Portugal may have introduced hot chiles to Asia, tea to England, and tempura to Japan, but the country’s cuisine still remains a mystery to most. The roots of Portuguese food lie in both peasant cookery and the ingredients obtained from the trade routes and colonies first explored in the late 15th century. With its long Atlantic coastline and well developed fishing industry, it’s no surprise that this seafaring country eats more seafood per capita than any other nation in Europe.
Although sardines, shellfish, clams and many more fresh seafoods are caught and eaten, it’s the dried salt cod that was, is, and always will be, king. Portugal has been fishing and trading cod since before the 14th century. Ship building advances along with new ways to sun-dry salted cod enabled the Portuguese traders to travel much further and directly led to the growth of the Portuguese empire in the 1500s.
Eating meat and poultry was historically a privilege of the upper classes. Over time, pigs and chickens became much more available to the masses and the spices the 15th century traders returned home with took Portuguese cooking from the food of the poor to a cuisine worthy of international status. The availability of pork before refrigeration led to the creation of Portuguese sausages like chourico, linguica, and blood sausages loved not only in Portugal but places with Portuguese communities like Hawaii, Brazil, and Massachusetts.
With a region (Alentejana) called “The bread basket of Portugal,” it comes as no surprise that bread has played a major role in Portuguese cuisine. Potatoes and rice as well. From poverty arose classic dishes like Acorda a Alentejana (garlic and bread soup), Caldo Verde (kale and potato soup), and Arroz Doce (rice pudding).
Many of the country’s pastries were created in monasteries during the Middle Ages by nuns and monks as a way to supplement income. It was also a way to use the egg yolks leftover from the egg whites used to stiffen their habits. With sugar imported from the island of Madeira, the Portuguese began using sugar in the 15th century at a time the rest of Europe was still using honey as a sweetener. The resulting pastries, especially the world famous Pasteis de Nata, began to blossom.
Although Portugal produces many varieties of grapes for wine, it is best known for its Port wine, created out of necessity in order to travel long distances over rough oceans, red wine was fortified with table wine to create Port. Madeira port, just like Spanish sherry, played a major role in American history. In 1768, the British seized John Hancock’s sloop and tried to assess import duties on the 25 casks of Madeira being brought in. Suffice it to say, the local colonists were not too pleased and the Boston Tea Party riots ensued. The rest is history. A favorite of Thomas Jefferson, Madeira wine was also used to toast the Declaration of Independence.
my Hungry Traveler Portuguese Recipes:
Not only did the Portuguese traders introduce new foods from their settlements and colonies back home and throughout Europe, they also shared their foods and ingredients with the world. Here are just some of the dishes the Portuguese have influenced:
- Brazil – feijoada (pork & sausage in black beans) and caldeirada (fish stew).
- Macau – minchee (minced beef & pork), Galinha a Portuguesa (curried chicken) and pasteis de nata (Cantonese egg tarts).
- Mozambique and Angola – Piri Piri chicken and Shrimp Mozambique, rice.
- Japan – Tempura (fried vegetables).
- Goa, India – vindalho (spicy curry with vinegar and garlic).
- America – Madeira wines to the early colonists who couldn’t grow grapes, salt cod to New England, and Portuguese foods of all kinds to enclaves in Hawaii and Fall River, MA.
It’s fair to say that Portuguese cuisine, as we know it today, is a direct result of the country’s maniacal quest to own the valuable spice trade and convert others to Christianity. Foods like salt cod and Port wine enabled long trips to far-away places like Africa, China, Brazil and Newfoundland, where they introduced Portuguese goods in return for exotic ingredients that would ultimately create today’s version of this world-class cuisine.
Notable Portuguese Dishes – Bolinhos de Bacalhau (salt cod fritters), Pate de Azeitonas Verdes (green olive dip), Linguiça, Chouriço, Alheira (Portuguese sausages), Acorda a Alentejana (garlic and bread soup), Caldo Verde (kale and potato soup), Frango Piri Piri (grilled chicken spicy chili sauce), Macanese Minchi (Chinese minced beef & pork), Puerco Almadeja (pork & clams in garlic sauce), Camarão Moçambique (spicy shrimp on saffron rice), Migas (bread cooking in reposado), Peixinhos da Horta (fried green beans), Pasteis de Nata (custard tarts), Arroz Doce (sweet rice pudding).