Looking for new ideas for cooking? Try to do it like the Portuguese – it’s more than just food.
When over half of the country’s border is coastline on the North Atlantic Ocean, having lots of fish on the menu isn’t that much of a surprise, but what makes things funny is that the main ingredient in Portuguese cuisine is actually dried fish, not fresh. The legend tells us that there’s over 1000 ways to cook bacalhau, dried and salted cod, a fish you need to soak before cooking to get rid of the excess salt and to make it softer.
The other quite well-known thing in Portuguese cuisine is pastries. Maybe most famous of them all is pastel de nata, egg tart pastry that was created before 18th century. The old tradition comes from monasteries, where they had access to large quantities of sugar, egg yolks as leftovers from using the egg whites to starch clothes, (and of course, time).
History relates to food
For almost two centuries Portugal was one of the biggest traders in the world and they also had colonies for hundreds of years. Probably one of the most famous Portuguese explorers is Vasco da Gama, who was the first to sail around Africa all the way to India.
Filipe Cordeiro is a co-owner and co-founder of Cooking Lisbon, a company that arranges different food related experiences for tourists. He explains why history matters when talking about food:
“Portuguese cuisine is a mix of everything. Discoveries have always connected with our tables and I think most of our food has historical connection – there’s always a story behind the food we eat.”
Portugal has introduced the world to some of the dishes we think are distinct to other countries. For example, Portuguese Jesuit missionaries introduced tempura to the Japanese and some ingredients of the famous Indian spice mix, curry, actually originate from Brazil, which used to be a Portuguese colony. From trips around the world the Portuguese brought back home, just for example, rice, and they eat more rice per capita than any other European country.
What not to eat
Rice and a mix of everything – sounds like paella! Isn’t that what the Portuguese eat too? The answer to that is no. Cátia Luis is a licensed tour guide and co-owner of Lisbon Cooking Stories, a company that provides cooking classes for small tourist groups in Alfama, the oldest neighbourhood in Lisbon, and she has a strong opinion about paella:
“It doesn’t make sense to me that they serve or eat paella or tapas, because neither of them are Portuguese at all. It’s sad and I wish everyone would know the difference between Portuguese and Spanish dishes better, and that instead of tapas we eat petiscos, and we’re really proud of them.”
For those who are not familiar with the word ‘petiscos’: they are small (tapas-like but definitely not tapas) dishes of different things that you share with others and enjoy after a day at the beach or as a good mid-day snack.
So next time you travel to Portugal, you know what not to order. In case you want to act like locals do in Lisbon, follow this advice from Luis:
“There’s no such thing as ‘coffee to go’, because it doesn’t matter how in a hurry you are, you will still have a coffee break. It’s really important to stop for a coffee in the same place every day, and there’s nothing more Portuguese than stopping whatever you’re doing at 10.30 a.m. and go have an espresso and pastel de nata, because that’s what everyone does.”
It’s Sunday evening and a traditional cooking class is about to start at Cooking Lisbon. This time the group is a mix of eight persons from all around the world: Poland, United States, Canada, Russia, and Finland. The goal is to enjoy cooking, and with help from the Chef, Pedro Niny, to start from scratch and end up with eating a four-course Portuguese meal. Everyone gets to do something and the mood is relaxed – while it seems like there’s nothing to do, it’s time to sip some Portuguese wine, talk with new ‘classmates’, or try to taste the difference between different olive oils.
The kitchen is filled with home-like aromas: onions and garlics are being chopped, turnip greens fried, pieces of pork seasoned, and almond cake is baking in the oven. Time flies, more wine is being poured, and it’s time to eat. Everyone leaves the table with a full stomach and a genuine smile on their faces.
Sharing, having a table full of people and eating together are something that are intrinsic part of Portuguese gastronomy, and that’s what Cordeiro had in his mind when starting the business just over a year ago. With his company he wants to share Portuguese cuisine and spread the word about it all around the world:
“We think that we can spread the Portuguese culture by our food. We also try to dismiss the idea that Portugal is just about bacalhau and pastries.”
When asking why Portuguese cuisine isn’t as famous as others, like Spanish, Italian, or French, they both say the same thing: Portugal doesn’t market itself enough or properly.
“It’s the way we sell, it’s our country marketing. We have to rethink it,” Cordeiro suggests.
“Portuguese food isn’t that famous, because Portugal isn’t famous, that’s it. We’re sitting here on the edge of Europe, we are just here in the corner, and we are a small country,” Luis explains.
Luis also says that right now Portugal and Lisbon are trending among travellers, and she believes that it’s just a matter of time when her country will reach even more fame. The Portuguese cuisine is still a mystery to some, but she thinks it’s not only a bad thing:
“Maybe it’s good the way it is, to be a little secret that the masses haven’t found.”