For a country with abundant seafood right on its Atlantic doorstep, it can seem a bit wacky to a visitor that the Portuguese are obsessed with a fish not found in nearby waters, but thousands of miles away. Or that they wax nostalgic for salted fish when sublimely fresh is all around them. But it’s a fact: they do! Although we’d not previously been big fans of codfish, Tom and I have now tried bacalhau in numerous preparations, and are developing an appreciation for King Codfish as we travel around Portugal.
A centuries-long tradition
Bacalhau (salt cod) has been a staple in Portugal since the fifteenth century, when the Portuguese began fishing off the coast of Newfoundland. Protein-rich, easy to transport and inexpensive due to its abundance in those days, it fed explorers during their voyages of discovery. The fiel amigo (faithful friend) of the navy and explorers became popular with countrymen back home, and for many Portuguese–perhaps most–cod remains the dish of nostalgia, when far from home.
Codfish on Portuguese tables everywhere
Bacalhau is omnipresent on Portuguese restaurant menus. Pastéis de bacalhau (mildly flavored codfish croquettes) are a popular appetizer, as are scallop or fritters of salt cod, lightly breaded and sautéed. Codfish is a traditional Christmas food, and there are countless variations on salads and casseroles made with cod. Portugal’s best chefs have honored tradition with their own, signature renditions of cod dishes, some using the techniques of molecular gastronomy. We have tried the lot, and here are a few of our favorites thus far.
We liked two dishes at Restaurant Abadia in Porto. One came topped with egg. The other, a formulation of the mayor of the city, was also made with potatoes and cheese, but dressed with black olives and a sprig of mint.
As an accompaniment to both dishes, we enjoyed an estate-bottled Casa de Santar Vinho Branco from the Dão region. A mellow Vinho Tinto would be just as good for these savory plates.
Try this at home!
There are countless ways to prepare salt cod. Here, from Food52, one of my favorite kitchen resources, are some suggestions for storing and using salt cod at home.
If you go
If you love codfish, Portugal is your dream destination. But even if it’s not completely obvious to you what the fuss is all about, do give the national fish dish(es) a go. Millions of Portuguese cannot be wrong!
- If you are not a fan, try codfish in a salad or casserole, and build enjoyment of flavor before tackling a “slab” of the fish.
- Try cod in a lighter, contemporary preparation, where other ingredients share the limelight.
- Learn more about cod and the importance of codfish to the cuisines of Portugal, Basque Spain and Venetian Italy. Start by checking out Fine Dining Lovers’ Codfish, bounty from the Vikings.
- Visit the Ílhavo Maritime Museum in this coastal city a few kilometers from Aveiro. It tells the story of fishing on the high seas in Newfoundland and Greenland, and promotes preservation of Portugal’s marine traditions.
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Our thanks to APTECE, Portugal’s Food Travel Association for bringing us to Portugal, and to the wonderful cooks who shared their codfish specialties with us!
To see all our travel stories from Portugal, click here.