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It is impossible to visit Portugal without being confronted by evidence of a stew so ubiquitous that many consider it to be the national dish. In an effort to lay primary claim to cozido, the Portuguese have attached a suffix; in most restaurants, diners order Cozido à Portuguesa. This distinguishes it from the cocidos popular in Spain and translated variously by the cuisines of many South American countries.
Some food historians pinpoint the first fragrant and complex aromas rising from the stewpot to the 15th century, crediting the Portuguese navigator Prince Henry with transforming and elevating the national cuisine with the introduction of foods from the New World. Pineapples, potatoes, and tomatoes made their first appearances on European tables as a response to his proclamation to sailors to return with unfamiliar seeds and edible plants. Historically, Portugal had been welcoming exotic foods since Roman olives and grapes found homes in the South, later joined by Moorish figs, lemons, and rice. At one time or another, most of these now-common victuals leaped feetfirst into a cozido someplace along the line.
Foodies generally agree that Cozido à Portuguesa originated in the northern province of Beira. The more traditional versions feature morcela or chourico, two kinds of smoked sausage and beef shin. Another interpretation combines chicken with carrots, cabbage, and an assortment of other vegetables, including chunks of potato.
Spaniards offer cocidos brimming with garbanzo beans, such as Cocido Madrileno, which marries salt pork, pig trotters, or smoked ham with chicken and sausages. These meats are dressed with garlic, onion, and potatoes into a flavorful stew. Cocidos are especially popular in the north of Spain where the liquid is served in a first soup course, followed by the stewed meats and vegetables served with pasta.
Coastal regions, both in Portugal and Spain, as well as in South American countries that feature their own similar stews, salt cod, mackerel, and other fresh fish can substitute for or complement the meats. More elegant presentations feature lobster, shrimp, or crab. While these seafood versions are prepared as traditional cozidos, they may appear on menus as Caldeirada or Bacalau.
Regardless of spelling, the dish is rarely cooked in the same way twice. Traditional cozido contains pork, beef, or chicken, and root vegetables in addition to whatever greens are on hand. Many cooks add potatoes or rice to create a complete meal in a bowl. With this Latin stew, however, as with stews the world over, the sky is the limit; dried fruit, fresh fruit, and a world of seasonings might make a happy splash based upon the cook’s whim.