Bacalao Navideño: Mexico’s Christmas Cod Adventure

Sofia Jones
 | December 26, 2023

By Sofia Jones

Bacalao Navideño stands as the quintessential Mexican Christmas delicacy in regions across the country.

Also known as Bacalao de Navidad, Bacalao a la Vizcaína, or Christmas Cod in English, the traditional holiday dish has held a special place on the Nochebuena table for hundreds of years. 

But how did this salty fish from a foreign land even reach Mexico?

Well, according to Life and Style, the Mexican magazine says “the Norwegian cod and its dish known as ‘a la viscaína’ were integrated into the customs of Mexico as a result of the migration of the Spaniards during the Viceroyalty.”

Spanish influence spread, and cod found a receptive home in Mexico. Drying and salting cod not only extended its shelf life but also provided communities with a reliable source of protein during times when fresh catches were scarce.

“Because it was an expensive item, cod dishes were prepared for special occasions, primarily,  Lent and Christmas. Tomato and chile was the Mexican contribution to the Spanish cod stews. Bacalao is a traditional and popular dish in Central and Southern Mexico,” Cocina California writes.

As religion became ingrained in cultural practices, Catholics, observing meat abstinence, naturally turned to cod as an alternative.

Through the passage of time, this practice has transformed into a beloved Christmas Eve tradition.

“Across Mexico at Christmas time, an enormous amount of cod begins to be desalted in preparation for Christmas eve dinner,” AmigoFoods writes. “Once the fish is reconstituted, the bacalao is prepared in various ways, the most popular being the Bacalao Navideño, a delicious fish stew made with olives, chiles, garlic tomatoes, and onions.”

The Magical Transformation

The process of making Bacalao Navideño typically begins with selecting high-quality dried cod, which is readily available in Mexican markets and grocery stores during the Christmas season.

“The filets …  pop up in all the Mexico City grocery stores and markets during Christmas Time,” the cooking site explains. “The dried cod piled up in the markets at this time of year undergoes an almost magical and delicious culinary transformation from a rather unappetizing looking ingredient to an outstanding dish with an inspired combination of flavors.”

The drying and salting of cod is a preservation technique borrowed from European seafaring traditions. And the key to the dish’s magic still lies in the rehydration process. The dried cod is soaked to remove excess salt and simultaneously infused with moisture.

This step is crucial as it prepares the cod to absorb the rich flavors of the accompanying ingredients. 

Bacalao Navideño typically includes a combination of garlic, olives, tomatoes, capers, and various aromatic herbs. 

The result is a symphony of tastes that come together to create a savory, fragrant, and memorable dish.

“In Mexico we like to make Bacalao a la Vizcaína just like tamales, with the help of 2 to 3 people in the kitchen. It’s part of a tradition that brings us together as a family on those special occasions,” Mexican cook and photographer Maricruz Avalos Flores explains.

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