As I had only recently moved to Melbourne once the pandemic began, I longed for the familiar — especially during holidays. As soon as Lent rolled in on Ash Wednesday, my mouth watered for bacalao, the salted cod stew my mum cooked back home in Manila, the Philippines.
On Ash Wednesday and Lent Fridays, Catholics abstain from land meat. There is also an invitation to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. During the 40 days of Lent, we are called to a season of prayer, fasting, sacrifice and alms-giving. Fasting and abstinence are said to instil self-control and self-discipline.
As a little girl, I knew it was a Lenten Friday when mum served bacalao. The stew is made from salted cod, tomatoes, potatoes, garbanzos, roasted capsicum, bay leaf, garlic, onions and green olives. We slathered that rich salty stew over steaming white rice and sometimes a side of scrambled egg. On Good Friday, when we are only allowed one full meal, this was what we looked forward to. With no TV to watch and all the stores closed, the big event of the day was going to church.
"Bacalhau is an iconic ingredient in Portuguese cooking, with over a thousand recipes."
I never really thought of the origins of bacalao. I just accepted it as a Lenten staple. But during a trip to Macau in 2010, I discovered different ways to cook it: with cream and potatoes, into little fried balls or in casseroles with eggs, olives and onions. The Portuguese colonised Macau for many years but they left behind bacalhau, the Portuguese word for bacalao, an iconic ingredient in Portuguese cooking.
However, it was only when I was in Melbourne recently that I discovered the fish actually came from Norway, not Portugal or Spain. In Norway, bakalao refers to the Spanish-style stew of salted dried with potatoes, tomatoes, and olives, very much like the bacalao I grew up with, in the Philippines.
The salted cod dish dates back to the Vikings' long and dark winters. Salting fish dates back to the 15th Century. But it became more famous in the 17th Century. Salt preserves the fish with an antibacterial property. It was in the 18th Century that the salted cod became popular in Catholic countries like Spain, Portugal and Italy where people practised meatless Fridays during Lent. Today, bacalao is also consumed in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Suriname. Not everyone eats bacalao during Lent. An Italian friend cooks it in olive oil, black olives, and onions during Christmas Eve, leaving some for Santa instead of cookies.
Here in Melbourne, I searched where to find the famed salted fish. My search brought me to Fitzroy and Casa Iberica, a Portuguese family-run specialty grocer. In one corner of the food store that's crammed with staples from Spain, Portugal and other Latin American countries, there was the stinky dried fish with bones and all.
I worried about how I would transport this large, dried pungent fish in the tram without getting stares from other commuters. I opted for the smaller packed and sealed bacalao without the fish bones. All that was left was for me to do was soak the fish to remove the overly salty flavour. My mum soaks the fish in water overnight. The shop owner at Casa Iberica recommended soaking it in milk. I left it soaking in water inside my fridge for three nights.
I had never cooked bacalao before, but with my mum's directions, I successfully cooked a large pot of bacalao on my own.
My entire apartment smelled of the distinct aroma of salted fish. But the sight of the glistening red-orange pot of this delicious dish made my mouth water. Never mind if it's only Thursday, I tucked into this comfort food one day early, pouring this stew over rice only as a Filipino would. Now, it feels, tastes and smells just like Lent.
Bacalao is a salted and dried cod that is often sold in large fillets. It's probably the only dish Frank Camorra doesn't put any salt in (don't worry, the cod does all the work on that front). These fillets can be found in selected delis or grocers. Food Safari Water