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