Portuguese Cuisine: An Introduction
Portugal is a republican country in Europe with a long and storied history. It is located at the southwestern end of the Iberian Peninsula, to the west of Spain and along the Atlantic Ocean. Portugal is the westernmost country of the continent of Europe, and it still holds authority over the islands of the Azores and Madeira. Portugal formerly controlled colonies around the world, from Brazil to Mozambique to East Timor. Portugal’s cuisine is influenced both by its European location and its historical worldwide influence.
Although it has just 35,672 square miles of area, Portugal has over 500 miles of oceanic coast, and thus seafood figures prominently in its national cuisine. The terrain for farmers is better suited to pig farming than raising cows, so pork is also popular.
Portugal’s famed explorers in centuries past traveled the world, bringing back delicacies from abroad. From South America to Africa to Asia, the Portuguese incorporated ideas and elements from their colonies into their food.
During the Age of Exploration, the Portuguese controlled a large element of the spice trade and these flavors figure prominently in their cooking as well.
Learning about the cuisine of Portugal can open you up to delicious new adventures – or teach you about healthy cooking and the use of good but simple ingredients. Portuguese cuisine is similar to Spanish cuisine, but its own unique geography and history give it unique flavors and distinctions.
Bacalhau: Dry Cod
Perhaps the most important staple of Portuguese cuisine is bacalhau, or salted dry cod. With its location along the Atlantic Ocean, and its history of seafaring adventurers, Portugal is unsurprisingly fond of seafood. But with the exception of bacalhau, most of it is prepared fresh! Portugal’s fishing fleet in modern times could not keep up with demand – bacalhau da Noruega is the most common type of cod now. It comes from Norway.
There are said to be 1000 Portuguese recipes involving bacalhau – more than enough to rotate through one a day for nearly three years. But the most important day on which bacalhau is eaten is Christmas Eve, when it is the traditional dish. (Prices rise accordingly, due to demand.)
Other dishes involving salted cod involve Bacalhau A Bras. This dish is made of shredded codfish, eggs, and thinly sliced fried potatoes scrabled together. It is garnished typically with black olives and fresh parsley.
Another popular dish involving cod is Bacalhau a Gomes de Sa, created at the restaurant at O Lisbonense. Flaked salted cod is sautéed with onions and garlic and seasoned with salt and pepper. Then in a casserole dish, cooked potatoes are topped with the cod mixture and then topped with more potatoes. Drizzled with olive oil, the casserole is baked for 40 minutes. At the end, it is garnished with sliced hardboiled eggs, olives, and parsley.
Sardinhas: Grilled Sardines
Portuguese cuisine also features grilled sardines as another fish dish. These are fresh – not tinned – when they are cooked. The scales are removed and the fish is salted for an hour. The fish are then rinsed and grilled. When served, these sardines are topped with olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon.
Caldeirada: Fish Stew
Another popular fish dish is caldeirada. This classic fish stew is made from a variety of seafood and potatoes, as well as other ingredients like saffron, garlic, and pepper. Caldeirada resembles French bouillabaisse or Greek kakavia. The fish in the stew is typically a mix of lean fish – like whitefish (cod, flounder, haddock) – and oily fish (mackerel, swordfish, tuna). Caldeirada also can have shellfish, squid, or octopus in it for added variety.
Chicken Piri Piri
Many people are only familiar with chicken piri piri as typical Portuguese fare. “Piri piri” means “pepper pepper” in the Ronga language of Mozambique, a former African colony, and refers to the African bird’s eye chili pepper. Although the origins of the cultivation of this chili pepper are vague, its use in Portuguese-influenced cuisine around the world is clear. It is symbolic of the Portuguese empire from years past, as it was grown in Africa, transported to India, and popularized in Portugal. The spicy piri piri sauce that results is popular in Portugal and southern Africa alike. Crushed piri piri peppers are blended with onion, garlic, salt, lemon juice, and other herbs and spices. (Variations in the recipe abound.) Chicken is marinated in the piri piri sauce and then grilled, giving it a spicy crust.
Chouriço is the Portuguese variant on sausage. It is typically made with pork, fat, wine, garlic, salt, and paprika, which helps give it the distinctive reddish hue. The meat mixture is stuffed into a sausage casing and dried over smoke. Portuguese cuisine offers many dishes that feature chouriço, including cozido, a stew made of pork, potato, egg, vegetables, and chouriço. Another eye-catching dish is chouriço à bombeiro – “firefighter sausage” – where the sausage is doused in alcohol and set aflame at your table.
Alheira comes from the word for garlic in the Portuguese language – alho – and was historically the flavoring used in this sausage. But the key distinction with alheira is the lack of pork ingredients. Alheira sausages were created by Portuguese Jews. During the Inquisition, the Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or else hide their religion, which forbids the eating of pork. In order to blend in with their neighbors and prove their loyalty, the Jews were expected to eat chouriço as well. But those who retained their faith did so with decoy sausages – they ate alheira made with meats other than pork instead. Alheira is made with chicken, turkey, duck, partridge, pheasant, rabbit, or venison – just not pork.
Carne de Porco a Alentejana
The traditional dish Carne de Porco a Alentejana – from the Alentego region of Portugal which is famed for its succulent pigs. This can be considered a Portuguese take on surf and turf. The turf is represented by pork, which is marinated in white wine, garlic, coriander, and paprika. The marinated meat is then pan fried. The surf then comes in with the addition of clams, which are briefly cooked alongside the meat before serving. This dish is typically accompanied by cubed fried potatoes.
“Caldo verde” translates from the Portuguese quite simply as “green soup.” This popular soup is simple and delicious. The ingredients are few: potato, onion, kale, chouriço, and olive oil. The onions and potatoes are cooked together, with salt and pepper to taste, and pureed. The chouriço is cooked and added, its fatty flavors livening up the soup. At the last moment, very thinly julienned kale is stirred in and the soup is served. Caldo verde is popular across Portugal, from average homes to fancy restaurants.
Feijão is the Portuguese word for beans, and as the name suggests, this dish features them prominently. This stew includes pork, or even beef, cooked slowly with beans over low heat in a thick clay pot. In the northwest of Portugal, white beans are used. In the northeast, kidney beans are favored. Sausage may be added to the stew or served alongside it. It is typically accompanied by rice, as well. Feijoada is a staple dish in former Portuguese colonies as well, from Brazil to Angola to Goa.
Pastéis de Nata
The pastel de nata is a Portuguese egg tart pastry. These delicious concoctions have spread throughout the world. You will find them everywhere the Portuguese have been – from Brazil to Macau, East Timor to Angola, Goa to Rhode Island.
Sometime in the 17th century, these tiny tarts were first made by the monks of the Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon. The convents and monasteries of the day used egg whites to starch their clothes. What could be done with the leftover yolks? These sweet pastries were the result. The monastery closed and the recipe was sold in the 1830s to the sugar refinery that had provided the sweet ingredients for baking. Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém still makes these tarts today.
The egg custard is sweet, and is typically flavored with vanilla bean, and sprinkled with cinnamon before serving.
The Key Ingredients
Portugal’s cuisine is influenced not only by its location and geography but also by its history. Pork, shellfish, salted cod, other dish, and chicken are all important. Olive oil, spices, and garlic give these flavor. Olives, potatoes, rice, and kale are all prominent ingredients as well. Wine is also important to Portuguese cuisine.
Portugal is perhaps known best to connoisseurs for its port wine, the sweet dessert finisher popular the world over. But there are plenty of other delicious and unique wines to accompany meals and be enjoyed. Portugal has been exporting its wines since the time of the Roman Empire.
There are, of course, both red wine – vinho tinto – and white wine – vinho branco. But Portugal is also known for their “green wines” – vinho verde. These wines are not green in color – in fact, they can be red or white. They are “green” because they are meant to be drunk new, while the wine is still young. The vinho verde is typical of the north of Portugal. Madeira is another classic Portuguese drink; it is a type of fortified wine. Wine growing regions in Portugal include Bairrada, Douro, Dão, and Alentejo.
Portuguese With the locals
Of course, the most authentic way to experience Portuguese cuisine is by going to Portugal, visiting the eateries, and being able to read the delicious menus. So brush up on Portuguese and say “Saúde” to amazing food!
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