Setúbal, over a century ago, was the heart of Portugal’s fishing industry, specialising, for the most part, in sardines. However, none of the original factories operating back then are open today and there is now a delicacy which has won over Setúbal’s heart – fried cuttlefish, or ‘choco frito’.
The first time I tried fried cuttlefish was back in university. I had a friend from Setúbal who invited me to stay over for the weekend. She took me to Casa Santiago, who titled themselves as the “The King of Fried Cuttlefish”. We bought a few cuttlefish sandwiches and took them to eat down by the bay.
I have eaten in a few other places since then and Casa Santiago still remains as one of the best on my list. Another one of my favourites so far is Casa do Lagarto. Most of the best fried cuttlefish restaurants are all located back-to-back along Avenida Luísa Todi, down by the bay. In all of the restaurants, you can order a large dose of fried cuttlefish which, like every typical restaurant in Portugal, comes with a large portion of rice and chips.
There is even a Cuttlefish Week celebrated in Setúbal each year whereby all the local restaurants produce an amazing variety of cuttlefish dishes beyond the famous fried dish.
The origin of the local dish is attributed to the fisherman who used to fish in the bay. According to the story, at the end of the day the fisherman would meet up at the local taverns to settle accounts, tell stories and, of course, drink wine.
At the time, the fisherman would catch a lot of cuttlefish in the bay that couldn’t be sold commercially due to their small size and the fact that they usually turned up half-eaten by larger fish. For that reason, they would fry all of the left over pieces of cuttlefish and snack on them back at the taverns while drinking wine.
There was one fisherman, however, called Manuel Coutinho who grew tired of the hardships of life at sea and managed to save up enough money to open his very own tavern. Each morning, he would still walk down to the bay and buy fresh cuttlefish from the fisherman to serve with the wine he offered at his tavern. Over time, the tavern started gaining a lot of popularity due to the combination of the two and the fried cuttlefish eventually became known throughout Setúbal as a popular local dish.
The abundance of cuttlefish in the bay definitely led to the popularity of the local dish, however, the restaurants’ success today lies with the quality and origin of the cuttlefish. Most of the cuttlefish served now doesn’t actually come from Setúbal but from the Indian Ocean and the North Sea – the same place where Portugal gets nearly all of its most typical and celebrated fish, cod.
Cod is known as Portugal’s “faithful friend” because it has been part of the Portuguese staple diet through difficult times, such as wars and famines, and it is now eaten during celebrations like Christmas Eve dinner.
Cod gained a lot of popularity during the age of Discovery as, once salted, it lasted during the long sea voyages. The Vikings were pioneers in fishing for cod, yet there were no natural occurrences of salt on Viking lands. They, therefore, dried the cod out on the boats under the sun. However, Portugal at the time was dominating the salt trade and thus began trading it with the Vikings for cod. That is what originated the cod’s popularity in Portugal and the importation of fish from the North Sea.
After a plate of fried cuttlefish, a large portion of chips and rice, and maybe a little salad, there is a lot to do and see around Setúbal. One of the most popular destinations would be the Arrábida Natural Park and its beaches along the coast.
The mountain range is a vivid green that then meets the vibrant turquoise and blue waters. It is a great drive to the beach and there are a lot of secrets to be found along the way, from an abandoned palace, to a chapel built deep inside a cave, to ancient Roman ruins.
As of writing this, I have already messaged my friends reminding them that it is time to head back out to Setúbal and continue the hunt for the best fried cuttlefish. On a final a note, I’ll add that, although the cuttlefish was originally best paired with a few glasses of wine, I can honestly say that it also goes well with a few glasses of beer.
By Jay Costa Owen
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Jay recently graduated from the Faculty of Fine Artes in Lisbon. Jay’s interests are exploring new cultures through photography and the myths, legends and history that define them.