December 22nd, 2016/ BY Silvana Lau

Portugal’s rich gastronomic tradition changed the culinary world

When it comes to the great cuisines of Europe, most of us zero in on the big three: France, Spain and Italy. The sauces of France, the tapas of Spain and the al dente pasta of Italia all waft through our gastronomic dreams. Of course, there’s way more to European cuisine than béchamel, bocadillos and bucatini. France, Spain and Italy aren’t the only countries on the continent that learned to cook.

Consider Portugal. Often overlooked, forgotten and left to itself in its little corner of Southwestern Europe. Portugal has a rich gastronomic tradition. Yet despite sharing the Iberian Peninsula with a country known to be one of the greatest gastronomic destinations in the world, Portuguese fare often gets overshadowed by its much more famous neighbour, Spain. Which is a shame considering Portugal’s contribution to the culinary world is immense.

In the 15th century, during the Age of Discovery, Portuguese explorers took to the sea in search of new lands. They sailed down to, and around, the African coast in pursuit of black pepper, gold and the riches of the Far East. It wasn’t long before Portugal had staked claims from Macau in China, to Goa in India, to Brazil in South America, to Mozambique and other African nations. The discovery of these new lands dramatically affected cooking in Portugal (and around the world, for that matter).

According to internationally acclaimed restaurateur Albino Silva, of Toronto’s highly renowned “progressive” Portuguese restaurants, Chiado and Adega, “Portugal didn’t really colonize, they integrated. The explorers sailed the world, lived in other countries, and married natives. This assimilation allowed the Portuguese to have more influence since they were already intertwined with the locals there,” he explains.

These same voyagers brought exotic fruits, nuts and plants from the new lands back to Portugal. One of those — the tomato — became an essential ingredient in sauces and stews. Over the centuries, Portuguese travellers also left delectable souvenirs wherever they travelled. They introduced chilies to India, and tempura-style frying to Japan. Brazilian peppers and cashews landed in Africa. African coffee bushes were transplanted to Brazil (today the world’s largest coffee producer). In a way, the early Portuguese “food pollinated” the globe.

When the Portuguese overtook the spice trade from the Moors and Venetian merchants, Spain and other European countries had greater access to these coveted exotic condiments (including black pepper, saffron, nutmeg and paprika). As spices became more readily available, regional recipes in the Mediterranean started intertwining and resembling each other.

But if there’s one spice that discerns Portuguese cuisine from that of its neighbours, it’s the piri piri African Bird’s Eye Chili Pepper. Also known as “pepper pepper” in Swahili, it is the signature ingredient in gambas a Mozambique, a spicy prawn dish invented by the Portuguese and Africans



There is a debate on how the piri piri pepper came to Portugal. Some believe the pepper was brought back on Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the Americas. Others are convinced that the Portuguese took the chili to the colonies of Mozambique and Angola, where it naturally cross-pollinated after being given a Swahili christening. Eventually, the pepper made its way back to Portugal. Whatever side of the debate you choose to believe, piri piri is a marriage between Portuguese colonization and African social culture. Silva confirms, adding that, “piri-piri chicken is part of Portuguese cuisine, but it doesn’t represent it. It is a very popular dish in North America, but in Portugal we don’t eat it that much. It is a regional speciality in the town of Guia, in Central Algarve.” This would explain why I had a difficult time finding this “popular” Portuguese speciality on my last visit to Lisbon.

Precise origins aside, the worldwide popularity of this dish can probably be attributed to Nando’s Restaurant. Operating in over 30 countries, the South African chain of Portuguese-style chicken proclaims itself to be “home to the legendary peri-peri flamed-grilled chicken (African Romanization)”. It’s somewhat ironic that Nando’s doesn’t even operate in Portugal, considering it specializes in what is, apparently, the “legendary” dish of that country.

In any case, when prepared traditionally in Portugal, frango piri piri is far from KFC (or Nando’s, for that matter). A butterflied chicken is marinated in a traditional concoction of olive oil, white wine, garlic, bay leaf, lemon juice, piri piri chili peppers and paprika. The bird is then cooked on a rotating spit over a flaming hot coal pit. Yes, even Colonel Sander’s would agree that this bird is finger lickin’ good!

In spite of its popularity, you don’t go to Portugal for the frango (unless, of course, you are in the Algarve). Instead, you go for the myriad dishes that combine the finest native ingredients with the flavours and techniques borrowed from the countries she sought out in antiquity.

This is a country where the people have a love affair with seafood, from just about everything that swims in the sea, down to simple canned sardines. It’s the place where there are 365 ways to cook salted cod (bacalhau), one for each day of the year. Silva explains, “Portuguese food is just simple ingredients that are impeccably prepared. There are many regional specialities across the country, emphasizing fish, meat, olive oil, tomato and spices. Unfortunately, Portuguese vendors don’t take advantage of its rich heritage in classic and traditional foods. They need to promote and market products from the regions and put them in the limelight so they can become recognized throughout the world. They need to market and position other Portuguese dishes the same way they promote the typical specialities like piri piri chicken, bacalhau and port.”

Silva is right. There is much more for your taste buds to discover than the (stereo)typical dishes. It’s time to put the country that made many delicious contributions to the world back into the culinary limelight. Get out of that “culinary tunnel-vision” and discover the more overlooked dishes on Portuguese menus. Now is the time to uncover those unique dishes that are loved by the locals but largely off the global culinary radar. Spicy, tangy, and savoury, the following dishes will awaken your senses, activate your salivary glands and whet your appetite. Read on …




Porto isn’t just the home of port wine; it’s also where the francesinha or “little Frenchie” was born. This is the Portuguese version of the French croque-monsieur gone wild! A glorified ham and cheese sandwich, it was invented by an emigrant from France and Belgium who tried to adapt the croque-monsieur to Portuguese tastes. Between two extra-thick slices of heavy rustic peasant bread lie slices of steak, ham, sausage, all topped with melted cheese and drenched in a hot, thick tomato and beer gravy and served with French fries. Not for the faint of heart! Feast on this sammy with a pint of beer, and a glass of port nearby.

caldo verde

Step aside bacalhau, this “green soup” is considered by many to be Portugal’s national dish. Originating from the northwest part of the country, in the former Minho province, caldo verde can be found everywhere in the country. From the dining rooms of upscale restaurants to the humble kitchens of the Portuguese avó or grandma. “Caldo verde is to Portugal as French onion soup is to France. It is a poor man’s soup that is made everywhere. The simplicity is beautiful,” explains Silva.

And it is simple. As simple as five ingredients: garlic, onions, potatoes, water, couve gallego (a type of kale) and garnished with a slice of cooked chouriço. This heart-warming soup begins with a very light onion-and-garlic-infused potato broth. The kale leaves must be sliced into thin strips for it to be a traditional caldo verde, as this is what provides the texture and colour to the soup. The leaves are then blanched, so they are bright green. Prior to serving, the kale is added to the soup with a drizzle of Portuguese olive oil. A slice of cooked linguica (smoked pork sausage) adds a bit of heartiness to this light yet satisfying soup.

alheira de mirandela

The king of smoked Portuguese sausage derives its name from the Portuguese word alho, meaning “garlic.” The origin of this sausage dates back to the end of the 15th century, during the Portuguese Inquisition, when the Jews of Portugal were forced to convert to Christianity. Since Jews were easily detected for not eating and producing cured pork sausages, Jewish butchers created a clever cover: a sausage that didn’t include the “forbidden” meat (they used poultry and game instead). These sausages were then hung in their windows masquerading as pork. No matter what religion you are, you won’t be able to resist eating a fried alheira served with fries and a fried egg. Sinfully delicious!


Originating from Alentejo, the humble bifana is a simple, yet gratifying snack. Just a crusty Portuguese roll, with a thin-cut pork cutlet that has been marinated in a tangy mixture of wine, paprika, pepper paste, garlic and tomato paste. This is not your average meat sandwich and I guarantee that every bite will be accompanied by an involuntary “mmmm” from your mouth. The bread is crunchy where it counts, and chewy everywhere else. The sweet, tangy pepper paste-infused marinade gives the meat a zesty kick while keeping the pork nice and juicy. The most traditional bifana consists of just the meat and bread. However, feel free to add yellow mustard and homemade chili oil to kick it up a notch! When devouring this sandwich, have a napkin ready and be prepared for the pork juices to run down your hands! Utterly delectable!

Portuguese cuisine is more than bacalhau.
Portuguese cuisine is more than bacalhau.

açorda alentejana

Soup again? Yes, but soup is taken very seriously in Portugal. Also, where there’s sopa, there is usually bread. The açorda dates back to the days when the Moors occupied the Iberian Peninsula. The medieval Arabs had imaginative uses for stale bread. This comfort food is a simple soup of rehydrated stale bread gussied up with whatever strong flavours can be found in the kitchen; typically, this includes a combination of garlic, oil, water and eggs. Bread, the major component in the dish, absorbs much of the liquid, creating a “dry” soup. It is then lifted above the ordinary by the addition of cilantro (also a Moorish influence).

Most popular in the Alentejo region, there are many local variations of açorda. In some, broth is poured over large pieces of stale bread, keeping the bread whole and soggy. In others, the bread is cooked down to a creamy porridge-like consistency. Some versions use a fragrant fish broth, while others like Silva’s Chiado Restaurant, dress up the dish with monkfish, lobster, shrimp and clams. With fresh seafood flown in from the Azores Islands several times a week, Chiado’s seafood açorda or açorda de mariscos, is as authentic as it gets on this side of the Atlantic! Soulful Fado music is optional.

Portuguese food may not have the same high profile as some of the more recognized European hotshots. But who cares? The world is indebted to the Portuguese for the culinary trail they left behind. Menus across the globe would be boring without the spices and foods introduced by the colonial explorers. Portuguese cooking is much more than a melting pot of cultures, spices and techniques. It is a cuisine that is inspired by fusion, flavour and history. Dig into Portuguese fare and taste the world in one big bite!



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