The Portuguese passion–or, should I say, obsession–for bacalhau (dried salted codfish) is so much so that they have devised more than a thousand ways to prepare the seemingly unremarkable ingredient; I mean, it’s dried fish, for crying out loud. What’s so special about it? And why, of all countries, in Portugal where there is an incredible variety of fresh seafood, readily available and a whole lot cheaper than bacalhau? On that note, it is the only fish that is not eaten fresh in this seafood-loving country.
One of the reasons why bacalhau went on to become so popular over the centuries and became a staple of the Portuguese diet was because Portugal, as a Catholic country, was influenced by the church who forbade meat consumption on religious days. Bacalhau was readily available and, therefore, eaten instead.
The day we arrived in Portugal, we did a quick grocery run on our way home at a local supermarket to pick up some goods for dinner. It was actually the distinct dried fish funk, hardly pleasant, that drew me to this pile of bacalhau. They kind of looked like a bleached version of the more yellowy Korean whole dried pollack, but about five times the size of bugeo (북어) and as stiff as a board; they are so hard they have to be cut into smaller pieces by saw.
The first Bacalhau dish I had during my stay in Portugal was at a small seaside restaurant in what could quite possibly be the most charming beach resort town I have ever set my foot on.
There is a long line of wooden houses, painted in bright stripes. Look at that sky.
I found one in my favorite color.
Two local grannies sunning on the deck. They waved hello when I looked up.
I adore those red terra cotta roof tiles.
This one is typically Portuguese, decorated with azulejos which are painted tin-glazed ceramic tiles. Joe’s family used to vacation in this particular house many summers ago.
My friend Una, who joined us in Portugal for a week, bought this for me at a flea market in Lisbon which I now use as a trivet. Isn’t it beautiful? I would love to decorate my future bathroom and kitchen walls with these gorgeous azulejos.
Back to bacalhau. I ordered this at a restaurant we randomly walked into by the beach. The pasteis de bacalhau–codfish fritters–were served golden and crispy on the outside and incredibly moist on the inside. But, they’re not mushy soft like the texture of a croquette. Because these codfish cakes are made predominantly with dried codfish that have been soaked until springy again (this process takes up to two days in the fridge), they have a meaty texture when you bite into it, and you can see the ultra-fine threads that make up the white fish flesh. Note the carbs that came as sides. Rice and potatoes are typically served together in Portugal.
A lot of parsley goes into these codfish cakes, an egg to bind it together and, sometimes, mashed potatoes. But, like I said, a good pastel de bacalhau should mostly be shredded fish.
This was the place, for those of you who are interested.
This is another version of pasteis de bacalhau I had at Museu da Cerveja–that’s right, a MUSEUM OF BEERS (why had I not heard about this place before?!)–located in a yellow building that once used to be Portugal’s Ministry of Finance in Praça do Comércio, on the edge of the river Tagus in Lisbon.
Una and her pastel de bacalhau. Una is a close friend of mine whom I met through work five years ago; she was a weekly guest on a radio show I was co-hosting with another good friend Kisang at the time, and we quickly bonded. She’s been a film journalist for close to 16 years, currently hosts a film-related TV show and has interviewed countless A-list Korean and Hollywood actors and actresses throughout her career.
Five days before our departure for Portugal, she texted me late in the evening, telling me that an interview which had been set up for the first week of September got cancelled at the last minute. I told her this would be the perfect chance for her to book a flight to Portugal, hang with us for a week. So, she did (three days prior to her departure from Seoul) and here she is in my photo with her blue and tangerine nails, biting into that insanely tasty fried fish ball with a cheese-filled center at a beer museum in Lisbon. Life is funny.
Life is also infinitely better with cheese. Ooey gooey melted cheese.
Less than an hour into our arrival in Lisbon and the day was about to get amazing.
A batch of codfish cakes ready to go in the fryer. I really must attempt to make this at home. Or, at least a version of it as I do not have bacalhau with me nor do I think I can get get my hands on any in Seoul.
A tower of plastic pasteis de bacalhau.
For our final day lunch in Portugal, Lisette promised us a bacalhau lunch. She’d seen me blog a couple of times while everyone was off enjoying their siestas, and she explained to me, step by step, how to prepare her bacalhau com batatas ao forno. First, the fish. You’ve seen the photo of the dried bacalhau, completely dehydrated until flat and hard. This is what it looks like after soaking in water for two full days in the fridge. Note that the water must be changed a couple of times a day. After two days, the flat dried fish turn into thick chunks of steak. Although a lot of the salt has been removed by this point, the fish is still salty.
The peppers are cut vertically into long strips.
The small yellow onions were sliced thin horizontally. Both are now frying in some olive oil.
The fish goes on next, again, in some olive oil, skin-side down.
Flip once the skin is nice and golden.
At this point, the aroma of the caramelized onions, bell peppers and codfish makes the whole kitchen smell something amazing.
Small potatoes, peeled and washed. These are later cut into small cubes.
When done, the skin should peel off the flesh effortlessly.
A tad more cooking on the skin side.
Once the fish is done, they’re moved to a tray. The exterior is golden brown while the flesh is extremely moist.
Flat-leaf parsley from tia Armanda’s garden.
Time to get our hands dirty. By hand, Lisette removed all the bones and the skin.
Bell peppers, caramelizing over low heat. These become deliciously sweet once baked with the fish.
The flesh of bacalhau. These will be shredded into smaller bits once cooled.
Joe waiting for lunch.
Lisette’s bacalhau ao forno. Cod, potatoes, caramelized onions and peppers, parsley, mixed together and seasoned with salt and pepper and then baked in the oven. This is the best thing I ate during my stay in Portugal.
A bottle of vinho verde–“green wine” or youthful white wine, not sufficiently effervescent to be officially classed as a sparkling wine, but with an obvious sparkle–typically accompanies a bacalhau meal.
We’ve had quite a few bottles of vinho verde during this trip, the price of a bottle ranging from 3.5 ridiculous euros–which makes it perfectly okay to drink out of plastic wine glasses we took from a kiosk bar in Belem–to a tad more euros in restaurants.
The bottle the three of us shared with dinner on our final night in Lisbon, at a restaurant in one of the hundreds of alleyways in Alfama, the oldest district in Lisbon.
And then 0.5 euro coffees on top of the hill with this view.
At this point, Una is close to tears as she has a flight to catch in a few hours. The same destiny was upon us five days later.