THE SEA, THE SEA
|Atlantic cod, Gadus morhua.|
|Codfish and coconut milk soup.|
Look up codfish on the web and you face a deluge of information of astounding similarity. You find out that the Basque were the earliest Europeans to fish for the Atlantic cod, Gadus morhua in late 15th. century Newfoundland. They were soon followed by the Portuguese, whose Catholic faith that forbade meat-eating on Fridays, Lent and other occasions. Dried and salted codfish thus became a staple in Portuguese menus. So much so that it consumers named it fiel amigo, faithful friend. According to folklore, the Portuguese cuisine boasts a codfish recipe for every day of the year. Best known among these are Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá, a cod casserole that includes potatoes, olives, parsley , onions, and fresh lemon slices; Bolinhos de Bacalhau, fritters made with dried cod, mashed potatoes, garlic, onions, and parsley; Sopa de Bacalhau com Tomates e Beldroegas, a soup that includes cod, tomatoes, and purslane.
Thanks to my Brazilian origins, my cooking repertoire includes not only Bolinhos de Bacalhau, but one of my favorite dishes, Bacalhau com Leite de Coco, Cod and Coconut Milk, an Afro-tropical take on the traditional European Portuguese recipe. There are many variations on this theme. Some call for carrots and potatoes while others include green, red, and yellow peppers. Traditionally, Bacalhau com Leite de Coco is made with azeite de dendê, oil from the fruit of an African palm tree, Elaeis guineensis. but I have read recipes that call for olive oil or soy oil. Having moved from Northeastern Brazil to the Eastern United States decades ago, I rarely found dried cod in local markets, let alone azeite de dendê . Enter internet commerce, which makes it possible for me to locate and buy the most recherché food products. That is how I lay my hands on two pounds of deboned salt cod packaged in Brazil.
Portugal is no longer the world's prime purveyor of salt cod. That honor goes to Norway, which exports it wherever there is a demand, such as in Goa, Jamaica, and the Madeira Islands. Thus, the codfish I bought recently was a well-travelled fish. Compared to the cod Portugal exported to Brazil years ago, this deboned, plastic wrapped product was a tame beast, a pallid version of the Iberian product. Nevertheless, I soaked in hot overnight, as one did the extremely salty bacalhau of my childhood. The following day I drained it and added it, plus a cup of diced tomatoes, to an onion and two fat cloves of garlic sauteed in olive oil. Once the resulting sauce thickened, I added a twist of freshly ground black pepper, a sprinkle of oregano, and a tin of coconut milk. I let the mix simmer for twenty minutes prior to throwing in half a cup of whole wheat penne. Finally, I served it over a cup of fresh spinach and garnished it with a handful of chopped fresh coriander.It was a good soup though mild and somewhat characterless dish compared to the food served at my mother's table. I suspect neither my seafaring Iberian ancestors nor my coastal Brazil relatives would not have thought much of it. But I live far from the sea. There are no palms in my adopted hometown. My olive oil comes from Tunisia and coconut milk comes from Sri Lanka. I do what I have been doing since I left my home country--I adapt, adapt then adapt some more. That is what immigrants do. That is, no doubt what my Iberian ancestors did when they reached the New World.I may live in a global village, but longing for the salty taste of the sea is part of my ancestral memory. Soon I will try to duplicate my mother's Bolinhos de Bacalhau. But that is another post.