If you’ve ever been to Portugal then odds are you’ve seen "bacalhau" on dozens of menus and wondered, “What is that?” The Portuguese word for salted cod, bacalhau is one of the seafaring country’s favorite ingredients. In fact, it’s actually one of the country’s national dishes (alongside grilled sardines). But ironically enough, cod isn’t even caught in Portugal and it’s primarily imported from northern Europe, specifically around Norway and Newfoundland. While we in the States may be used to fresh and fried cod, the Portuguese do much, much more with this humble little fish. So, here’s a quick introduction to salted codfish for any of you who may be planning a trip to Portugal.

What is it?

When you first think of preserved fish, your mind will probably go straight to canned anchovies and sardines, two ingredients that are disliked by most of the general populace, but you needn’t worry, bacalhau is prepared very differently. Codfish is specifically chosen for this process as it is low in fats and oils, allowing the salt to preserve it properly. Instead of being packed in a tin with salt and oil, bacalhau is traditionally salt and air dried in the sun, causing the fish to lose much of its moisture in a way that is similar to beef jerky. This technique, which dates back hundreds of years, started before refrigerators came into existence as it was the best way to preserve your food and ensure nothing went to waste. However, you cannot, under any circumstances, eat bacalhau this way. Before being consumed salted cod it must be soaked in fresh water for at least 24 hours, ensuring the salt levels are reduced to a palatable level before it is cooked with other ingredients.

Why Is It So Popular?

Cod became a crucial part of the Portuguese diet when red meat was disavowed during times of Catholic fasting. This led to many people turning to a fish diet, and dried cod specifically, as it was cheaper. This choice has become a huge part of the culture and now the average Portuguese person eats more than double the amount of seafood than other people in the EU, with the country being one of the highest ranked countries in the world for seafood consumption. Salted codfish is such a huge part of Portuguese culture that there is no word for cod, and it is instead referred to as “bacalhau fresco” (fresh salted cod).

What Are Some Popular Dishes?

There’s an old Portuguese saying that there is one bacalhau recipe for every day of the year, which, if true, would mean there are at least 365 recipes using bacalhau. In fact, it’s one of the most important parts of a Portuguese Christmas dinner. One of the most common codfish dishes in Portugal is bacalhau à brás, a dish made with shredded salted cod, onions, potatoes and eggs. It’s basically the Portuguese version of a hash (albeit with fish). If that sounds a bit too strange don’t worry, you can find dozens of other preparations of this little fish. Fried and battered like fish and chips, incorporated in sushi, or mixed with mashed potatoes to create a codfish cake.

Now that you’ve been introduced to Portugal’s favorite ingredient all you need to do is book a flight to try bacalhau for yourself.