Bacalhau Rio.

Bacalhau on display in a Casas Pedro shop in Copacabana.

Bacalhau, dried and salted cod is the core ingredient in many dishes most treasured by Brazilians. Today it is a quite expensive ingredient and mostly reserved for special occasions, that was not always the case.

Arriving in a new culture can sometimes present you with culinary challenges, for me bacalhau was one of those. The dried and salted cod did not agree with my palate, until today I pretty much can only liked it when the taste is hidden in fried batter and chili sauce. This is the story about bacalhau.

Origins

Scandinavian Vikings discovered how you could dry air dry cod. The tradition to dry and salt the cod dates back at least 500 years and was initiated with the discovery of huge shoals of cod outside of Newfoundland, the result is referred to as stockfish (bacalhau in Portuguese). Initially most of the fishing vessels came from the Iberian peninsula, they would catch, salt and dry the cod before bringing it back to Europe. In the 17th century better salination methods made salt cheaper, coupled with better equipment volumes went up and the price down. Dried and salted fish became a mainstay in many European countries, in Portugal and Atlantic Spain so much it became a part of culture. It is by most considered the national dish of Portugal.

How Bacalhau Came to Brazil

The Portuguese would bring the cod to their colonies, this is how it came to Brazil. Since meat was expensive and bacalhau cheap it became a very important food. So cheap that slaves and poor were more likely to eat it rather than the meat rich feijoada considered by many as the typical slave-dish (read my article Brazilian Feijoada for more on this topic). The Brazilian saying “Para quem é, bacalhau basta” (En: “For who it is, bacalhau is good enough”) can serve as an indicator for how this was originally a cheap food.

Today

In time large quantities of cod would also be caught off the coasts of Iceland and Norway. Today the shoals outside of Newfoundland are almost depleted, most of the cod comes from Norway. Since the Second World diminishing catches have made prices go up drastically, for Brazilians it is an exclusive food these days and only eaten on special occasions. For many the Christmas dinner would not be complete with out some dried cod.
In Brazil stockfish is prepared in various fashions, it can be baked it in the oven, used as ingredient in fritters or casseroles.


Sources and for further reading:
– Kurlansky, M “Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World “ (1997)



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