The Portuguese like to say they have 365 methods to prepare bacalhau, or salted cod, the country's most beloved ingredient.
The claim may be a controversial one, but the popularity of one particular salted cod recipe has far less room for debate.
It is called bacalhau à brás and it is a multi-layered melange of flavours: it marries the sharpness of onion with the fatty aroma of deep-fried potato, the richness of egg and, at the centre of it all, the umami of the codfish.
With so many locals calling it their favourite comfort food, chef Henrique Sá Pessoa knew full well that a lot was on the line when he launched a new take on bacalhau à brás at his two-MICHELIN-starred restaurant Alma in Lisbon.
“It’s a national treasure. I tried to keep the recipe as original as possible. I just really wanted to play with the presentation, because bacalhau à brás is not a pretty dish. It’s a rustic dish. If I want to make it more suited to fine-dining, I would need to work on that,” he explained.
Sá Pessoa’s goal was to come up with an elegant presentation based on an element integral to the traditional recipe. He first experimented with covering the dish with a thin egg sheet, but later settled upon a cape made with a carpaccio of cod, that is served thinly sliced with a dusting of black olive powder.
When he first plated the dish, he thought it looked strikingly similar to another iconic sight of Portugal: black-and-white cobblestone pavements known as calçada that are ubiquitous to pedestrian areas across the country.
He consequently christened his new creation Calçada De Bacalhau. The name, he says, was chosen to flag the dish's Portuguese roots for those unfamiliar to the country's culture, and also to manage the expectations of bacalhau à brás purists by setting it apart from the original recipe.
“Initially, we thought people are not going to care so much about a traditional dish. But the reaction was the exact opposite,” Sá Pessoa said. Calçada De Bacalhau won over tourists and critics from abroad and even Portuguese natives who had grown up with the classic variation were taken with the fresh elements he had added.
According to Portuguese mothers, bacalhau à brás may be a simple dish, but it is delicious — and the latter depends on the care and love of the person who prepares it. It's a philosophy Alma maintains to this day.
The restaurant teams up with a Norwegian supplier who buys the best cod fish at its peak season, ships them to Portugal and preserves them in the coastal town of Aveiro. The high quality fish they use are not only expensive, but they are also large, and thus require more prep work. For example, they need to be steeped a cold water bath for an extended amount of time to take off most of their salt. The bigger the cod, the longer the time this would take.
Soaking bacalhau is a step notoriously hard to get right as the fish can easily become too bland or too salty. Sá Pessoa’s team checks the fish diligently and removes them from water as soon as they reache the optimal condition.
After being desalted, the cod is cooked confit-style in olive oil. Once the fish reaches perfect tenderness, it is combined with onions slow-cooked with bay leaf and garlic and finely sliced golden strips of deep-fried potato. As the flavours of these ingredients blend into each other, the chef takes the pan off the heat and slowly pours in a beaten egg to create a creamy texture. Before the dish is completed with a thin top cloak of cod and olives, Sá Pessoa has one more secret trick to introduce to ensure the dish is presented to the diners in its best condition.
“The problem with bacalhau à brás is that it dries up quickly on the way to the table. So we add a confit egg yolk in the middle [to keep it moist]. When you’re breaking the cape, the egg yolk explodes and you mix it all up. There’s also this engagement with the guests, and they love that part. That’s what makes the dish truly unique,” he explained.
The dish is also served, sans cloak, at Sá Pessoa’s newest venture, Chiado, in Sands Cotai Central, Macau.
“It is by far the most popular dish in the restaurant,” the chef added.