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Salted cod in Portugal © Pixabay
Salted cod in Portugal © Pixabay
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A Brief Introduction to Bacalhau, Portugal’s Most Treasured Dish

Picture of Nina Santos
Updated: 17 March 2017
Listening to the Portuguese talk about bacalhau (cod in English) may remind you of the shrimp scene in Forrest Gump. In the words of Bubba, you can boil it, barbecue it, bake it, broil it, eat it with potatoes, eat it with rice, and much more. Bacalhau is a staple in Portuguese cuisine with what’s believed to be nearly 1,000 ways to serve it.

Where does bacalhau come from?

Knowing how integral bacalhau is in Portuguese cuisine may make anyone believe that it is caught off the Portuguese coast, but it’s not. Actually, bacalhau is caught in much colder waters near Norway, Iceland, and Newfoundland in Canada. The popularity among the Portuguese dates back to before the Age of Discoveries (15th-18th centuries), when Portuguese sailors traveled the world, sometimes spending months abroad relying on fish as a food source. In fact, the beginning of bacalhau in Portugal may have started as an inexpensive and easy-to-preserve substitute for Catholics required to forgo land-based meat during holidays and other religious events.

Why is bacalhau dried and salted in Portugal?

Visit practically any food market in Portugal and you will see – and smell – the cod in the fish section. They take over the counter space and are sometimes stacked in a box off to the side as well. Salting and drying the fish helps maintain its shelf life for a longer period. This is also helpful since bacalhau is often imported and takes longer to reach Portugal. The term bacalhau always refers to dried and salted cod, while fresh cod is called bacalhau fresco.

Bacalhau at the supermarket © Kimble Young / Flickr
Bacalhau at the supermarket | © Kimble Young / Flickr

The many faces of bacalhau

More restaurants serve bacalhau than not. A challenge would be finding the latter.

One of the easier-to-make recipes is called Bacalhau à Lagareiro. It’s cod fillets that have been baked in the oven and served with potatoes and smothered in olive oil (another Portuguese staple). When visiting the center of Portugal – near Viseu – this may be among the more common recipes that you’ll find.

In Lisbon, Bacalhau à Brás is an all-time favorite. The fish is shredded and baked (bound with eggs) and mixed with equally small bits of potatoes. Usually, Bacalhau à Brás is topped with olives and parsley for a flavorful and aromatic addition.

Bacalhau is the main dish served during the holidays, especially Christmas Eve and Easter, and some families prepare multiple recipes with this main ingredient. One side dish that the Portuguese love is called Bolinhos de Bacalhau or Pastéis de Bacalhau. These fried fishcakes go by a different name based on the region where they are prepared. The fish is mixed with egg, potatoes, onion, and parsley before being rolled into balls, breaded and fried. They are also wonderful appetizers that many restaurants and bars offer as snacks.

Bolinhos de bacalhau © Christian Benseler / Flickr
Bolinhos de bacalhau | © Christian Benseler / Flickr

Easily one of the most flavorful, but most time consuming recipes is Bacalhau com Natas (cod in cream). Talk about comfort food! This casserole-style dish is baked in the oven mixed with heavy cream, potatoes, and onions. Since it takes a little more time to make it’s not always on the menu, but it is worth ordering when it’s offered.

Different chefs and restaurants may have their own special way or twist of cooking bacalhau, and trying the different recipes throughout the country is a fun way to experience Portugal.