A steaming bowl of Bacalao Soup is a spicy, fragrant codfish broth that is the perfect starter to a traditional Christmas meal in Costa Rica. Though Bacalao Soup is a first-course during Christmas, it is also served year-round in Costa Rica, usually as the main dish. Given how Costa Rica is known for fresh seafood, it is strange how a fish from Norway made it to these tables. Maybe that is why it’s not on the menu at Blue River Resort & Hot Springs which is at the base of Rincon de la Vieja volcano, in a rain forest with hot springs and blue rivers; far from northern oceans. However, Chef Jorvis may surprise us on Christmas Eve at the hotel’s Tiki Bar & Restaurant. He always has a special menu over Christmas and on New Year’s Eve.
Due to our the curiosity as to why cod became popular in Costa Rica, an additional section is added after the recipe on “Codfish History”.
Bacalao Soup in Costa Rica
Preparing Bacalao (Cod)
The Bacalao in Bacalao Soup is Spanish for Codfish, which was dried and salted to preserve its freshness. The Codfish is combined with vegetables and seasonings. By increasing the liquid content, it can be presented as a light starter broth and by using less liquid it makes a main dish, suitable for all occasions. In either form Bacalao Soup is a healthy, hearty soup.
There are three forms of Cod to be aware of:
- Fresh Cod
- Dried unsalted Cod- stockfish
- Dried and salted Cod- Bacalao
Our Costa Rica Bacalao Recipe uses dried, salted Cod or Bacalao; either entire fish-halves or sections of salted Cod fillets. Whichever Bacalao you choose, it is most important for the Cod to first, be de-salted and hydrated.
Begin by washing the fish to remove all excess external salt. During the curing process the fish has absorbed a considerable amount of salt and it will need to be soaked in fresh water for another two to three days; cover and store in a cool place.
Place the Bacalao in water equal to three times the volume of the fish. During the soaking period the water must be discarded every eight hours and refreshed. After three days of soaking the skin peels away easily and is discarded along with any remaining bones. The fish is now edible but will take-on other pleasant characteristics when it is cooked with other seasonings. You will need:
2 lbs. Bacalao- Prepared as above and cut into 2” cubes.
8 Cups Water
4 Large Potatoes –Peeled and cut in 1” cubes
1 Cup Pumpkin -Cubed
1 Cup Carrots – Diced to ¼” squares or cross-section circles.
1 Hot Pepper (Scotch Bonnet if available)
2 Tbls. Olive Oil or Coconut Oil
1 Medium Onion -minced
1 Cup Tomatoes –Cubed
2 Cloves Garlic –Crushed
1 Sprig Thyme
2 Bell Peppers (Seeds Removed and cut into strips)
2 Stalks Escallion –Crushed
• Black Pepper
- Discard water used in the pre-soak; cube the flesh of the fish; season it with a little black pepper then set aside.
- In a suitably large pot, add the 8 cups of water and bring to a boil along with a little salt.
- Add the potatoes, pumpkin and carrots to the boiling pot. Boil gently until the potatoes admit a fork easily; you want the potatoes to cook until soft and thickening the stock.
- Heat a skillet and add the oil; lightly sauté the minced onions, cubed tomatoes, crushed cloves, garlic, thyme, bell peppers and escallion; stir gently till the onions are translucent.
- Add the above seasonings to the boiling pot containing the potatoes, pumpkin and carrots.
- Add the hot pepper; do not cut the pepper unless you want a really fiery pot of soup.
- Reduce the heat under the pot and bring liquid to a medium boil.
- Introduce the fish to the boiling liquid, stir and cover the pot to gently boil for an hour.
- During the boil the potatoes, carrots and pumpkins will liquefy and give body to the soup.
- Remove the escallion, hot pepper and thyme and discard.
- After an hour of cooking, ladle into bowls and serve hot.
The recipe above can be prepared with sweet potato cubes replacing the pumpkin and sometimes yucca cubes are used instead of potatoes; combine them all if you like.
Avocados are often peeled, sliced and diced and added to the hot Bacalao Soup as it is served. This is a wonderful compliment.
If the Bacalao Soup is being served as a meal, a few slices of toasted French bread, sliced and buttered goes well with the soup. Not too much bread at the Christmas table, you will need space for other goodies.
Chef Jorvis at the Blue River Costa Rica Resort & Hot Springs may have his own Bacalao Soup specialty waiting to greet you. He will gladly share his secrets with you so feel free to ask
You may well ask, “How did Cod become so popular in Costa Rica?”
Cod is not native to the waters of Central America. Like many other things in Costa Rica it came here and never left.
Codfish has several names around the world. In Costa Rica it is called Bacalao; in the Caribbean, Codfish; in Portugal, Bacalhau; and in Italy, Baccala. It is a key ingredient in various dishes prepared in the regions.
Cod, genus Gadus, is native to the deep waters of the north Atlantic. The Cod has a cousin in the north-east and north-west Pacific called the Pacific Cod (genus macrocephalus). Both, are found in equally cold and deep waters.
The Codfish is very rich in proteins and vitamin D; its roe and liver are a source of healthy oils. Many people have grown up with the memory of eating Cod Liver Oil capsules daily; they were an important health supplement especially for a child’s nutrition.
Fresh Cod has been a major export of Norway from the time when the Vikings sailed the seas. Salted Cod now comes from Norway, Newfoundland, Iceland and Faroe Islands. Initially, they exported only the fresh, unsalted Cod, until they understood the needs of countries in the New World. Many of the newly discovered countries were, and some still are, lacking refrigeration and could not store protein for long periods. The Spaniards trading in the New World played an important role in the creation of dried, salted Cod in Norway as an export product. It still is a precious commodity in today’s market.
Once dried and salted the fish can be stored indefinitely without undergoing any further decay. Once it is rehydrated by soaking in water it softens, retaining all of its flavor, and is as delicious as the day it was caught.
Roman Catholics traveled with their religious celebrations and introduced them into the New World with the Spaniards. Some Catholic rituals require their celebrants to refrain from eating meat at certain times.
Codfish was a blessing worldwide, as Christians worldwide lived in places without refrigeration, yet they could enjoy meals prepared with preserved Codfish; anytime and anywhere.
‘Codfish’ is the common name for salted Cod in some countries but in Costa Rica it’s Bacalao. In Norway their favorite stew is made using salted Cod and is also called Bacalao; it is the only time Norwegians eat anything other than fresh Cod.
The name Bacalao is Spanish for Cod and was introduced to Norway when their exported fresh Cod returned to them from Spain dried and preserved on Spanish trading ships.
Thrifty Norwegians did not eat the body of the Cod; the body was reserved for export and they instead ate the heads only. Cod that has been dried without salt is called stockfish.
After the head is removed from the fresh Cod, it is then split lengthwise, the contents of the stomach (offal) removed and the fish is then soaked in salt brine. After it is then placed outdoors to dry. Cold air and sunshine dried the fish which was suspended from the cliffs along the shore. After two or three days, it was taken indoors to complete the drying process. Today, that system has been modernized, very slightly. Using modern-day heaters, the salted Cod is dried indoors after it has soaked in a salt, brine-solution for three to four weeks.
Christmas At Blue River Resort & Hot Springs
We recommend a trip to the Tiki Bar and Restaurant after checking-in and settling into your room at the Blue River Costa Rica Resort & Hot Springs. Tell Chef Jorvis about what you have been reading on the Costa Rica blog and especially about the Bacalao Soup recipe. Also, please understand that since he is preparing for a mostly, American clientele, he always appreciates knowing what you what spices and vegatables you want to try while in Costa Rica. Many sides and dishes, like the Yucca and Plantains are grown here or on neighboring farms. Talk to the staff because you’ll find the Costa Rican people, warm, gracious and very desirous of providing good service. Ask him about Bacalao Soup and all the other Costa Rica Christmas dishes – and ask for suggestions. You’ll be making a friend and adding extra fun into the holiday.
Each meal takes extra time as they are made individually. Sit and chill, listening to the waterfalls, looking out for exotic birds and at the majestic volcano crater in Rincon de la Vieja park. After your Bacalao Soup, soak in the hot springs or swim in the blue river. Tomorrow go into the rain forest for an Eco adventure tour, like zip lining, horseback riding, water tubing or rafting. Each tour includes a visit to an awe inspiring natural sight.