Contemporary Portuguese cuisine has been shaped by many influences, which range from its neighbor Spain to its distant former colonies in Africa, Asia and South America. This makes it an incredibly rich cuisine with many spices and a wide array of flavors. Different regions in the country also have their own specialties. Nevertheless, they all have one common denominator – a high consumption of fish and seafood. In fact, the average Portuguese eats more fish than any other European.
The most popular fish in Portuguese cuisine is undoubtedly codfish, or bacalhau in Portuguese, and there are countless recipes. Locals claim that there are 365 codfish dishes, a different dish for every day of the year. A couple of the most popular recipes are the delicious bacalhau com natas and bacalhau à bras. Both contain tiny strips of potatoes, onions and olive oil. The codfish is boiled and then mixed with boiled potatoes and other ingredients. The difference is that with bacalhau com natas, the mixture is subsequently placed in a casserole and cooked in the oven. In the Portuguese kitchen, cod is always salted or dried and must be kept in water prior to cooking. The reason for this is very interesting. Namely, cod is brought to Portugal from the North Atlantic and in the past there were no freezers, so Portuguese fishermen had to resort to either salting or drying the fish. It has become so inseparable from Portuguese cooking that the traditional way of preservation has been kept to this day. Although cod is the most widely eaten fish, it is far from being the only sea ingredient used in Portuguese food. The Portuguese are also avid lovers of shrimp, sardines, squid, prawns, lobster, clams, mussels, hake and many other types of fish and seafood.
Cozido à Portuguesa
Meat is also very present in the Portuguese diet. In the old days, it was reserved for the wealthier families, but there are many savory traditional meat dishes made from pork, beef and poultry. Perhaps the most famous meat dish is the cozido à portuguesa. It is essentially a stew made from different types of meat, including pork, beef, sausages and chicken, and various vegetables. Portuguese sausages are incredibly tasty and very popular in little bars and restaurants. The alheira is a sausage from the north of Portugal made from different types of poultry. There is a very interesting anecdote surrounding the story of the alheira. Namely, when the Jews were forced to either leave the country or convert to Christianity in the fifteenth century, they started making sausages stuffed with poultry meat so as to fool the Inquisition into thinking that they had converted and are showing it by consuming pork. This allowed them to practice their religion in secrecy. Today, the alheira is available in most traditional Portuguese restaurants and has become an important part of Portuguese cuisine.
Portuguese dishes are usually based on olive oil. Although it might come as a surprise, the Portuguese do not consume as many vegetables as other Europeans. There are vegetarian dishes and various soups, such as the famous caldo verde, but compared to meat and fish, vegetable-based dishes seem few and far between. The feijoada is a stew based on beans, but it also contains slices of beef and pork. Big cities, however, have a handful of excellent vegetarian restaurants and the younger population is increasing turning to vegetables for a healthier diet.
Cheeses and Desserts
An account of Portuguese cuisine would be incomplete without mentioning Portuguese cheeses and desserts. Portugal is famous for its wide variety of cheeses that are consumed in the company of wine as appetizers. They usually have a rather strong flavor and aroma. Most restaurants place a cheese platter on your table before your main meal arrives, so make sure to taste them. The Portuguese love their desserts and little pastry shops, or pastelarias, are teeming with all kinds of pastries, cakes and biscuits. Most are based on eggs and cream and sprinkled with vanilla or cinnamon. Some of the most famous include arroz doce, a type of sweet rice pudding, and custard tarts called pastéis de nata, which are also known as pastéis de Belém. The latter are a trademark of Portuguese cuisine and are enjoyed worldwide.