Bolinhos de bacalhau (salt cod cakes) are one of the most popular bacalhau (salt cod) recipes and definitely the most common bacalhau appetizer in Portugal.
How to make authentic bolinhos de bacalhau?
Bolinhos de bacalhau are prepared by combining bacalhau with mashed potato, onion, eggs and parsley. The mixture is then shaped using two tablespoons into a torpedo shape, and deep-fried until golden brown (although they can also be shaped into round balls). They are tastier when enjoyed warm, when their texture is still crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. They are often eaten as a snack or appetizer, but can also be served as a main course when served with rice, salad and olives.
Bolinhos de bacalhau is their name in Northern Portugal and Brazil. However, they are called pastéis de bacalhau in Central and Southern Portugal, as well as in other Portuguese-speaking countries including Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, as well as São Tomé and Príncipe.
Bacalhau or salted codfish is one of the most iconic ingredients of Portuguese cuisine. The Portuguese say that there is a bacalhau recipe for every day of the year. Some even say there are 1001 recipes available. Bacalhau is a staple of Portuguese cuisine that, depending on the recipe, can be boiled, stewed, roasted, baked or fried.
The history of bacalhau
Codfish started to be an important commodity since the time of the Vikings around the ninth century. The Norwegians were already using dried cod during their travels. During the following centuries, a dried cod market started to develop, mostly in the South of Europe.
The Vikings learned how to preserve cod by hanging it in the very cold air until it lost most of its weight to eventually become a more durable product. This allowed them to travel very far and for longer periods of time.
In the ninth century, the Vikings were occupying the banks of the Adour River (near today’s Bayonne, France) and therefore interacted with the Basque people who became familiar with the technique of drying cod.
Unlike the Vikings, the Basques had access to large amounts of salt and sun. So, instead of drying it in cold air, they started salting cod and drying it under the sun. This new method contributed to making cod last longer. The Basques were therefore able to travel even farther than the Vikings. This salted dried cod, which was more durable, was also easier to trade. A century later, the Basques were trading cod far beyond the original northern habitat of cod.
Before the Basques started preparing salted cod, they were salting whale meat. However, cod is an animal product that is more adapted to the salting preservation method. Indeed, cod’s low fat content yields less spoilage. Cod could be preserved for longer periods of time than whale or herring, which have both a higher fat content. Most of the fat in codfish is located in the guts, including the liver from which cod liver oil is produced.
The Portuguese may have fished for cod for a long time, but the first written source dates from 1353 in an agreement between D. Pedro I and Edward II. This agreement allowed the Portuguese to fish in British waters. The Portuguese eventually discovered Newfoundland and gave it the nickname of Terra dos Bacalhaus (Land of Codfish).
Portuguese fishermen, as well as those from Brittany, Normandy, and England were first to adopt the salting and drying method from the Basque fishermen in Newfoundland at the end of the fifteenth century.
In the early 1500s, the British were importing most of their salt from Aveiro, in the center of Portugal. In exchange, the British provided protection to the Portuguese fleet. However, by the end of the 16th century, the British had control over Newfoundland and since Portugal was under Spanish rule, the Portuguese were often attacked due to the conflicts between England and Spain. By 1640, as Portugal became independent, most of its ships had been destroyed. The Portuguese bacalhau industry started to decline and most of the cod was imported instead.
In the following centuries, bacalhau became the ubiquitous ingredient of Portuguese cuisine that we know. The curing method has always helped preserve the nutrients of the fish but it also makes the cod tastier and more concentrated in flavors.
In the 1830s, the Portuguese tried to revive the fishing industry. Many young fishermen opted to go to sea to avoid being drafted in the army for the obligatory service that lasted six years. However, life for the fishermen was not really easy.
During the four decades of dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar from 1932 to 1968, cod fishing was subsidized by the government. Cod was an important ingredient for good Catholics on Fridays and holy days when meat was forbidden.
Today, although Portugal is the largest cod market globally and it is home to the largest processing company (Riberalves), there are just 10 Portuguese ships that are dedicated to the cod fishing industry. Established in 1985 by João Alves, the company Riberalves processes upward of 30,000 tons of cod every year, with 40% of this production being exported.
Although ready-to-cook and frozen bacalhau products have gained in popularity over the past couple decades, traditional salted dried cod remains the market leader. Frozen ready-to-cook bacalhau is prepared with fish that has been salted and dried. It is then soaked and frozen. These newer products now account for about 25% of the bacalhau market in Portugal.
Since the end of the twentieth century, the production of salt codfish from North America has dramatically declined in large part due to strict fishing regulation and a moratorium on Atlantic cod fishing in Eastern Canada. Unfortunately, the fish stocks have not replenished. Iceland and Norway have since emerged as the major suppliers of salt cod fish in Portugal.
In Portugal, bacalhau is called fiel amigo (loyal friend). Funny enough, there is actually no word for fresh cod in Portuguese. Instead, people call it bacalhau fresco (fresh salt cod).
History of fish cakes
According to Chinese popular folk tales, fishcakes may have been around for more than 4000 years. A story talks about an emperor called Shun who travelled to Southern China with his two wives. After a long journey, his wives became tired and lost their appetite. Shun became anxious and started searching for ways to address his wives’ issues. A fisherman called Bo came along and gave his fish cakes to Shun. As Shun’s wives really loved them, they retrieved their appetite, and Shun asked Bo to teach everyone how to make those fish cakes. It is supposedly how fish cakes became popular in China.
Another famous fish cake tale occurred during Guangxu Emperor’s reign in the Qing Dynasty (1875-1908). Zheng (Guangxu Emperor’s wife) loved fish cakes. She brought the recipe for fish cakes to the city where the royal family lived, and her fish cakes eventually became very popular. However, they disappeared after Zheng was murdered.
Fish cakes around the world
Fish cakes, in various forms, are very popular all over the world.
In Japan, fish cakes or kamaboko, have been popular since the Muromachi period (1336-1573). The fried version of Japanese fishcakes, called satsuma age, is also quite common.
Japanese fish cake was introduced to Korea during the Japanese occupation (1910–1945). Over there, they are made with corvina or cuttlefish and are referred to as eomuk or odeng. They are now often sold in food trucks, and are also traditionally served in a soup.
A spicy version of fish croquettes is also popular in the West Bengal state of India. Over there, this fish ball is known as macher chop.
In Indonesia, and more particularly in South Sumatra, fishcakes that are round or tube-shaped, are known as pempek or empek-empek.
In England, the Yorkshire fishcake is served in parts of Yorkshire. It is prepared with two slices of potato, with cod or haddock fillets in between, then battered and deep fried.
In Jewish cuisine, gefilte fish can be assimilated to fish patties. They are typically prepared with carp, whitefish or pike, as well as matzah meal.
Romanians make fishcakes that are called chiftele de peşte and are prepared with carp, just like gefilte fish.
The Greeks are fond of kroketes psariou (kροκέτες ψαριού), which are prepared with flour or breadcrumbs, as well as eggs as the binding agent.
Bolinhos de bacalhau are very similar to accras de morue (salt cod fritters) from the French West Indies, although accras substitute potatoes for flour.
Bolinhos de bacalhau are also quite popular in Spain and several Spanish-speaking countries where they are known as croquetas de bacalao.
And of course, even though they are not really fish, let’s not forget crab cake, a specialty that is popular in coastal areas of the United States.
But back to our bolinhos de bacalhau. You can serve them with a wedge of lime, but more importantly, do not forget the cold beer!
- 1 lb bacalhau (salt cod)
- 1¼ lb potatoes
- 1 onion , finely chopped
- 1 bunch parsley , chopped
- 2 eggs , lightly beaten
- Vegetable oil (for deep frying)
- Soak the salt cod in water for at least 24 hours, changing the water 2 to 3 times.
- Boil the potatoes with the skin for about 30 to 40 minutes.
- Remove them from the pot, let cool, then peel them.
- Mash the potatoes with a ricer or a grater, but not with a food processor or blender to maintain a certain consistency.
- Remove the cod from the soaking water.
- Bring a pot of water to a boil.
- Reduce to medium heat and cook the cod for about 8 minutes.
- Remove the cod from the pot and let cool for a few minutes.
- Remove the skin and bones.
- Add the cod to the food processor and pulse a few times to shred into fine pieces.
In a large bowl, add the cod, onion, parsley, mashed potatoes and beaten eggs. Mix thoroughly.
- Using two tablespoons, shape the bolinhos into a torpedo or quenelle shape. Alternatively, you can form round balls with wet hands.
- Fry the bolinhos for 2 minutes on each side until golden brown.
- Drain them on a plate lined with paper towel.
Serve hot with a few wedges of lime.