Despite being relatively restricted to an Atlantic sustenance, Portuguese cuisine has many Mediterranean influences. The influence of Portugal’s former colonial possessionsis also notable, especially in the wide variety of spices used. These spices include piri piri (small, fiery chilli peppers) and black pepper, as well as cinnamon, vanilla and saffron. Olive oil is one of the bases of Portuguese cuisine both for cooking and flavouring meals. Garlic is widely used, as are herbs such as coriander and parsley.
Portuguese breakfasts often consist of fresh bread, with butter, ham, cheese or fruit preserves, accompanied with coffee, milk, tea or hot chocolate. A small espresso coffee (sometimes called a ‘bica’ after the spout of the coffee machine) is a very popular beverage had during breakfast enjoyed at home and at the many cafes that feature in towns and cities throughout Portugal. Sweet pastries are also very popular, as well as breakfast cereal, mixed with milk or yogurt and fruit.
Lunch, often lasting over an hour is served between noon and 2 o’clock or between 1 and 3 o’clock, and dinner is generally served late, around or after 8 o’clock. There are three main courses, with lunch and dinner usually including soup. A common soup is caldo verde with potato, shredded kale, and chunks of chouriço (chorizo) sausage. Among fish recipes, salt cod (bacalhau) dishes are pervasive. The most typical desserts are rice pudding (decorated with cinnamon) and caramel custard. There is also a wide variety of cheeses made from cow, sheep or goat’s milk or even a mixture of different kinds of milk. The most famous are queijo da serra from the region of Serra da Estrela, São Jorge cheese from the Portuguese island of São Jorge, and Requeijão. A popular pastry is the pastel de nata, a small custard tart often sprinkled with cinnamon.
Fish and seafood
Portugal is a seafaring nation with a well-developed fishing industry and this is reflected in the amount of fish and seafood eaten. The country has Europe’s highest fish consumption per capita and is among the top four in the world for this indicator. Fish is served grilled, boiled (including poached and simmered), fried or deep-fried, stewed(often in clay pot cooking) or even roasted. Foremost amongst these is bacalhau (cod), which is the type of fish most consumed in Portugal. It is said that there are more than 365 ways to cook cod, one for every day of the year. Cod is almost always used dried and salted because the Portuguese fishing tradition in the North Atlantic developed before the invention of refrigeration – therefore it needs to be soaked in water or sometimes milk before cooking. The simpler fish dishes are often flavoured with virgin olive oil andwhite wine vinegar.
Portugal has been fishing and trading cod since the 15th century and this cod trade accounts for its ubiquity in the cuisine. Also popular are fresh sardines (especially when grilled as sardinhas assadas), octopus, squid, cuttlefish, crabs, shrimp and prawns, lobster, spiny lobster, and many other crustaceans such as barnacles and goose barnacles,hake, horse mackerel (scad), lamprey, sea bass, scabbard (especially in Madeira) and a great variety of other fish and shellfish and molluscs, such as clams, mussels, oysters,periwinkles, and scallops. Caldeirada is a stew consisting of a variety of fish and shellfish with potatoes, tomato and onion.
Meat and poultry
Eating meat and poultry on a daily basis was historically a privilege of the upper classes. Meat was a staple at a nobleman’s table during the Middle Ages. A Portuguese Renaissance chronicler, Garcia de Resende, describes how an entrée at a royal banquet was composed of a whole roasted ox garnished with a circle of chickens. A common Portuguese dish, mainly eaten in winter, is cozido à portuguesa, which somewhat parallels the Frenchpot au feu, the Spanishcocido, the New England boiled dinner or the Costa Ricancasado. Its composition depends on the cook’s imagination and budget. A really lavish cozido may take beef, pork, salt pork, several types ofenchidos (such as cured chouriço, morcela and chouriço de sangue, linguiça, farinheira, etc.), pig’s feet, cured ham, potatoes, carrots,turnips, chickpeas, cabbage and rice. This would originally have been a favourite food of the affluent farmer, which later reached the tables of the urban bourgeoisie and typical restaurants.
Tripas à moda do Porto (tripe with white beans) is said to have originated in the 14th century, when the Castilians laid siege to Lisbonand blockaded the Tagus entrance. The Portuguese chronicler Fernão Lopes dramatically recounts how starvation spread all over the city. Food prices rose astronomically, and small boys would go to the former wheat market place in search of a few grains on the ground, which they would eagerly put in their mouths when found. Old and sick people, as well as prostitutes, or in short anybody who would not be able to aid in the city’s defence, were sent out to the Castilian camp, only to be returned to Lisbon by the invaders. It was at this point that the citizens of Porto decided to organize a supply fleet that managed to slip through the river blockade. Apparently, since all available meat was sent to the capital, for a while Porto residents were limited to tripe and other organs. Others claim that it was only in 1415 that Porto deprived itself of meat to supply the expedition that conquered the city of Ceuta, in North Africa. Whatever the truth may be, since at least the 17th century people from Porto have been known as tripeiros or tripe eaters. Another Portuguese dish with tripe isDobrada. Nowadays, the Porto region is equally known, however, for the toasted sandwich known as a francesinha. In Alto Alentejo(North Alentejo), there is a very typical dish made with lungs, blood and liver, of either pork or lamb. It’s an Easter dish, but can be seen in every season of the year. Basically, the blood is boiled and cut into little pieces as the other parts, add the secret ingredients and “voilá”. In the end, cover the plate with bread that will soak with the liquid, some people also put mint and a slice of orange.
Alentejo is a vast agricultural province with only one sizeable fishing port, Sines; and in the past shellfish would not have been available in the inland areas. On the other hand, all points in Algarve are relatively close to the coast and pigs used to be fed with fish, so clams were added to the fried pork to disguise the fishy taste of the meat. Nowadays, however, nobody would dream of calling it carne de porco à algarvia. Legend also says that the dish was developed to test Jewish converts’ new Christian faith; consisting of pork and shellfish (two non-kosher items), Marranos were expected to eat the dish in public in order to prove their complete detachment from the Jewish faith.
The Portuguese steak, bife, is a slice of fried beef or pork served in a wine-based sauce with fried potatoes, rice, or salad. To add a few more calories to this dish,an egg, sunny side up, may be placed on top of the meat, in which case the dish acquires a new name, bife (com um ovo) a cavalo(steak with an egg on horseback). This dish is sometimes referred to as bitoque, to demonstrate the idea that the meat only “touches” the grill twice, meaning, it does not grill for too long before being served, resulting in a rare to medium-rare cut of meat. Another variation of bife is bife a casa (house steak), which may resemble the bife a cavalo or may feature embellishments such asasparagus.
Iscas (fried liver) were a favourite request in old Lisbon taverns. Sometimes, they were called iscas com elas, the elas referring to sautéed potatoes. Small beef or pork steaks in a roll (respectively, pregos or bifanas) are popular snacks, often served at beer halls with a large mug of beer. In modern days, however, when time and economy demand their toll, a prego or bifana, eaten at a snack bar counter, may constitute the lunch of a white collar worker. Espetada (meat on a skewer) is very popular in Madeira.
Alheira, a yellowish sausage from Trás-os-Montes, served with fried potatoes and a fried egg, has an interesting story. In the late fifteenth century King Manuel of Portugal ordered all resident Jews to convert to Christianity or leave the country. The King did not really want to expel the Jews, who constituted the economic and professional élite of the kingdom, but was forced to do so by outside pressures. So, when the deadline arrived, he announced that no ships were available for those who refused conversion – the vast majority – and had men, women and children dragged to churches for a forced mass baptism. Others were even baptized near the ships themselves, which gave birth to a concept popular at the time: “baptizados em pé”, literally meaning: “baptized while standing”. Obviously, most Jews maintained their religion secretly, but tried to show an image of being good Christians. Since avoiding pork was a tell-tale practice in the eyes of the Inquisition, converts devised a type of sausage that would give the appearance of being made with pork, but really only contained heavily spiced game and chicken. Nowadays, however, tradition has been broken, and pork has been added to the alheira.
Jewish influence may have been a determining factor in some other practices in food preparation and eating habits. Different kinds of unleavened bread and cakes, such as the arrufadas de Coimbra, are baked throughout Continental Portugal and the Azores. In the islands, meat is often repeatedly rinsed in water to clean it of any trace of blood. After chickens are killed, they may be hung up upside down, so the blood may be drained, however, paradoxically, it can be used later for cabidela. Blood spilled on the ground is sometimes covered with dirt, as the passage in Leviticus directs Jews to do. Seafood without scales, such as morays, may be shunned in some areas. And, finally, a point is made of slaughtering animals with a very sharp knife, a practice also exhorted by rabbinical law.
Poultry, easily raised around a peasant’s home, was at first considered quality food. Turkeys were only eaten for Christmas or on special occasions such as wedding receptions or banquets. Up until the 1930s, the farmers from the outskirts of Lisbon would around Christmas time bring herds of turkeys to the city streets for sale. Before being killed, a stiff dose of brandy was forced down the birds’ throats to make the meat more tender and tasty, and hopefully to ensure a happy state of mind when the time would come for the use of a sharp knife. Poor people ate chicken almost only when they were sick. Nowadays mass production in poultry farms makes these meats accessible to all classes. Thusbifes de Peru, turkey steaks, have become a recent addition to Portuguese tables.
Vegetables that are popular in Portuguese cookery include tomatoes, cabbage, and onions. There are many starchy dishes, such asfeijoada, a rich bean stew, and açorda, a thick bread-based casserole generally flavoured with garlic and coriander or seafood. Many dishes are served with salad usually made of tomato, lettuce, and onion flavoured with olive oil and vinegar. Potatoes and rice are also extremely common in Portuguese cuisine. Soups made from a variety of vegetables are commonly available, one of the most popular being caldo verde, made from potato purée, thinly sliced kale and slices of chouriço.
There is a wide variety of Portuguese cheeses, especially made from goat’s or sheep’s milk, or both together. Usually these are very strongly flavoured and fragrant. Traditional Portuguese cuisine does not include cheese in its recipes, so it is usually eaten on its own before or after the main dishes. In the Azores, there is a type of cheese made with cow’s milk with a spicy taste, the Queijo São Jorge. Other well known cheeses with protected designation of origin such as Queijo de Azeitão, Queijo de Castelo Brancoand the Queijo da Serra da Estrela which is very strong in flavour, can be eaten soft or more matured. Serra da Estrela is handmade from fresh sheep milk and thistle-derivedrennet. The one in the photo, the Queijo mestiço de Tolosa is the only Portuguese cheese with protected geographical indication and it is made in the civil parish of Tolosa, in the small village of Nisa, Portalegre District, Alto Alentejo. In this area of Nisa it is also produced the Queijo de Nisa.
Pastries and desserts
Many of the country’s typical pastries were created in Middle Ages monasteries by nuns and monks and sold as a means of supplementing their incomes. The main ingredient for these pastries was egg yolks. It is common belief that the medieval nuns used vast quantities of egg whites to stiffen their habits, and developed endless dessert recipes to use all the surplus yolks. However it is also known that Portugal had a big egg production, mainly between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and that most of the egg whites were exported to be used as a purifier in white wine production or to iron suits. The excess quantity of yolks, combined with plenty of sugar coming from the Portuguese colonies was the inspiration for the creation of recipes made from egg yolk. The names of these deserts are usually related to monastic life and to the Catholic faith. Examples are, among others, barriga de freira (nun’s belly), papos de anjo (angel’s chests), and toucinho do céu (bacon from heaven). Other common ingredients in Portuguese convent confectionery are almonds, doce de chila/gila made from squash, wafer paper, and candied egg threads called fios de ovos.
Rich egg-based desserts are very popular in Portugal and are often seasoned with spices such as cinnamon and vanilla. The most popular are leite-creme (a dessert consisting of an egg custard base topped with a layer of hard caramel), arroz doce (a typical and popular rice pudding), and pudim flã (a caramel custard, in Brazil known as pudim de leite condensado). A dessert called aletria, similar to arroz doce but made with a kind of vermicelli instead of rice, is also very popular. They are also omnipresent as traditional home desserts in Brazil and other Portuguese-influenced countries.
Cakes and pastries are also very popular in Portugal. Most towns have a local specialty, usually egg or cream based pastry. Originally from Lisbon, but popular nationwide, as well as among the diaspora, are pastéis de nata. These are small, extremely rich custard tarts. Other very popular pastries found in most cafes, bakeries and pastry shops across the country are the Bola de Berlim, the Pão-de-ló, Bolo de Arroz and theTentúgal pastries.