Portuguese cuisine is characterised by rich, filling and full-flavoured dishes and is closely related to Mediterranean cuisine. The influence of Portugal’s former colonial possessions is 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.
Breakfast is traditionally just coffee or milk and a bread-roll with butter, jam, cheese or ham. 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, lunch and dinner usually include soup. A common soup is Caldo Verde with potato, shredded kale, and chunks of chouriço sausage. Among fish recipes, bacalhau (cod) dishes are pervasive. The most typical desserts are rice pudding (decorated with cinnamon) and caramel custard, but they also often include a variety of cheeses. The most common varieties are made from sheep or goats milk, and include the queijo da serra from the region of Serra da Estrela. A popular pastry is the pastel de nata, a small custard tart sprinkled with cinnamon. Portuguese breakfasts often consist of fresh bread, with butter, ham, cheese or fruit preserves, accompanied with simple milk, coffee with milk, tea or hot chocolate. Sweet pastries are also very popular, as well as breakfast cereal, eaten cold and mixed with milk or yoghurt and fruit.
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 and white 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, 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.
Sardines used to be preserved in brine for sale in rural areas. Later, sardine canneries developed all along the Portuguese coast. Ray fish is dried in the sun in Northern Portugal. Canned tuna is widely available in Continental Portugal. Tuna used to be plentiful in the waters of the Algarve. They were trapped in fixed nets when they passed the Portuguese southern coast to spawn in the Mediterranean, and again when they returned to the Atlantic. Portuguese writer Raul Brandão, in his book Os Pescadores, describes how the tuna was hooked from the raised net into the boats, and how the fishermen would amuse themselves riding the larger fish around the net. Fresh tuna, however, is usually eaten in Madeira and the Algarve, where tuna steaks are an important item in local cuisine.Canned sardines or tuna, served with boiled potatoes or black-eyed beans and boiled eggs, constitute a convenient meal when there is not time to prepare anything more elaborate.
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 French pot au feu, the Spanish cocido, the New England boiled dinner or the Costa Rican casado.
Its composition depends on the cooks imagination and budget. A really lavish cozido may take beef, pork, salt pork, several types of enchidos (such as cured chouriço, morcela and chouriço de sangue, linguiça, farinheira, etc.), pigs 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 Lisbon and 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 citys 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 organise 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 is Dobrada. 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, called “Sopa de Serrabulho” if its made of pork or “Sarapatel” if its made of lamb. Its a Easter dish, but can be seen in every season of the year.
Many other meat dishes feature in Portuguese cuisine. Alcatra, beef marinated in red wine and garlic and then roasted, is a tradition of Terceira Island in the Azores. In continental Portugal, alcatra, an Arabic word meaning piece or bit, refers only to a certain expensive meat cut. Carne de porco à alentejana, fried pork with clams, is a popular dish with a misleading name as it originated in the Algarve, not in Alentejo. 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. 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 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. 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 alheiras.
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 > with potato, shredded kaleeatedly 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 peasants 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. Thus bifes 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 as feijoada, 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 (Portuguese Green Soup), made from potato purée, thinly chopped kale and slices of chouriço.
There is a wide variety of Portuguese cheeses, especially made from goat or sheep milk, or both together. Usually these are very strongly flavoured and fragrant. In the Azores, there is a type of cheese made with cows milk with a spicy taste (Queijo de São Jorge). Traditional Portuguese cuisine does not include cheese in its recipes, so it is usually eaten on its own before or after the main dishes. Other well known cheeses such as Queijo de Azeitão, Queijo de Castelo Branco and Queijo da Serra da Estrela (D.O.P.) which is very strong in flavour, can be eaten soft or more matured. Serra da Estrela is handmade from fresh sheep milk and thistle-derived rennet. The one in the photo is from a small village in Alto Alentejo (North Alentejo) (Portalegre region, Nisa district), also a very famous zone regarding cuisine. It is made with sheep’s milk with just a little bit of goat’s milk that makes this a tasty and fresh cheese.
Wine (red, white and “green”) is the traditional Portuguese drink, Rosé being popular in non-Portuguese markets is not particularly common in Portugal itself. Vinho Verde, termed “green” wine, is not green in colour but a specific kind of wine, which can be red, white or rosé, and is only produced in the northwest (Minho province). The term “green wine” does not refer to the colour of the drink but to the fact that this wine needs to be drunk “young”. A green wine should be consumed as a new wine while a “maduro” wine usually can be consumed after a period of ageing. Green wines are only produced in the north of Portugal and are usually slightly sparkling. Port wine is a fortified wine of distinct flavour produced in Douro normally served with desserts. Vinho da Madeira, is a regional wine produced in Madeira similar to sherry. From the distillation of grape wastes from wine production is made a variety of brandies (called aguardente, literally “burning water”) which are very strong tasting. Typical liqueurs such as Licor Beirão and Ginjinha are very popular alcoholic beverages in Portugal. In the south, particularly the Algarve, a distilled spirit called medronho made from the fruit of the Strawberry Tree is made.
Many of the country’s typical pastries were created in Middle Ages monasteries. Other pastries were created by nuns in the 18th century, which they sold as a means of supplementing their incomes. Many of their creations, often with a high content of eggs and sugar in the composition, have related names like barriga de freira (nuns belly), papos de anjo (angels chests), and toucinho do céu (bacon from heaven). The Portuguese enjoy rich egg-based desserts. These are often seasoned with spices such as cinnamon and vanilla. Perhaps most popular is leite-creme (a set egg custard). Also popular is arroz doce (a typical and popular rice pudding, a must for Christmas time parties), although aletria (a similar dish this time based upon a kind of vermicelli), is common. These are often decorated with elaborate stencilled patterns of cinnamon powder. Other custards include pudim flã. Cakes and pastries are also very popular. Most towns have a local speciality, 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 cafes, bakeries and pastry shops across the entire territory, include the bola de Berlim and the pão-de-ló. In the south specially in the Algarve region, many recipes include almonds and marzipan. Many traditional recipes also include candied squash, known as “doce de chila/gila” and candied egg threads called “fios de ovos,” used as a filling or a decoration. 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.
Influences on world cuisine
Portugal formerly had a large empire and the cuisine has been influenced in both directions. The Persian orange, grown widely in southern Europe since the 11th century, was bitter. Sweet oranges were brought from India to Europe in the 15th century by Portuguese traders. Some South East Indo-European tongues name orange after Portugal, which was formerly its main source of imports. Examples are Bulgarian “portokal” (портокал), Greek “portokali” (πορτοκάλι), Persian “porteghal” (پرتقال), and Romanian “portocală”‘. Also in South Italian dialects (Neapolitan), orange is named “portogallo” or “purtualle”, literally “the Portuguese ones”. Related names can also be found in other languages: Turkish “Portakal”, Arabic “al-burtuqal” (البرتقال), Amharic birtukan, and Georgian phortokhali (ფორთოხალი). From Asia Portuguese imported spices, like cinnamon, now liberally used in its traditional desserts. Also the Portuguese Canja de Galinha (Chicken Soup with Lemon and Mint), a soup made with rice and a popular food therapy for the sick, shares similarities with the Asian congee, used in the same way, suggesting it may have come from the East.
Tea was made fashionable in Britain in the 1660s after the marriage of King Charles II to the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza, who brought her liking for tea, originally from the colony of Macau, to the court. A Portuguese influence is strongly evident in Brazilian cuisine, which features its own versions of Portuguese dishes such as feijoada and caldeirada (fish stew). Other Portuguese influences can be tasted in the Indian province of Goa, where Goan cuisine dishes such as vindaloo show the pairing of vinegar and garlic, and also Macanese cuisine.
In 1543, Portuguese trade ships reached Japan and introduced refined sugar, valued there as a luxury good. Japanese lords enjoyed Portuguese confectionery so much it was remodelled in the now traditional Japanese kompeito candy, kasutera sponge cake, keiran somen version of Portuguese “Fios de ovos” (also popular in Thai cuisine under the named “Kanom Foy Tong”), creating the Nanban-gashi, or “New-Style Wagashi”. During this Nanban trade period, Tempura was introduced to Japan by early Portuguese missionaries. All over the world, Portuguese immigrants influenced the cuisine of their new “homelands” like Hawaii and parts of New England. Portuguese sweet bread or pão doce, malassadas, bean soup (sopa de feijão), and sausages (linguiça, chouriço) are eaten regularly in the Hawaiian islands by families of all ethnicity. In Australia, variants of Portuguese style chicken, sold principally in fast food outlets, have become extremely popular in the last two decades. Offerings include conventional chicken dishes, as well as a variety of burgers. It would appear that in some cases, such as Portuguese chicken sandwiches, the dishes offered bear only a loose connection to Portuguese cuisine and the connection is made simply as a marketing technique.