Portuguese Cuisine Guide

June 12, 2019 | By Dave Mattingly

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Located in Southwestern Europe in the North Atlantic Ocean, Portugal has an expansive coastline, which has allowed seafood to play an important role in the cuisine of the country for thousands of years. In ancient times, farming and the raising the livestock were practiced due to the fine quality of pasture land, while shellfish, wild game and honey were staples of most diets. By the 2nd century AD, the creation of roads by the Romans allowed for the transportation of food, thus creating culinary change in Portugal. The Romans brought wheat, olives, oils, garlic and onions to the country. By the 8th century, Arabs introduced irrigation methods which allowed for the cultivation of new types of produce such as almond trees, figs and citrus fruits. They also incorporated rice and spices into the native diet of the country.

By the 15th century, Portugal had established a fishing and trading economy for cod, called bacalhau in Portuguese, which became the most consumed fish in the country. Historically, cod was dried and salted due to the fishing tradition in the North Atlantic which developed prior to refrigeration. As a result, cod would be soaked in water or milk prior to cooking. Cod is so popular in Portugal that it is said there are 365 different ways to cook it, one way for each day of the year.

In the 15th century, Prince Henry the Navigator, who was responsible for the early development of European exploration and maritime trade, ordered his explorers bring back to Portugal new and exotic foods such as fruits, nuts, and plants from foreign lands. Explorers returned from these lands with new foods and spices such as cinnamon, pepper, cloves and nutmeg, and after the discovery of the New World, foods such as tomatoes, chilies, potatoes, turkey and avocadoes were also imported to Portugal. The Portuguese initiated this Age of Discovery and would continue for the next three centuries to expand its seaborne empire, and influence and be influenced by cuisines around the world including other European countries, India, Asia and Brazil and even distant locations such as Hawaii.

Traditional Portuguese Food Dishes
Bacalhau, dried salted codfish, Portugal's national dish, and is prepared bone in or boneless. There are many seafood restaurants throughout the country today, which specialize in not only cod, but also octopus, squid, cuttlefish, lobsters, shrimp, oysters, and crabs. Arroz de Marisco is a rich seafood rice, while Cozido à Portuguesa is a thick meat and vegetable stew. Pork is the favored meat in Portugal, which is cooked in various ways, such as in Leitão Assado (roast suckling pig) and as pork sausages called Chouriço or Linguiça (the hotter variety). These pork sausages are smoke cured and seasoned with paprika, garlic and onions. Tripe with haricot beans is another popular dish, particularly in Porto. Caldeirada is a fish stew which is typically served with potatoes, tomatoes and onions. Sardines are an appreciated seafood delicacy in Portugal, and are commonly served grilled and in stews such as Caldeirada.

Caldo Verde, meaning green broth, is a popular Portuguese soup, made with kale, potatoes and onions. Bread is a staple food in Portuguese cuisine, including Portuguese rolls, called "pops”, and loaf breads. The consistency of Portuguese white bread is soft and airy with a semi-hard crust. Portuguese Sweet Bread, with a light texture, called Massa, is made with milk, sugar, and honey, provides a sweet flavor that is enriched when it is spread with butter. Originally baked as a holiday bread for Easter, this sweet bread is now produced year round and may be served during breakfast or for dessert. Another traditional Portuguese bread, particularly in the northwestern regions of the country, is Broa, a grainy cornbread with a thick crust.

Flor De Sal (flower of salt), similar to French Fleur de Sel, is a sea salt that is hand harvested by workers who scrape only the top layer of salt before it sinks to the bottom of salt pans. Flor De Sal is an artisanal product is produced using traditional methods from the ancient salt production regions existing in Portugal. Flor De Sal is internationally commercialized and certified for high quality standards.

Portuguese honey is some of the finest honey in Europe. Known as the “nectar of the Gods”, Romans introduced beehives to the Iberian Peninsula that are still in use today. Honey is produced in many regions throughout the country and varies in quality and shade according to the flower, the climate and the types of bees in each region.

Piri Piri sauce is a hot sauce made from hot and fragrant red chili peppers called African Birds Eye Chiles. Piri Piri sauce is famously and commonly used throughout Portugal. After Columbus brought back chile seeds to the Iberian Peninsula from his second trip to the New World, Portuguese traders introduced these seeds to African colonies of Angola and Mozambique. Meaning “pepper-pepper” in Swahili, Piri Piri made its way back to Portugal and retained its African name.

Portuguese Desserts and Beverages
Many of the country's pastries were developed in Portugal monasteries during the Middle Ages. It is commonly believed that medieval nuns used a large amount of egg whites to stiffen their habits, and developed a large number of recipes to use leftover egg yolks. This continued into the 18th century when nuns created pastries with a high content of eggs and sugar, such as Barriga de Freira (nun's belly), Papos de Anjo (angel's chest) and Toucinho do Céu (bacon from heaven), a classic Portuguese cake based on almonds and egg yolks. Cinnamon and vanilla are popular in egg-based Portuguese desserts, including Egg Custard Leite-Crème (egg custard) and Rice Pudding Arroz Doce (rice pudding) topped with cinnamon and caramel custard (flan). Cakes and other custards are popular such as Bola de Berlim (fried dough ovals filled with custard), pão-de-ló (sponge cake) and Pastel de Nata (a small custard tart sprinkled with cinnamon) which was originally from Lisbon but now popular nationwide. In Southern Portugal, many desserts are made from marzipan and almonds. Port wine, produced in the upper Douro River region, is a major export for Portugal. Port is a sweet, red fortified wine, often served as a dessert wine. Port is also available in dry, semi-dry and white varieties.

Portuguese Cheeses
While typical Portuguese cuisine does not include cheese in its recipes, cheese is frequently eaten before or after the main dish or as hors d'oeuvres with crusty bread and fresh fruit. Customarily, Portuguese cheeses are made from sheep's and or goat's milk. Many Portuguese cheeses are very aromatic and strongly flavored. Of the approximately fifteen varieties of Portuguese cheese, many have been given the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) label. The PDO designation was established in the European Union to protect the cheese’s name, and guarantees that the cheese is produced within a certain region of the country, using traditional methods and ingredients.

Considered one of the most popular cheeses in Portugal, Serra de Estrela, made in the mountainous region of Serra de Estrella, has been granted PDO status. It is made from sheep's milk mostly from the months of November through March. Serra de Estrella is a traditional washed rind farmhouse cheese with a texture that varies depending on its age. The rind becomes harder and smoother and its interior becomes denser and more sliceable as it ages. This aromatic cheese has a sweet and grassy flavor that is fruity with a slight bitterness.

Azores Flores is a cow's milk cheese that is aged for three months. Azores Flores has a strong and spicy taste and aroma that is light-bodied with a well-balanced flavor.

Queijo Castelinhos is a cow’s milk cheese that is aged for 30 days, preserving its fresh and fruity flavor. Queijo Castelinhos is a smooth and soft cheese, and ideally served on warm bread.

Queijo Toledo is a Portuguese farmhouse cheese made from cow's, sheep's and goat's milk, and has an edible rind of smoked paprika. Queijo Toledo is ideal on cheese boards, in salads or cut into wedges and served as hors d'oeuvres with cured Serrano ham.

Amarelo is an unpasteurized sheep's milk cheese that has a strong and buttery flavor, with grassy notes and a hint of Portuguese sea salt.

Queijo de Nisa is an unpasteurized sheep’s milk cheese with a robust and earthy flavor that ends with a slight citrusy sweetness. Queijo de Nisa has been granted PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status, and is made from the milk of Merino sheep.

Sao Jorge is named after the island in Portugal’s Azores archipelago. This farmhouse cheese is made from unpasteurized cow's milk and aged for over 120 days. Sao Jorge has a tangy flavor with peppery undertones and has a hard indelible natural rind.


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