Caldeirada de Peixe (Portuguese Fish Stew)

pencil sketch of onionsIs Caldeirada Portuguese Bouillabaisse, or is Bouillabaisse French Caldeirada? There is little difference in ingredient and no difference in depth of flavor. Both call for a variety of fish differing in texture and taste (highly flavorful oily fish such as mackerel or tuna or skate, firm fish such as monkfish, halibut or rascasse, and flaky white fish such as cod, haddock or flounder). Both have a base of non seafood ingredients involving onions, garlic, tomatoes and parsley. Bouillabaisse requires only a little white wine and olive oil to supplement whatever liquid the heat of cooking renders from the fish and vegetables. So does Caldeirada. Caldeirada is always presented in generous portions over a piece of crusty bread which has been lightly fried in oil or toasted or simply freshly torn from its loaf. So is Bouillabaisse.

The difference between these two celebrations of seafood lay in their origins and their meaning. Bouillabaisse is a restaurant invention from the grand hotels and Michelin starred restaurants of France1. It is meant to satisfy and impress both chef and guest. Caldeirada comes from the boats, docks and homes of people who's survival depends upon the sea. It's food prepared to sustain and celebrate both preparer and diner. Both are excellent dishes, but Caldeirada is the one that qualifies as Honest Cuisine.

In its most pure form, traditional Caldeirada contains only fish (as opposed to fish and shellfish). The vegetables are simply sliced onion and peppers and some chopped tomato. The spices and herbs are garlic, bay leaf2 and a bit of parsley and/or cilantro. It is prepared in a manner consistent with dishes made under circumstances when cooking has the opportunity to take place over time yet requires little time of the cook3. The fish and vegetables, along with either potatoes or bread, are layered in a pot, sprinkled with the wine and olive oil, and cooked slowly over low heat. Over time the flavors meld on their own accord, with the only effort required of the cook being an occasional shake of the pot to be sure nothing sticks to the bottom.

With Portuguese dishes, however, the definition of traditional is really more a function of place than culture. Portugal's varied geography has contributed to the development of all different form of Caldeirada. In a country not much larger that the State of Florida, you will find hundreds of variations - some subtle, some dramatic. The cooks in one village may add shellfish such as clams, mussels and shrimp with pride, explaining that those people down the way who may shudder at the thought of shellfish in their Caldeirada simply don't know a good thing when they taste it. In many places the addition of spices such as nutmeg and saffron are warmly welcomed. On the islands of Madeira you may find Caldeirada à Moda de Funchal scented with the heady fragrance of cloves. On the same islands you'll also find Caldeirada de Lulas with squid replacing the fish4 and a bit of curry powder and ground ginger added in such a way that you'd never know they were there but you'd notice if they were not. In the Azores they enhance the stew's fragrance with some allspice, embolden it with a bit of hot red pepper or piri-piri5 and enrich it with slices of spicy chourico or linguica. In Aveiro, just south of Porto, Caldeirada cooks may use a combination of fresh and salt water fish, along with oysters, mussels and carrots. I read that in Lisbon they serve some fine Caldeirada à Fragateira with cockles and mussels over bread that's been fried in oil (an imitation of the French croûton or its inspiration? Who cares!) and topped with a bit of lemon zest. And in Algarve you shouldn't be surprised to experience a bit of the bite of oregano.

When making Caldeirada focus on the fish before all else. The fresher the fish the better. This means ignoring whatever fish the recipe you are using calls for. Just use whatever your fishmonger6 says is freshest. Do strive towards getting a combination of oily, firm and flaky fish, but don't obsess over it. A Caldeirada made with just the freshest haddock is going to be much better than one made with an assortment of recently thawed swordfish, Chilean sea bass7 and cod. That said, don't be avoid making Caldeirada if frozen seafood is all you have access to8. I've discovered that you can produce a very flavorful Caldeirada with frozen seafood by adding some bottled clam broth and letting the stew cook uncovered for the last half hour or so to let the broth concentrate. Most of all, have fun with the dish. It's simplicity on just about every level and you'll be richly rewarded every time you make it.

  1. The first documented recipe for a seafood dish called bouillabaisse, Bouillabaisse à la Marseillaise from Le Cuisinier Durand, calls for expensive stuff such as lobster and sea bass. There are of course earlier documented of French fish stews similar to Bouillabaisse, but none using that name.
  2. Not knowing Portuguese I often used Google's translation feature to translate Portuguese recipes. Google translates the Portuguese term for bay leaf, “folha de louro”, as “Parrot Leaf”. Apparently “louro” can also mean “blond” and within that context is used in Portuguese as slang for parrot (in a recent e-mail exchange, the Portuguese writer Miguel Esteves Cardoso surmised that this is due to the blond comb of the cockatoo familiar to Portugal via Brazil). I haven't run across any Caldeirada recipes that actually called for parrot as one of the ingredients. At least I don't think I have...
  3. Such as on boats in search of fish or on shore waiting for those boats to return.
  4. I, for one, welcome our new cephalopod overlords!
  5. Piri-piri is a hot pepper sauce similar to Tabasco. The actual pepper itself originated in Brazil, but got it's name and popularity through the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique (“piri” means pepper in Swahili).
  6. A fishmonger is basically the person who runs the counter of the seafood department of your supermarket or, even better, your fish market. And, yes, for some reason I do feel silly every time I use the word.
  7. And you should verify that the Chilean Sea Bass was legally caught if you want it to keep it off the endangered species list.
  8. Beware: read the lables under the plexiglass of your supermarket fish counter carefully. Most of the fish you see there is not fresh, but just thawed frozen fish. If it doesn't explicitly say fresh, you're much better off getting frozen fish and thawing it yourself at home.