Portuguese cuisine, which has left long-lasting impressions in far-flung places like India, Macau and Brazil, uses simple ingredients to prepare flavourful dishes. Discover more about this unknown cuisine, which is often confused with Spanish cooking, and savour its many delights.
Portugal — a small country situated at one end of the Iberian peninsula in Europe became the first global empire in history. This largely rural land of farmers and fishermen undertook one of the greatest adventures in history discovering new lands, new cultures and new gastronomies, transforming its own culinary landscape and leaving a trail of new foods and flavours in its wake.
With Portuguese colonies and trading posts in countries as far-flung as Brazil in South America, Macau in China, Nagasaki in Japan and several outposts along the west coast of India, the humble Portuguese cuisine hitherto based largely on fish, wholesome bread and hearty vegetable soups and stews and flavoured like most Mediterranean foods with olive oil, onions and garlic, grew in depth and sophistication.
Portuguese cuisine soon incorporated new ingredients such as tea, coffee and spices including cinnamon, cumin, pepper, coriander and cloves from India and the Far East, potatoes, tomatoes, vanilla and chillies from South America, and the piri piri chilli pepper from Africa. In addition, dishes like canja — a rice soup and a variant of conjee, the rice gruel from China, have become a part of the Portuguese table.
At heart, however, Portuguese food remains simple and flavoursome. Its national dishes are caldo verde — a simple hearty soup of potatoes and a Portuguese variety of cabbage resembling kale, and bacalhau — dried salted cod, which is cooked in myriad ways to tease the palate, including bacalhau à Braz — eggs scrambled with cod and potato straws, and bacalhau à Gomes de Sá — potatoes and cod baked with onions and olives.
All things Fish
Seafood is at the top of every Portuguese menu, sardines being a favourite, followed by a variety of shellfish such as oysters, clams, mussels, prawns and lobster, and fresh fish from the North Atlantic Ocean. caldeirada de peixe — a mixed seafood stew with onions, tomatoes and parsley and often spiced with cloves, nutmeg, allspice ginger or even curry powder, is the pride of the Portuguese table. Rustic stews like cozido à Portuguesa — a mixed-meat and vegetable stew and açorda — a mushy bread, garlic and coriander soupy stew sometimes with seafood or meat thrown in, are the mainstay of a Portuguese menu.
Bread, in fact, forms the base of many a Portuguese dish, most notably migas — a savoury dish made from bread crumbs and cooked meats flavoured with garlic and spices. The same goes for soups, which is an integral part of traditional Portuguese cooking — a variety of vegetables, meats and fish are used to create a diverse range of stews and chowders.
THE PORTUGAL SWEETNESS
Portuguese sweets bear the imprint of it Moorish and African heritage — sweets flavoured with rose or orange flower water, and after its voyages of discovery with vanilla and cinnamon. Pastries are the legacy of nuns and monks in the monasteries that dot Portugal. Most desserts, cakes and pastries are rich confections of egg yolks, sugar and cream with fresh fruit served alongside to counteract the richness.
One of their most popular desserts with the chuckle-inducing name of barriga de freira or nun’s belly is a delicious bread and egg pudding topped with cinnamon and almonds. Pastel de nata — a creamy custard tart sprinkled with cinnamon is another favourite as is pão de lò — a light-as-air sponge cake. fios de ovos — candied strands of egg yolk make for a sunshine burst of colour atop desserts and cakes. Another favourite is chocolate mousse, which is much richer, smoother and denser than its foreign variants and arroz doce, a lemon and cinnamon flavoured rice pudding.
The attitude of the Portuguese towards food is one of great pride in simple, imaginative, traditional dishes which are full of flavour. In Portugal, enjoying a good meal with family or eating out are important aspects of everyday life. While its political influence has shrunk over the years, the rich culinary legacy Portugal has left behind and the culinary cross-pollination it engendered in its erstwhile colonies are testimony to the power it once wielded and the gastronomic sway it held over much of the world. Where would Japanese food be without tempura, Indian food without vindaloo, and Brazil without feijoada?