At the heart of Portuguese cuisine is the use of quality ingredients prepared simply to preserve their distinctive flavors. On the surface this may sound plain, but it's not. Rich Mediterranean and Moorish influences and the wide variety of available ingredients have given the Portuguese cook the best flavors and textures to work with, so there is very little need for complex preparation.
History of Portuguese Cuisine
Portuguese food is renowned for being lusty and robust. Because Portuguese cuisine is easy to prepare, and uses very basic equipment, it is often described as peasant food. Some of the most popular Portuguese dishes can be made in a single pot over an open fire. The use of seasoned pork, strong olive oil, garlic and onions contributes to the image of strongly flavored, simple cooking. This is Sunday dinner fare designed to satisfy the appetite and reinforce the bonds of home and family.
The Portuguese Spice Connection
The Portuguese were the preeminent fishermen and explorers of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. They helped map the globe and brought rare spices home for their people to enjoy. The Portuguese were among the first to experiment with cinnamon, pepper, cloves and nutmeg, modifying their native dishes to take advantage of these new flavors.
Tomatoes, Peppers and Potatoes From the New World
The discovery of the New World also brought bounty to Portugal with the introduction of tomatoes, bell peppers, chilies of all types, potatoes, kidney beans, turkey, and avocados. This is just a sampling. There were many imports, and the Portuguese cook was at the center of this exciting revolution in the way Europe looked at food.
The Foods of Portugal
From the plains of Alentejo to the Algarve coast, and on to the mountains of Beira Alta, the cuisine of Portugal offers us a rare opportunity to explore the wealth and spirit of a nation through its love of food.
Meat, often pork, is an essential ingredient in many Portuguese recipes. Chicken is also used frequently, and to a lesser degree, beef, turkey, veal, lamb, kid (young goat), and rabbit.
Even some Portuguese desserts make creative use of meats as thickeners, and fish dishes are often cooked in pork lard or topped with meat. This doesn't necessarily mean large portions of meat. Thick soups and stews containing bread and vegetables are common throughout Portugal and feature meats to varying degrees.
Portugal has a long coastline and a passion for seafood that includes tuna, sardines, swordfish, cod, sea perch, shrimp, crab, clams, octopus and eel. Although the fishing industry in Portugal is undergoing a renaissance, the supply of fresh seafood doesn't meet the demand and is often imported.
One critical import is dried, salted cod, the signature dish of Portugal. New refrigeration techniques haven’t affected the popularity of this dried fish. The cod is sweeter and more flavorful after salting, and there are more salted cod recipes in Portugal than there are leaves on the trees there. Salted cod is imported from rich fishing grounds in Iceland, Norway, Canada, Newfoundland, Denmark and Nova Scotia.
For a country of roughly 35,556 square miles in area (92,090 sq. km), there is a rich diversity of produce. Wheat, rice, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, squash, cabbage, kale, lemons, oranges, grapefruit, beans, olives, figs, apricots, plums and grapes are abundant. Cherries, strawberries, quince, chestnuts, and almonds are also grown. The Azores islands supply more exotic produce like bananas and pineapple. This abundance is reflected in the variety we see in Portuguese dishes.
Herbs and Spices
Herbs and spices common in Portuguese cooking include: parsley, hot chili powder, chili oil (piri-piri), cumin, rosemary, mint, oregano, bay leaf, saffron, fennel, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, curry powder, nutmeg, paprika, and of course, garlic. They reflect Portugal's seafaring history as well as its close proximity to Spain.
Wheat and corn breads are popular in Portugal, and bread is served with almost every meal. It's not unusual to see a slice of bread used as a plate, and some of the most popular soups of Portugal use bread as a major ingredient!
Rich local cheeses, typically make with goat or ewe's milk, are frequently served as hors d'oeuvres with crusty bread and fresh fruit. Although cheese is often used as an accompaniment to a meal, it is less commonly included within a dish.
Desserts and Pastries
Sweets are so prized that they are sometimes offered as meals in themselves for breakfast, lunch, or as a lazy afternoon repast. Cinnamon is a favorite flavoring in Portuguese desserts, as is almond paste and honey. Egg yolks and sugar are also used liberally to make these sweet indulgences.
Spirits and Beverages
You have probably heard of Portuguese Port and Madeira, but regional wines and beers are also common, and rich coffee is considered a staple.
The Portuguese are a people who express love, faith and friendship through their cooking. Portions are large, and guests are always welcome at the table. Indulging is encouraged, and if there are leftovers, so much the better; there will be another dish to make with them tomorrow.
So, put on an apron and try a few Portuguese national treasures like salted cod, Portuguese sweet bread, rice pudding, or caldo verde (kale soup). These dishes are easy to prepare, as is most Portuguese cooking, and sharing a taste of Portugal is a delicious way of understanding its culture.