If I had to name one significant food memory from my travels in Portugal, it would have to be the ritual of eating pastéis de bacalhau at least once a day. These little salt cod fritters are everywhere – in restaurants, bars and tascas. In fact, it’s hard for me to now remember eating anything else while I was there… except for dozens of pastéis de nata, of course, the famous Portuguese egg custard tarts with their just-set wobbly centres and dark, caramelised tops.
So what the heck is bacalhau, or salt cod, anyway, aside from being the most ferociously consumed fish in Portugal? It is a dried, salted product that originated in the 1500s, when the Portuguese began fishing for cod off the coast of Newfoundland. The cod from those icy Atlantic waters was way tastier than their own, so they had to find a way to preserve it for the long journey home. Since then, it’s become such a staple in the Portuguese diet that the word “bacalhau” (cod) simply refers to the salted version, and “bacalhau fresco” refers to fresh cod.
Pastéis de bacalhau are most common in Lisbon and the surrounding area. If you’re in Lisbon, head to Antiga Confeitaria de Belém to get your salt cod fix. And while you’re there, don’t forget to buy as many custard tarts as you can squish in your bag, because you will regret it when they’re all gone.
Recipe: pastéis de bacalhau (salt cod fritters)
Recipe notes: If you don’t live in Portugal, or a place with a Portuguese community, chances are you won’t be able to source the salt cod required to make true pastéis de bacalhau. However, smoked salmon, trout or haddock make excellent substitutes.
Loosely based on the recipe from David Leite’s book The New Portuguese Table, but I’ve made them so many times that they only slightly resemble David’s recipe now 🙂
400g waxy potatoes, peeled if desired, roughly chopped
200g bacalhau (salt cod), soaked overnight, drained and flaked *
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
oil for frying
* if salt cod is unavailable, substitute for any smoked fish, and skip the soaking and draining step.
1. Place the potatoes in a medium saucepan on medium-high heat and top up with water. Bring to the boil and cook for 10-15 minutes, until soft.
2. Drain and mash the potatoes, and then while still steaming hot add in the bacalhau (or smoked fish, if using), garlic, parsley and salt to taste. Combine. Add the egg and mix well.
3. Chill the mixture in the fridge for an hour or so. This will make it easier to handle and more sturdy when deep frying.
4. Fill a medium saucepan with about 2 inches of oil. The best kind of oil to use here is vegetable, rice bran, grapeseed or similar, as they give a crispier result due to the high smoke point. Heat the oil to 180C. If you don’t have a fat thermometer, you can heat the oil up and drop a cube of bread in to see if the oil is ready. It should bubble and brown rapidly.
5. Once the oil is ready, remove the fritter mixture from the fridge. Use a teaspoon to scoop out a walnut-sized portion. Quickly roll it into a ball with your hands, and drop into the oil (carefully). I can fit about 6 at a time in my saucepan. Drain on kitchen towel. Repeat until all the mixture has been used up.
6. Serve with peri peri sauce or mayonnaise.
– Hannah Whitfield
Find more recipes (and fritters!) at Hannah’s blog, www.theswirlingspoon.com