Portuguese Cod: Delicious, Despite a Tumultuous Past Century

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Fish on a table in a market
Fish in a market (Photos by Keri White)

I just spent 10 glorious days in Portugal and, for kosher-style diners, Portugal is all about the fish — cod in particular, although sole, tuna, haddock, hake, mackerel, grouper, amberjack, bass, sea bream, sardines and others that I can’t even remember are available in plentitude.

Because a large part of the typical Portuguese diet is comprised of shellfish and pork products and vegetables are not a big part of the local diet, fish, by delicious default, takes center stage.

Salt cod, or bacalhau, is practically a staple food in Portugal, so I assumed cod inhabited local waters and every man, woman and child was able to catch it in their backyards. We subsequently learned from an Uber driver named Jorge that most of the cod consumed in Portugal today is imported from Norway. That seemed suspect, so I did some research and confirmed that Jorge was indeed correct.

It all started back in the 1600s when Portugal dominated the Age of Exploration. Fishing fleets would head to Newfoundland, where cod was bountiful, and the fresh catch would be dried in salt to preserve it for the long journey home.

Eventually, Portugal turned its focus eastward, where the spice routes from India proved extremely profitable, but the taste for cod on the home front remained. Consequently, the British began to supply cod to Portugal and, by the 1900s, there was virtually no domestic Portuguese cod industry.

In 1926, however, things changed. A brutal military dictatorship took over the country, and the population began to face food supply problems.

In 1942, the regime initiated the “Cod Campaign,” which was designed to boost domestic production capacity. Like everything else, the cod industry was forced under state control and, by 1958, Portugal was back in the cod business full throttle, with 80% of the fish consumed there being caught and processed domestically — although the fishermen were neither paid nor treated well.

The industry began to decline in the 1960s when some importation began, and the dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar, was overthrown in 1974. This caused the local industry once more to collapse as competitive global markets opened, fishing zones were limited due to environmental concerns and the artificially controlled pricing was eliminated.

But there seems to be no lasting stain on the cod industry in the culinary world, and virtually every restaurant we visited offered several dishes that featured cod.

I have recreated two of our favorites below. Note: The Portuguese may use salt cod that they soak in milk for a day or so to remove the salt and restore its moisture, but I opted for fresh cod in these recipes.

Additionally, if you are not a fan of cod, most any fish could be substituted. In fact, we had a version of the tomato-based dish below prepared with swordfish and covered with thinly sliced, crispy potatoes. Boiled potatoes and rice are also common accompaniments.

Bom apetite!

a dish of cod with cilantro, potatoes, half a hard boiled egg and olve oil
Cod with cilantro

Cod with Cilantro

Serves 4

My husband had this dish at a restaurant called O Pescador in Caiscais, a beach town 25 miles west of Lisbon. The cilantro mixture would work well on any fish, and I’m keen to try it as an accompaniment to chicken, meat, veggies or stirred into rice.

  • 4 cod fillets, about 1½ pounds total
  • 1 medium-sized onion, coarsely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 bunch fresh cilantro, rinsed well
  • ½ cup olive oil, divided
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Heat your oven to 350 degrees. Place the cod fillets in a shallow baking dish; drizzle them with ¼ cup of olive oil and sprinkle them with salt and pepper.

In a blender or food processor, place the onion, garlic, cilantro and the remaining ¼ cup of olive oil. Puree until smooth.

Spoon equal parts of the cilantro mixture onto the fillets, and bake them in the oven for about 30 minutes until the fish is completely cooked, flakes easily and is opaque throughout.

Cod in Tomato Sauce

Serves 4

This simple preparation is classic throughout Portugal and can be used with most any fish. If using a thinner, more delicate fish — like sole or flounder — reduce the cooking time. Serve this over rice or with crusty bread to mop up the sauce.

  • 4 cod fillets, about 1½ pounds total
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped finely
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 large tomatoes, chopped coarsely, with juice
  • ⅓ cup dry white wine
  • Salt and pepper to taste

In a large skillet with a cover, heat the oil and sauté the onions, garlic, salt and pepper. When they begin to sizzle, add tomatoes and wine.

Simmer the mixture until the tomatoes begin to break down and form a sauce, about 5 minutes.

Carefully place the cod fillets in sauce, cover and simmer over low heat for about 15 minutes, basting frequently with the sauce, and turning halfway through cooking until done.

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