How the Portuguese fell in love with salt cod, and then so did I
It’s perfect September weather. I am in Portugal and there’s ample seafood, a variety of dishes made of black pork paired with a wide selection of wines. I am well satiated.
But the multitude of bacalhau—salt cod—dishes served in every restaurant leaves me baffled. Cod isn’t found in Portuguese waters, so I cannot fathom neither its easy availability nor its ubiquity in the Iberian Peninsula.
Our Portuguese driver, Miguel Sá, tells me: “It is the nation’s favourite. We can cook the bacalhau in thousands of ways, so that means one can savour the fish all 365 days."
I order Bacalhau à Brás or Bacalhau Dourado at the birthplace of the dish—Pousada Santa Luzia in Elvas, the first inn to open in Portugal. It’s a plate of finely shredded cod cooked with potato sticks and eggs. As I dig into the “golden cod", as it is called due to the colour of the dish, the sharp, salty flavour hits me so hard that I find the other nuances of the dish are lost in its salinity.
One has to acquire a taste for the bacalhau—like wine. The salting and drying of cod fish results in its saline palate. While both salted and unsalted varieties are available in Portugal, the locals prefer the salted dry fish.
This is another facet of the cod that surprises me. Shouldn’t meat taste better fresh than cured?
The earliest available history of cod being consumed dates to AD 985 when the Vikings are said to have set sail from Norway to Canada via Iceland and Greenland. It is told they survived the long voyage on the sea by consuming air-dried cod.
The Basques went a step ahead—they used salt to preserve their fish longer and better than the Norsemen.
For a country like Portugal, with a large following of Christianity which meant abstinence from meat during fasting periods like Lent and on Fridays, the almost fatless cod was a blessing in disguise. Besides, the Portuguese were the greatest of seafarers during the European age of Discovery and Exploration. The protein-rich salted cod would last for as long as three months—enough to feed sailors on pioneering Portuguese ships.
Mark Kurlansky, in his award-winning book COD: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, published in 1997, writes, “Once dried or salted—or both—and then properly restored through soaking, this fish presents a flaky flesh that to many tastes, even in the modern age of refrigeration, is far superior to the bland white meat of fresh cod. For the poor who could rarely afford fresh fish, it was cheap, high-quality nutrition."
So that put my mistaken notion to rest. Maybe this stuff tasted better salted than fresh.
One evening I head to Cistern restaurant in Lisbon. The 63-year-old owner, Helio Doro, says the salted fish needs to be soaked in water before cooking and the water needs to be changed frequently.
Helio Doro, owner of Cistern restaurant in Lisbon, educates me how the bacalhau is soaked in water before it is cooked. Photo: Rathina Sankari
He generally leaves the cured fish in a tub under a running tap for 24 hours before it is good to cook. “You can grill it, before plating it with vegetables. A drizzle of olive oil and some garlic is enough, it’s an easy, quick fix," he says.
“The cured fish has enough salt. It is a versatile fish. Put it in the oven, fry or grill and have it with numerous sides—cream, spinach, rice, boiled potatoes or red and yellow beans. The list is endless."
So how did the cod reach Portugal? “Terra Nova! That’s where the Portuguese went fishing," he exclaims.
By the 15th century, Newfoundland (currently part of Canada) or Terra Nova, which the Portuguese claim as their discovery, was a fish mine. The island was named Terra dos Bacalhaus (Land of Codfish) in old Portuguese maps.
The waters were abundant with cod and the Portuguese commercialized the fisheries by early 16th century. Soon, the fish became an integral part of the Portuguese cuisine. When Spain annexed Portugal, changes in political climate meant animosity with the British, who hitherto had helped protect Portuguese fishing routes. By mid-17th century, Portugal turned from producer to a major importer of cod.
It was only in the 19th century that the Portuguese White Fleet revived cod fishing.
But fishing these gadiformes in hostile conditions at Newfoundland, where the cold Labrador current mixes with the warm Gulf stream, was easier said than done. The fishermen would be on the cold, rough sea braving the conditions for as long as six months.
Each fisherman was assigned a dory—a traditional flat-bottomed fishing boat—which was lowered into the waters from the mother ship once they reached the Great Banks of Newfoundland.
The fisherman then ventured all alone into the foggy sea and was left to his own fate till his boat was filled or for as long as 12 hours, whichever was earlier. At times, they would get lost in the treacherous cold foggy conditions and wouldn’t be able to trace their way back to the mother ship.
Once back aboard the ship with the day’s catch, each man would be assigned a task. There was plenty to do—splitting, scaling, cleaning, beheading and salting the fish in the hold.
No part of the fish is wasted. The head, throat or tongue, air bladder, roe, milt, stomach, liver and the liver oil are rich in vitamins. At the Bacalhau Restaurant in Porto beside the Duoro River, I relished rice with cod tongues, turnip greens and chorizo with fried cod.
In recent years a combination of environmental concerns, and controls on overfishing have seen Portuguese cod fisheries decline once again. But that has done nothing to temper the insatiable local demand for the delicacy. As I walk around Bolhão Market in Porto, I find locals thronging to the stalls selling bacalhau.
Outside the market, delis sell different parts of imported frozen cod. Across Portugal, cod is shipped in from Iceland, the North American Pacific cod, and the most beloved of all, Norway. It isn’t a surprise that Portugal is the largest importer of cod from Norway.
At the prestigious DOC restaurant in Duoro, as recommended by its Michelin star chef Rui Paula, I tuck into the Bacalhau com broa till the very last morsel has vanished—it’s baked bacalhau chunks topped with a layer of corn bread crumbs, served with olives, roasted potatoes and extra virgin olive oil. I guess the bacalhau craze finally rubbed off on me.
The Portuguese love for cod didn’t limit itself to its shores, and travelled with their explorers to many of their colonies, including Goa. The colonists brought with them bacalhau along with other Portuguese products like olives, olive oil, canned sardines, and wine to Goa.
Author Fatima da Silva Gracias, in her book Cozinha de Goa published in 2011, says the affluent Indian Christian community in Goa served starters like the ovas de bacalhau da Terra Nova in weddings during the late 1940s.
The 66-year-old Margarida Távora, owner of the famed Nostalgia restaurant in South Goa, says, “Bacalhau was served by Portuguese and few Goan families during important celebratory events. But after the Portuguese left, it’s not easily available in Goa. One can get it from Iqbal’s in Margao where it is sold at Rs3,200 per kilogramme. It’s like gold."
Margarida’s paternal relatives are based in Portugal. So her friends and family get the salted “gold fish" for her during their trips to Portugal. She serves the deep-fried fritter style pastéis de bacalhau, Bacalhau à Brás, Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá, and the pulav-like Arroz de Bacalhau in her restaurant.
The 19th century Russian author, Elena Ivanovna Molokhovets, in her book A Gift to Young Housewives published in 1861, says, “One might say that (cod) is the only food, apart from bread, which, once one has got used to it, one never gets bored of, without which one could not live, and which one could never exchange for any delicacy."
I am not sure about the Russians, but it truly echoes the sentiments of the Portuguese. As for me, I am packing my bags to Goa—I have been missing the gold fish for far too long.