Salt fish stew is what I like!

Published: Saturday | August 15, 2009

Ricardo Makyn/Staff Photographer
Salt Fish Devilled Eggs with Duchess banana, salt fish pizza and plantain.

Heather Little-White, Contributor

When calypso king, The Mighty Sparrow, hit the airwaves with the line, "Salt fish stew is what I like", many lovers of the food found creative ways to whip up their own dishes.

For Judith Melbourne, one of her favourite breakfast dishes is Salt Fish and Baked Beans, while for Beverly Coleman, it is Salt Fish Gungo Peas Run Down. Brazilian Chef Dada has popularised salt fish in gourmet dishes to please many palates.

Any name

Salt fish, by any other name, is just as good. It is simply dried fish and is known in Spanish as bacalao, in French as morue, and as baccala in Italy and buljol in the Caribbean. In Scandinavia, it is known by the Norwegian word, klippfisk, with klipp meaning cliff or rock by the waterside where the fish is dried.

The romance word compound bacal and its derivatives are unknown but explorer John Cabot reported that it was the name given by the inhabitants of Newfoundland. The English name for salt fish was cor-fish which is now obsolete.

Salt fish has been an age-old protein source and is an integral part of Jamaica's culture, being part of the national dish, Ackee and Salt Fish. Both salt fish and ackee were imported to the island. Ackee is widely available around the country and is exported to markets overseas.

Local attempts at producing salt fish have not been able to satisfy the market so it continues to be imported, with Norway being the largest supplier to Jamaica.

Head removed

The process involves removing the head and gut, often on-board the ship or boat, from the very best whole fish, then bled, cleaned and washed. The fish is dry-salted for three weeks, stacked in containers with more salt in-between the pieces and stored for a salting or curing period. The length of the curing period depends on the ripened characteristics of the fish, the species of fish, the amount of salt used and the storage temperature. The more salt used reduces storage time.

After salting, the fish is dried using sunlight or artificial indoor drying chambers. Salt fish may be purchased whole or as fillets with the bones removed and has a long shelf life in cold storage at 2-4Celsius. During processing, the fish matures and develops a characteristic taste for which the product has become known.


During processing, the eggs (roe) of the fish are extracted and packaged and exported as caviar. This fish roe delicacy has long been a staple in Asian and European diets and is increasingly becoming popular in the US market where consumption of sushi is gaining favour. The liver of the cod fish is also removed for manufacture of cod liver oil liquid or tablets.

Fish is one of the richest sources of protein - about 60 per cent and contains substantial amounts of calcium, iron, selenium and vitamin B12. Salting retains the nutritional value and 1.0 kilo of salt fish has the same nutritional content as 1.7 kilo of fresh fish.

Clean Norwegian waters

Traditionally, salt fish was made exclusively of cod but with the collapse of the great banks due to overfishing, other fish were salted. Fish used mainly for salting includes lean fish like cod, haddock and saithe. In Norway, cod, saithe, link and tusk are fished along the Norwegian coastline but the main fishing grounds are in the northern waters where the sea is clean and cold, providing ideal conditions for the growth of fish. Wondering what is saithe? It is a relative of the cod and it is touted as holding more flavour and is cheaper than cod.


There are many stories about what the head of the salt fish looks like. It is described as ugly and looks like the head of a man. Country folks may call a fish with its head a mermaid and pictures with an alien-looking creature for salt fish have been making the rounds. However, the heads of salted fish are quite normal but are removed to make the processing and marketing more efficient. The same is true of Banga Mary fish, the head of which is often removed when sold.

No boiling

Salt fish should not be boiled to remove the salt. Instead, salt fish is soaked for 12-24 hours with the water changed every four to five hours to reduce the salt. Soaking softens the flesh and rehydrates the product. The last batch should be drained of the soaking water and boiling water poured over the salt fish, covered and allowed to soak for about 15 minutes or until the flesh is soft.

  • Cold-water soak

    It is said that there are more than 1,000 ways to prepare fresh and salted cod. There is a saying that a Portuguese woman is not ready for marriage unless you can prepare salt fish in 1,000 ways. Menu uses include stews, soups, casseroles, entrees, appetisers, pastry and who knows when the salt fish sweet ending will be created.

    The way salt fish is prepared makes a great difference in the quality of the dish prepared. Learning at the feet of the renowned Chef Dada of Brazil who was in Jamaica earlier this year for a seminar organised by the Norwegian Seafood Export Council, I learned that if salt fish is soaked to remove the salt, it gives a better yield and taste when cooked.

  • Try it for yourself with these scrumptious recipes

  • Trinidad Salt Fish Stew

    While Salt Fish Buljol is a favourite in Trinidad, salt fish stew is also popular and is made with 'bird' peppers. Red hot pepper flakes or jalapenos may be substituted for 'bird' peppers.

    8oz salt cod, dried

    2tbsps vegetable oil

    1 large onion, chopped

    1/2 clove garlic, thinly sliced

    1 small jalapeņo, minced, or 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

    2 green bell peppers, chopped

    3 tomatoes, chopped

    3 1/4 cup prepared ketchup


    In large saucepan of water, boil salt cod for 15 minutes to remove excess saltiness. It will break up in the water. Strain through sieve. Set aside.

    Heat oil in large saute pan. Stir in onion, garlic and pepper. Cook over medium heat until onion begins to soften, about 7 minutes.

    Stir in bell peppers, tomatoes, catsup and reserved salt cod. Add 1/3-1/2 cup water. Cover and cook until vegetables are softened, about 15 minutes.

    Serve with rice or bread. Serves 4.

  • Norwegian Salt Fish, Dada-Style

    2kg salt fish

    300g onions

    1/2 litre olive oil

    1kg medium potatoes

    25 garlic cloves with peel

    2tbsp coriander, chopped

    2tbsp parsley, chopped


    1. Roast the salt fish over coals with the skin and scales until it becomes golden, without letting it dry out.

    2. Fry the onion in half the olive oil, cooking over low heat in a covered pot for 4 minutes until it becomes transparent.

    3. With the rest of the oil, fry the garlic also in the covered pot for 4 minutes.

    4. Wrap the potatoes in aluminium foil and bake for 30 minutes, until tender. Remove from the oven, unwrap the foil and flatten potatoes slightly.

    5. Add the spices to the onion, stirring slightly.

    6. Place salt fish in a deep bowl and place potatoes on top of salt fish and cover with the onions.

    7. Place the garlic with the fried olive oil.

    8. Serve hot with Italian bread.

    Serves 8

    Source: Norwegian Salt fish steals the Party with the Secrets of Dada.

  • History

    The production of salt fish dates back at least 500 years to the time of European exploration of the Great Banks, off Newfoundland. It was an important item in international commerce between the Old and New World and formed one leg of the trade spanning north European, Mediterranean, West African, Caribbean and Brazilian cuisines. The drying of food is one of the oldest methods of preserving food. Dried fish can be stored for years and is easy to transport around the world.

    How is salt fish produced to reach our markets? Salt or sodium chloride is used to preserve food by salting. Fish, which is highly perishable, is salted for preservation. This has been practised for centuries in places such as Asia, Europe and Latin America for centuries. Salting is a simple, inexpensive process and is easily combined with other preservation methods such as drying or smoking. (Food and Culture Encyclopaedia) Traditionally, salt fish was dried only by wind and the sun, and laid out on clean rocks or cliffs near the seaside. Today, mechanical processes are used for salting and drying fish.