Who says seafood can’t be sophisticated?
Abstinence is the key word for life during Holy Week. Lent is the time for sacrifices, big and small, in order to share in our Lord’s pains. We are encouraged to shun worldly pleasures. Giving up meat is one of these.
Someone somewhere along the way decided that a seafood diet was inferior and therefore a fitting enough sacrifice during Lent. Whoever it was did not foresee the rise of Bacalao, an expensive gourmet fish dish, as the star of Good Friday meals.
Bacalao was an annual tradition of our citified Cavite City relatives, who spoke Chavacano and often served Spanish-influenced dishes handed down by Pinoy cooks who worked for Spanish friars.
Their Bacalao recipes called for ingredients unfamiliar to members of my grandparents’ peasant household: canned garbanzos (chickpeas) and gisantes (green peas), wine, bottled olives and capers, olive oil, and imported dry salted cod (bacalao).
Wanting to duplicate her in-laws’ recipe, my grandmother came up with her own version of Bacalao, using local ingredients. She substituted patani (lima beans) for garbanzos, coconut oil for olive oil, ripe fresh tomatoes in place of tomato sauce, and large gabi tubers for potatoes. She poured in lambanog in lieu of wine.
No to labahita
Genuine bacalao (salted dried cod) has been produced for at least 500 years, since the time of the European discoveries of the New World. In those days before refrigeration, there was a need to preserve the cod; drying and salting preserve nutrients and make the cod tastier. Fish low in oils and fats are more suitable for the preservation process, as oils and fats prevent the salt from preserving the fish. Cod have very low levels of oils and fats in their muscle tissue.
Portuguese, Norman, Breton, and English fishermen were the first to adopt the salt-based curing technique from Basque fishermen in Newfoundland by the late 1500s. By the 1700s, salted cod had become a staple food for ordinary Portuguese people and had been introduced to the Philippines by the friars and Spanish colonizers.
Today, real bacalao is so expensive it costs more than the best steaks, prompting many to use dry salted labahita as a local substitute, a practice rejected by my grandmother who pointed out that labahita was very oily and fishy. She used the leaner lapu-lapu (grouper) and torcillo (barracuda) instead, soaked overnight in several changes of fresh water.
Cook days ahead
Like adobo and other stews, Bacalao is best allowed to rest and mellow at least 24 hours before serving to allow flavors to meld. Serve with steamed rice or crusty bread.
Start by draining and squeezing dry the cubes of soaked fish. Fy lightly and set aside. In fresh oil, sauté garlic and onion, stir in potatoes, red peppers, garbanzos, gisantes, tomato sauce. Add bay leaves. Simmer five minutes and add fried fish. Simmer over low heat 15 minutes. Season with ground black pepper and paprika. Do not add salt.
Leave overnight, simmer and taste to adjust seasonings.