that in total there are 1001 ways to prepare codfish.
Did anyone hear of Scheherazade? You know, the lady who told stories to the sultan for 1001 nights. Well, guess what, the Portuguese invented 1001 ways to prepare codfish. Take that, Scheherazade! Pretty impressive, right? Time to stop messing around and see what this famous Portuguese food is all about.
It all started with the Vikings, who fished it in the cold, salty waters near the Nordic countries. They were, of course, consuming it but also trading it with other countries such as England. It was only in the 14th century, in times of commercial treaties between Portugal and England, that the Portuguese passion for this unusual fish started. They would exchange their salt, which at the time was extremely valuable, to get their hands on codfish. And not just their salt. In the 15th century, the Portuguese would exchange their wine for codfish as well. Wondering which wine this could be? Take a look at the article about Food in Porto and find out, the mentioned wine is hiding somewhere here! And so is our delicious Portuguese Food Tour in Porto. If we already made you hungry, make sure to book your spot.
Then came the 16th century and the Portuguese finally started to fish for cod themselves. It was about time, right? Well, one could kind of say that they ran into cod by accident, since they intended to find the counter coast of India. However, they ended up in Newfoundland (Canada) and were very happy to discover that that very coast was the perfect area for cod fishing. This meant that the sailors would embark on long expeditions. Unfortunately, their codfish adventures only lasted for a while since English, Spanish, and French fleets sort of chased them away, showing their dominance in the mentioned area.
After that, this fish started being supplied by England, which meant the prices went up, and it was only the rich who were able to afford it from that moment on. But things would soon change, with the rise of Estado Novo in the 20th century, we are talking about the era of dictatorship in Portugal. Of course, some Portuguese fishing companies tried to change the situation and fish for cod before Estado Novo appeared, but none of these attempts was very successful. António de Oliveira Salazar, the man behind Estado Novo, wanted to reduce foreign dependence on codfish, fight the food crisis in Portugal and make it a national dish, which is why the famous Bacalhau Campaign (Codfish Campaign) was created and eventually turned out to be a success story. In the 50s and 60s, Portugal fished around 70 – 80% of cod the nation consumed. Everyone was able to afford codfish again, both the poor and the rich.
The fishermen would go back to Newfoundland and Greenland and spend around six months on the sea, risking their lives for low salaries in order to catch cod. For that purpose, a small wooden boat called dory was used. This boat could carry only one man. Basically, the dories would be in the middle of the ocean, far away from the main boat and fishermen would launch a line of hundreds of hooks with baits, and this way they would pull the cod into a dory. After working for 8 – 10h under horrible weather conditions, the fishermen would return to the main ship to clean the cod, remove the bones and then salt it. Unfortunately, numerous fishermen did not manage to return to the main boat and lost their lives far away from home. As we know, the ocean is not always merciful, and these fishermen were absolute heroes.
With the fall of the dictatorship in 1974, there were no more expeditions to Newfoundland. But the Portuguese love for cod, as one might assume, didn't stop there. It only got bigger, making it one of the most popular Portuguese dishes and an irreplaceable element of Portuguese gastronomy!
Bacalhau: Cod or God?
Nowadays, most of the codfish come to Portugal from Norway (around 70%), and it is then dried and processed in Portuguese factories. It is estimated that the Portuguese consume 20% of the world’s codfish, around 35 kg per person per year, which is completely mind-blowing! They do still have some bacalhoeiros (cod-fishing ships), but not that many. Nevertheless, no one can deny that the Portuguese enjoy codfish more than any other nation in the world, which is why they refer to this interesting fish as their “faithful friend” in both fortune and hardship. It is also a symbol of Portuguese discoveries, fishing traditions, and maritime adventures. So yes, in Cod they trust! Guess, in Portugal, you could call it God’s fish as well.
Sunday lunch without codfish? Not happening in Portugal. We are joking of course, but they do eat quite a lot! Christmas and Easter are absolutely unthinkable without codfish in Portugal, it is a tradition that many other countries started practicing as well. If you thought it couldn’t get any “codfishier”, well sorry, but you were wrong. There is even a brotherhood in honor of codfish, also known as Confraria do Bacalhau de Ílhavo, Ílhavo being the capital of bacalhau (codfish). If you visit this Codfish Capital in August, you will probably run into the famous Festival of Bacalhau. They take their codfish really seriously!
The Portuguese word for it is bacalhau, which in the culinary context means dry and salted cod. The origin of bacalhau isn’t exactly clear, however, it may come from the Latin word baculum which can be translated as a “walking stick” since the whole salting and drying process makes cod as hard as a stick.
After the fish is caught, it is cleaned, salted, and cured for quite a while, it can go from one month to one year. The longer it is cured, the better its quality. Other than that, with time, cod becomes more yellow. It is usually recommended to cure it for 6 months.
In the past, the cod was salted in the hold of the main ship so that the fish would not get deteriorated. It was then dried in the open air, taking in wind and sun. Some time has passed, and they started putting it in wooden barrels that contained lots of salt. Salted cod was very nutritious and could last long, which was incredibly important if we think in the context of Portuguese discoveries and maritime expeditions. Of course, they could have done the same with other fish, but they preferred cod because of its size and delicious flavor. So, it was a win-win situation: delicious, nutritious, easy to transport, cheap, and long-lasting!
However, it was way before bacalhau that the Portuguese started drying and salting fish. They actually started doing it 2000 years ago, more precisely during the peak of the Roman Empire. At that time Portugal was the biggest and most important supplier of preserved fish for the entire empire. This technique is a long Portuguese tradition that started way before they developed their love for codfish. In the times when no reliable cooling methods existed, the Portuguese invented their own method that they cherish and practice to this day, which is an incredibly impressive fact. Today this is no longer necessary, however the Portuguese really like this kind of flavor and texture, and codfish is considered a part of Portuguese national identity, and Salzar’s political propaganda for sure helped.
Before cooking, codfish needs to be desalinated in several rounds of water. This can last from several hours up to an entire day, sometimes even days. Worry not, you can still buy already desalted cod in the supermarket, but if you want to do it the traditional way, you need to make your codfish is swimming in tons of water before it gets all nice and ready to be cooked.
Other than its historical importance, codfish is extremely healthy because it is rich in vitamins A and D, and Omega-3 fatty acids.
As you already know it can be prepared in an almost infinite number of ways, you will find it boiled, fried, sliced, shredded, baked, and the list goes on and on. That being said, it is time finally have a look at some of the most popular cod dishes in Portugal. We are very happy to present to you:
Bacalhau à Brás
It is said that this recipe was invented sometime in the late 19th century by a cook called Brás who owned a tavern in Lisbon’s neighborhood Bairro Alto. His recipe includes shredded and salted cod, onions, garlic, straw potatoes fried on the spot, olive oil, and scrambled eggs. The whole thing is then topped with black olives and fresh parsley.
However, this is not the only à Brás recipe. Mushrooms, chicken, sardines, and ham can also be prepared à Brás, which means this technique will always include straw potatoes, onions, and eggs. Sounds delicious!
Bacalhau com Natas
Another popular recipe is definitely Cod with Cream. It already sounds yummy, and this is how it is made: Cod is first cooked, then sautéed with onion and fried potatoes. Once that is done, the cod sails straight to the oven where it is baked with sour cream, cheese and Béchamel sauce.
Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá
This is another one of those recipes that owe its name to its inventor José Luís Gomes de Sá Jr., a son of a rich merchant who apparently dealt in cod. But the family fortune didn't last for a long time, and his son soon needed to find a job, which is exactly what he did. He started working at the famous Lisbonense restaurant in downtown Porto. It was exactly there, where this adored Portuguese dish saw daylight for the very first time. In this scenario, cod features potatoes, onions, hard-boiled eggs, olives, and olive oil. It is traditionally enjoyed on Good Friday, but there is absolutely no reason not to treat oneself to this wonderful recipe all year long.
Bacalhau à Zé do Pipo
This is yet another food invention of Porto and the chef behind this recipe is known by the nickname of Zé do Pipo, even though his real name is José Valentim. According to his recipe dating from the 1940s, the cod loin is sautéed, and covered in a sauce of onions, garlic, olive oil, and bay leaves. On top of the loin, mayonnaise is added, while the sides are filled with mashed potatoes and everything is, of course, garnished with black olives. Yummy! Porto food is full of surprises and this recipe confirms that fact. If you wish to discover more about Portuguese food and typical Porto food, join our Portuguese Food Tour in Porto.
Bacalhau com Broa
This Portuguese delicacy consists of cooked shredded cod or cod loins which are then topped with sautéed onions, garlic, parsley, olive oil, egg yolks, and covered with delicious cornbread giving the codfish that gorgeous crispiness. Other than that, it keeps the fish moist. It is usually served with potatoes. If you are not sure what to eat in Portugal, this recipe is very popular and loved across the country.
Bacalhau à Lagreiro
This is another very popular recipe. It comes from the Beira region and back in the day, it used to be cooked in olive mill ovens. The recipe includes cod loins, potatoes, garlic, onions, pepper, bay leaves, olive oil, and cilantro. Simple, easy, and very tasty!
Bacalhau Espiritual or in English Spiritual Cod is quite an interesting part of Portuguese cuisine. This traditional Portuguese food was created in 1947 by Countess Almeida Araújo. She was inspired by a French dish called Brandade de Chaude de Morue, which is also made with cod. However, the countess made it very Portuguese. Her recipe includes milk, grated carrots, bread crumbs, onions, bay leaf, garlic, Béchamel sauce, and the main star – codfish of course.
As you already know, there are many more ways to prepare codfish. If you would like to learn more about Portuguese gastronomy and try other Portuguese delicacies, The Walking Parrot invites you to join our Portuguese Food Tour in Porto. We will take you to top restaurants in Porto and make sure that you get the opportunity to try not only codfish but other famous Portuguese food, accompanied by an incredible story behind each of the traditional Portuguese dishes. If you are not sure what to eat in Porto, do not worry as we will feed you with the best Portuguese food, codfish included. Join us and uniquely taste Portuguese gastronomy! And may Cod be with you!