Portuguese Food & Drink
Briony Stephenson introduces the hidden delights of Portuguese cuisine.
Despite the lasting influence it has had on food in such far-away places as Macau and Goa, Portuguese cuisine is hugely underrepresented outside Portugal. Often confused with Spanish cooking, it is, in fact, quite distinct.
At its best, Portuguese food is simple ingredients impeccably prepared. Based on regional produce, emphasising fish, meat, olive oil, tomato, and spices, it features hearty soups, homemade bread and cheeses, as well as unexpected combinations of meat and shellfish.
For a relatively small nation, Portugal has surprising gastronomic variety. The Estremadura region, which includes Lisbon, is famous for its seafood - the fish market at Cascais, just outside the capital, is one of the largest in the country - while the production of sausages and cheese elsewhere adds another dimension to the national cuisine.
The Algarve, the last region of Portugal to achieve independence from the Moors, and situated on North Africa's doorstep, contributes a centuries-old tradition of almond and fig sweets.
Indeed, the Portuguese have a long history of absorbing culinary traditions from other peoples. The age of discovery was propelled by the desire for exotic spices and ever since Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to India at the turn of the sixteenth century, they have proved enormously popular.
Peri-peri, a Brazilian spice transplanted to the former African colonies is used to flavour chicken and shrimp. Curry spices from Goa are common seasonings. These spices are typically used very sparingly, adding subtle flavour and depth to dishes.
It is these influences that have helped make Portuguese food so markedly different from that of other Mediterranean countries and in Lisbon today there are scores of restaurants specialising in the cuisines of the old empire as well as Brazilian-style juice bars, offering drinks and ice-cream made from exotic fruits.
If there is one thing that typifies traditional Portuguese food, however, it is fish. From the common anchovy to swordfish, sole, sea bream, bass and salmon, markets and menus reveal the full extent of Portugal's love affair with seafood. In Portugal, even a street-bought fish burger is filled with flavour.
Bacalhau, salted cod, on sale in a Portuguese supermarket
Bacalhau, salted cod, is the Portuguese fish and said to be the basis for some 365 recipes, one for each day of the year. Two dishes are particularly notable. Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá, essentially a casserole of cod, potatoes and onion, is an Oporto speciality and considered perhaps Portugal's greatest bacalhau recipe. From Estremadura comes bacalhau á bràs, scrambled eggs with salted cod, potatoes and onions.
Shellfish, including clams (amêijoas) and mussels (mexilhões) are also of a high quality. Crab and squid are often stuffed, and lulas recheadas à lisbonense (stuffed squid Lisbon-style) is a great example of Portuguese seafood. Visitors to Lisbon can find traditional shops by the docks selling snails (caracóis).
There are plenty of options for the meat-lover too. Espetada, grilled skewers of beef with garlic, is popular, as is suckling pig (leitão). Cozido à portuguesa, a one-dish meal of beef, pork, sausage and vegetables, reflects the resourcefulness of traditional cooking.
A rather more unusual combination is the pork and clams of porco à alentejana (pork Alentejo-style). Pork is also cooked with mussels na cataplana, with the wok-like cataplana sealing in the flavours.
Meanwhile, the city of Oporto boasts tripa à moda do Porto (Oporto-style tripe), supposedly a legacy from the days of Prince Henry the Navigator, when the city was left with nothing but tripe after providing the Infante's ships with food. To this day Oporto natives are known as tripeiros, or tripe-eaters.
Broiled chicken (frango grelhado), seasoned with peri-peri, garlic, and/or olive oil, is one of the few things that has made its mark outside Portugal, where it can be found in cities with a large Portuguese population. The highly aromatic peri-peri chicken is often served in specialist restaurants.
Soups constitute an integral part of traditional cooking, with all manner of vegetables, fish and meat used to create a variety of soups, stews and chowders. Caldo verde (literally green broth), made from a soup of kale-like cabbage thickened with potato and containing a slice of salpicão or chouriço sausage, originated from the northern province of Minho but is now considered a national dish.
Along with canja de galinha (chicken broth), caldo verde is a filling, comforting and ubiquitous favourite. For the more adventurous, caldeirada de lulas à madeirense (squid stew Madeira-style) features a characteristically Portuguese combination of seafood, curry and ginger. Another typical dish is the açorda where vegetables or shellfish are added to thick rustic bread to create a 'dry' soup.
Portuguese pastries are a favorite for anyone with a sweet tooth
Those with a sweet tooth may be interested to learn that one of Portugal's best-kept culinary secrets is its vast and distinctive range of desserts, cakes and pastries. A staple of restaurant menus is chocolate mousse - richer, denser and smoother than foreign versions, while other favourites include arroz doce, a lemon and cinnamon-flavoured rice pudding.
The most famous sweets, however, are the rich egg-yolk and sugar-based cakes, influenced by Moorish cooking and perfected by Guimerães nuns in the sixteenth century. For a uniquely Portuguese experience, the visitor should head for a pasteleria (or confeitaria), where the many varieties of cakes and other confections, as well as savoury delicacies like bolinhas de bacalhau, cod balls, are served. The Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, where the legendary pastéis de nata, delicious custard-filled tarts, are baked, is a Lisbon highlight. Nearby Sintra has its own traditional pastry, queijadas de Sintra (a type of cheese tart), which street vendors sell in packs of six.
The Portuguese attitude to food is simple and imaginative, traditional and inventive. Above all, enjoying good food and the social aspects of eating out is an esteemed part of everyday life. From informal cafes to world-class restaurants, all budgets and occasions are catered for. Tiny cafes and tascas, often no more than holes in the wall, abound. The opportunity to sample this largely unknown cuisine in all its variety is one of the real rewards of visiting Portugal.