Salted codfish, the Portuguese faithful friend. What you know about it?

One of our main goals at Lisbon Cooking Academy is to showcase the amazing Portuguese gastronomic and cultural diversity to those who visit us. In our classes, we try to highlight ingredients that are a staple in Portuguese cuisine and that have a daily presence at many Portuguese tables.

Those who experience dry and salted codfish for the first time, quickly start to ask questions, trying to gather more information. Why is salted cod so important in Portuguese cuisine? Is cod a fish from the Portuguese coastline? How can you cook it and use it if it’s dry and salted?

Codfish has a regular presence in our cooking classes at Lisbon Cooking Academy. We even have a weekly scheduled class exclusively dedicated to cod and its delicious recipes. In the following paragraphs, we will guide you deeper through the history of this national symbol and its importance in Portuguese life and culture.

From the Latin baccalaureu, the Portuguese call it Bacalhau, the English Codfish, the Spaniards Bacalao, the Italians Baccalà, the Danes call it Torsk and in France, it is known as Morue Cabbilaud.

Its consumption and transformation were already taking place in the 9th century in countries such as Iceland or Norway, although the first cod processing industry was created in Norway, by a known merchant, Yapes Ypess. However, the pioneers in the consumption of this fish were the Vikings, who used it (mainly dried) on their long sea voyages.
This process would become of extreme importance, during the Age of Discovery, when sailors used salt as a technique for food preservation in their distant journeys.

The Portuguese are known to be the first to fish cod off the coast of Newfoundland, discovered in 1497, introducing dry salted cod in their diet around the 15th century, during the Age of Discovery. The fishing method adopted by the Portuguese was longline fishing, done in Dóris (small wooden boats), a practice that remained practically unchanged until the 1970s. When the Dóris returned to the ships, the fish was scaled, cut and salted.

The beginning of its commercialization is attributed to the Basques, who were already familiar with the salt and its preservation proprieties, salting the fish to prevent it from becoming spoiled.
To this day, Norway stands as the main fishing, processing and export center of salted cod in a practically unchanged method of drought and salting. Norway has also played a vital role in developing specific techniques and systems to avoid any state of unbalance with this natural resource. However, one of the largest worldwide units, operating exclusively in the cod sector, is based here in Portugal. Riberalves, a Lisbon Cooking Academy partner, produces 30,000 tons of cod per year, equivalent to about 8-10% of all cod caught in the whole world.

Portugal and its “faithful friend”

For many years, salted cod was a cheap and very available fish, regularly present on the Portuguese diet, especially on Fridays and religious days. The habits of consumption changed in the period after World War II, when the price of the cod increased, due to the scarcity of resources.

Currently, cod is part of the Portuguese gastronomy, being present in many varied recipes, in homes and in restaurants, being, therefore, considered the Portuguese “faithful friend”. It is said that there are more than 365 cod recipes, a different recipe for each day of the year. It’s impossible not to find it within the menu of any traditional Portuguese restaurant. Bacalhau à Brás (Codfish Brás Style) Pataniscas de Bacalhau (Codfish Fritters), Bacalhau Espiritual (Spiritual Cod), Pastéis de Bacalhau (Codfish Cakes), Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá (Codfish Gomes de Sá Style), Bacalhau com Broa (Codfish with cornbread) or Bacalhau à Lagareiro (Codfish Lagareiro Style).

Traditionally, codfish is bought dry and salted, whole, cut or shredded, varying in price according to the quality of the cut and its use. Before it can be used, it has to go through a soaking process, which can vary between 24 to 48 hours, depending on the thickness and curing time. The soaking water should be changed every 6 to 8 hours.

In addition to the traditional pieces, you can buy loins, faces, and tongues. For daily use and to be more convenient, it is possible to buy the frozen cod already soaked. Portugal is still the largest consumer of cod on a global level.

Popular culture

Besides the gastronomic presence, salted cod takes on a weight in Portugal that extends to its habits and customs.

In Portuguese pop culture:

  • “Apertar o bacalhau” (to squeeze the cod)- Greet someone with a handshake. The outstretched hand resembles the shape of a dry, flat cod.
  • “Estar seco que nem um bacalhau” (being dry like a cod)- Used when referring to someone with a rather lean structure
  • “Ficar em águas de bacalhau” (stay in cod waters) – Applies when referring to a situation that remains unchanged, without development or evolution.

As we have already mentioned, at Lisbon Cooking Academy we give special attention to the “faithful friend”, and therefore, our chefs created a class exclusively dedicated to its preparation in several different recipes. Thankfully, we can count on the support and quality of our partner Riberalves, providing us with an exceptional high-end product.