Bacalhau is caught in much colder waters near Norway, Iceland, and Newfoundland in Canada. The popularity among the Portuguese dates back to before the Age of Discoveries (15th-18th centuries), when Portuguese sailors traveled the world, sometimes spending months abroad relying on fish as a food source. In fact, the beginning of bacalhau in Portugal may have started as an inexpensive and easy-to-preserve substitute for Catholics required to forgo land-based meat during holidays and other religious events.
Visit practically any food market in Portugal, and you will see and smell...the cod in the fish section. They take over the counter space and are sometimes stacked in a box off to the side as well. Salting and drying the fish helps maintain its shelf life for a more extended period. This is also helpful since bacalhau is often imported and takes longer to reach Portugal. The term bacalhau always refers to dried and salted cod, while fresh cod is called bacalhau fresco.
More restaurants serve bacalhau than not. A challenge would be finding the latter. One of the easier-to-make recipes is called Bacalhau à Lagareiro. It’s cod fillets that have been baked in the oven and served with potatoes and smothered in olive oil; in Lisbon, Bacalhau à Brás is an all-time favorite. The fish is shredded and baked (bound with eggs) and mixed with equally small bits of potatoes. Usually, Bacalhau à Brás is topped with olives and parsley for a flavorful and aromatic addition.
Bacalhau is the main dish served during the holidays, especially Christmas Eve and Easter, and some families prepare multiple recipes with this main ingredient. Easily one of the most flavorful, but most time-consuming recipes is Bacalhau com Natas (cod in cream). This casserole-style dish is baked in the oven mixed with heavy cream, potatoes, and onions. Since it takes a little more time to make it’s not always on the menu, but it is worth ordering when it’s offered. Different chefs and restaurants may have their own special way or twist of cooking bacalhau, and trying the different recipes throughout the country is a fun way to experience Portugal.