“I’ve always said Portuguese food suffers from poor marketing,” says David Leite, memoirist, cook, and author of The New Portuguese Table, as he sits across from me drinking a café au lait. We’ve been discussing the incredible bounty of Portuguese cuisine and why, unlike its neighbor Spain, people don’t rampantly evangelize both the country and its food.
“It used to be this ‘don’t look, just eat’ attitude,” says Leite. “Traditionally there’s been this humility to the Portuguese people. They’re deeply religious generally and they kept everything very much to themselves, so there wasn’t this boasting and bragging.”
Leite says that traditionally people cooked with what they had access to, and typically did not dine out in restaurants. To highlight this he describes a meal of Açorda à Alentejana, a type of soup made from a simple broth or stock, leftover bread, herbs like purslane, which grows wildly in inhospitable conditions, and a poached egg which “enriches the broth and you have the bread which is filling and you’re able to have a meal out of day-old bread and some herbs you found in your front yard.”
According to George Mendes, owner and head chef of the Michelin-starred New York City restaurant Aldea, the core ingredients of the cuisine are “olive oil, salt cod, pork, garlic, and parsley.” Leite says potatoes, chouriço, and linguiça sausages, and chicken are also ubiquitous.
The ingredient people are most likely to be immediately familiar with is bacalhau—salt cod. According to Leite, cod was salted on fishing vessels in order to preserve it for the long trip back to shore, but also because “it becomes firmer, and the same way when you brine a piece of meat it also has more flavor.” Leite says salt cod produced today is less intensely salted than it used to be, as preservation is now less of an issue and salting is now done more for flavor and texture.
When asked separately what they feel is one of the most essential dishes in the food canon of Portugal, both Leite and Mendes respond with bacalhau à Gomes de sá, a casserole made with layers of potato, salt cod, and refogado, a type of sofrito made with olive oil, onions, garlic, and laurel bay leaves. The casserole is browned and topped with sliced hardboiled eggs, black olives, and more olive oil.
Another dish both Leite and Mendes highlight is carne de porco à Alentejana, a dish which hails from the Alentejo region and consists of chunks of pork marinated in wine and massa de pimentão, a paste made from salted red bell peppers. The marinated pork is then deep fried with chunks of potatoes and mixed with clams, which Leite says “spill their liquor and it becomes just a little bit of a broth.”
Perhaps one of the most famous Portuguese dishes these days though is peri-peri chicken, a dish originating in Africa and resulting from the Portugal’s history as a nation of seafaring traders, explorers, and missionaries. Whole chickens are spatchcocked, brushed with peri-peri sauce (which Leite describes as a hot pepper sauce similar to Tabasco), grilled, and served with french fries.
Abe Conlon, chef and co-owner of the Chicago restaurant Fat Rice, says it’s not hard to find ways in which Portugal left its mark on the cuisines of other nations. His own restaurant specializes in the food of Macau—a 45-minute ferry ride from Hong Kong—a cuisine that shows the influence of China, Portugal, and numerous other countries. When asked about the colonial influences on continental Portuguese cuisine Conlon says, “It’s minimal, and it’s subtle, but definitely they are present. One of their famous dishes is pão de Deus [Bread Of God]. It has almost like a coconut macaroon crust on top of it, so definitely coconut is not an indigenous ingredient.”
Conlon says spices like cinnamon, clove, and cumin have also become a part of the Portuguese library of flavors. “These are kind of echoes of the black pepper, and echoes of the past. All of these spices came from India and beyond and that was the whole reason for the Portuguese to go around Africa, to get to India.” He also says the food of the Azores, a volcanic archipelago off the coast that boasts almost sub-tropical microclimates, tends to be spicier than that of continental Portugal. “The chili can naturally grow in that environment and being a place where lots of ships were maintained and could come back to drop off goods, the chili pepper was there.”
Pastries in Portugal are also an area where the influence of both trade and religion are evident. Leite describes pastel de nata as being “the queen of Portuguese desserts”. These small, cupped pastries are made of flaky dough and filled with a sweet egg custard flavored with vanilla and cinnamon (both colonial imports) and cooked in blazing ovens until glossy and sporting dark spots of caramelization. The original version of this dish is attributed to the monks of Mosteiro Dos Jerónimos, a monastery located in a parish of Lisbon called Belém. After an edict forced the closure of the monastery in 1837, the monks opened a bakery mere blocks away from their former home, which they called Antiga Confeitaria De Belém. While the pastries are popular just about anywhere the Portuguese have settled, this bakery, which is still very much operational, is said to pump out more than 10,000 pastries a day, a good indication of how revered they are.
Ultimately, continental Portuguese cuisine is about highlighting natural flavors and making good use out of the country’s proximity to the sea and its rich terroir.
“They have exquisite pork,” says Leite. “They have the black pig. They have incredibly wonderful rice, extraordinarily wonderful potatoes, blindingly fresh seafood, fresh vegetables. And then in the classic cuisine, it’s very simply prepared for the flavors to shine through. It’s traditional, it’s incredibly homey. It’s soul-stirring and soul-warming. It really is almost like the best of comfort food.”