Those unfamiliar with Portuguese cuisine may understandably assume it is similar to that of Spain. And while many of the same ingredients are featured in both, Portugal’s robust cuisine includes distinctively different recipes and cooking techniques that reflect a broad spectrum of terrain and climates and diverse historical influences over the centuries.
With two borders on the Atlantic Ocean plus the archipelago islands of Madeira and Azores, Portugal’s seafood and fish reign supreme in local cuisine, Portuguese Ambassador José Fernando Moreira da Cunha, points out. However, each region’s traditional cuisine is based on its terrain and the products available. The uniqueness of mainland Portugal and its cuisine, for example, is subtly different from that of the islands where the terrain and climate particularly differ.
Historically, with an emphasis on quality ingredients and limited equipment, simple recipes (many among them the most popular) are prepared in one pot. This said, for the most part, recipes are anything but plain. One significant feature of traditional Portuguese cuisine includes the use of unusual combinations of foods (e.g., pork with clams, trout with pork) that is directly rooted in that myriad of influences witnessed over millennia.
Phoenicians, as far back as 1700 BC, brought olive trees to Portugal. The Romans, intending to transform the Iberian Peninsula into a granary for Rome, introduced wheat as well as onions, garlic and grapes. Later, in AD 711, the Moors’ invasion and their resulting grip on southern Portugal for hundreds of years resulted in the cultivation of rice and planting of orange, lemon and fig groves, while a Moorish prince forested an area in the Algarve with imported almond trees so he could enjoy the petal-covered landscape in spring. The ambassador recognises that “without question, the influence of the Moors has been profound.” For example, desserts made with almonds, figs and eggs (a hallmark of the Moors) continue to be a favourite to this day.
In the mid-13th Century, after the re-establishment of the Christians and the clarification of the country’s national borders (which are close to those of today), the Portuguese initiated their well-documented history as maritime explorers and colonialists. This proved to be the most critical influence in defining Portuguese cuisine. In the early 1400s, Prince Henry the Navigator built strong seafaring ships that headed off to discover better trade routes to the East. After exploring the coast of Africa, the ship returned from its maiden voyage with coffee, peppers and peanuts. In 1487, the Portuguese, being the first to sail around the Cape of Good Hope to the Far East, promptly initiated a strong and lucrative trade in spices, which also supplied the rest of Europe. The Portuguese, more so than any other people, accepted these new spices (cinnamon, curry, pepper, cloves and nutmeg), as well as chocolate, coconut and coconut cream. They adapted and enhanced their traditional dishes with these exciting new flavours.
Portuguese explorers turned west, discovered the New World and brought back squash, tomatoes, bell peppers, multiple varieties of chillies, potatoes, kidney beans, avocados, pineapples, corn, turkeys and more, including sugar from plantations in Brazil, making Portugal the focus of a culinary revolution in Europe.
Today all, including piri-piri (a spicy chili pepper), vanilla and saffron, remain an integral part of the Portuguese kitchen. And the ongoing obsession with Portugal’s national dish — dried salted cod (bacalhou) — began when fishermen first harvested and preserved the fish off the coast of Newfoundland in the early 16th Century. It is said there are 365 ways to prepare bacalhou, one for every day of the year, but in reality, thousands exist. Most popular are bacalhou à bras (a mixture of shredded cod, fried potatoes, onions and scrambled eggs) and bacalhou com natas (a cod dish prepared much like a lasagna with layers of cod, onions, diced fried potatoes and loads of cream).
In coastal areas, grilled sardines (sardinhas assadas) and horse mackerel are also popular, as is a stew called caldeirada, which consists of other species of fish. And what a delight it is to witness the June 12 feast of St. Anthony when sardines are grilled in a carnival atmosphere (mainly using makeshift barbecues) along the streets and alleyways outside restaurants and homes. In Lisbon, the festival continues for the entire month of June — definitely great fun! I know — my husband, Larry, and I experienced it.
There are dozens of popular fish and seafood dishes. Many incorporate clams, cuttlefish (chocos) and in the south, percebes (translated as goose barnacles). Percebes look like unattractive thumb-size claws of some prehistoric creature, but despite their appearance, they are absolutely addictive. Arroz de marisco, a decadent seafood-rice combination with lobster, shrimp, crab and oysters, can be savoured at specialty seafood restaurants across the country.
Although fish and seafood dominate, the Portuguese also enjoy meat. Another national dish, cozido à portuguesa, a thick vegetable stew, uses several kinds of meat. Pork ranks as the most popular, cooked and served in various ways; however, the Alentejo is renowned for its pork and Tras-os-Montes for its cured meat. In the north, locals favour roasted suckling pig (leitao assado) and pork sausages (chouriço or linguiça). The town of Alcobacca in Estremadura province boasts its frango na pucara (jugged chicken and ham cooked in a covered casserole-type dish/pot), while Porto’s signature dish since Henry the Navigator decided to conquer Ceuta in Morocco, has been tripe with green beans. To provision the expedition, the citizens of Porto slaughtered all their livestock, leaving only the tripe and intestines for themselves. Ambassador Moreira da Cunha frankly admits, “I am not a fan of strange animal parts; however, well-spiced, this tripe dish is absolutely delicious — something extraordinary, something special.”
Turning to the islands in the Atlantic, the Azores boasts a delicious stew, cozido das furnas, highlighting local products (grass-fed beef, queijo da ilha cheese and pineapple) and cooked using the Earth’s volcanic heat. On the other hand, the Madeira Islands can lay claim to their famous black scabbard fish served with fried bananas, as well as to espetada de carne, seductive cubes of beef grilled over charcoal on laurel skewers (bay-leaf branches). (Note: This archipelago has the largest laurel forest in the world.)
Without question, the Portuguese appreciate their soup. They manipulate very basic ingredients — very often bread — to make exceptional soups suitable for any occasion. Caldo verde (a creamy-textured potato and shredded collard greens soup) is the most popular.
Each region prides itself on its own bread and cheese. Wheat and cornbread are favourites. Bread is on the table at almost every meal — it functions as a starter in restaurants — and, at times, a slice of bread serves as a plate. Portuguese cheeses are primarily made from sheep or goat milk with queijo da serra, of the Serra da Estrela mountains, being the best known Portuguese cheese, although queijo de azeitao, produced near Lisbon, also delights many a palate.
For centuries, sweets have been a prized part of Portuguese life. Along with cheese, familiar dessert choices include caramel custards, flans and cinnamon-flavoured rice pudding. However, the pastries created originally by 18th-Century nuns (and which generated income for them), continue to be outstanding and bear such playful names as barrigas de freira (nun’s belly), toucinho de céu (bacon from heaven) and papos de anjo (angels’ chins). Creamy, lemon-flavoured custard tarts, sprinkled with cinnamon or powdered sugar (pasteis de nata/pasteis de bélem) can only be described as remarkably delicious.
Portugal is renowned for its fortified wines (port from the Douro region and Madeira from the islands), served as an aperitif before or as a digestif after a meal (perhaps one featuring Madeira’s legendary espetada de carne?) Yes, I am intrigued by this idea and have created my own version offering more discrete notes of bay leaf, counter-balanced by additions of ground nutmeg and cloves. So, to your good health. A votre santé. Saude!
Espetada de Carne
(Grilled Beef Skewers)
Makes 4 servings
1½ lb (675 g) beef tenderloin or striploin, cut into 1-inch (2.5 cm) cubes
1½ tsp (8 mL) pulverized* dry bay leaves (hard stems removed)
2 ½ tsp (13 mL) minced fresh garlic
11/3 tbsp (20 mL) olive oil (preferably garlic-infused)
1 tsp (5 mL) ground nutmeg
1/3 tsp (2 mL) crushed black peppercorns
Dash ground cloves
To taste salt
8 wooden skewers**
1 cup (250 mL) Lemon Mustard Sour Cream Sauce***
1. Place beef cubes in a resealable plastic bag.
2. In a small bowl, combine pulverized bay leaves, garlic, olive oil, nutmeg, pepper and cloves.
3. Add spicy olive oil mixture to beef, seal bag, turn bag to thoroughly and evenly coat beef cubes; refrigerate overnight or for at least 8 hours.
4. An hour before grilling, remove beef cubes from refrigerator, allowing them to come closer to room temperature.
5. Just before serving, loosely thread beef cubes onto skewers and season with salt. Place skewers of beef on a well-oiled preheated grill (medium to medium-high heat). Cook each of the four sides for about 35 to 40 seconds per side for medium-rare, or longer according to degree of doneness desired. Transfer skewers to a plate, cover with aluminum foil (shiny side down) and let beef rest for 5 minutes.
6. Serve grilled beef on garlic buttered rice with Lemon Mustard Sour Cream Sauce*** and garnish with sun dried olives and slices of fresh bell peppers.
* Use a spice or coffee grinder to pulverise the bay leaves.
** Before grilling meat, soak skewers in water for 2 hours to avoid burning.
*** To make 1 cup (250 mL) of Lemon Mustard Sour Cream Sauce, whisk together 1 cup (250 mL) of sour cream, 3 tbsp (45 mL) of Dijon mustard, 11/3 tbsp (20 mL) of fresh lemon zest and, if desired, a couple of drops of yellow food colouring.
Margaret Dickenson wrote the award-winning cookbook, Margaret’s Table — Easy Cooking & Inspiring Entertaining