Portuguese food has been heavily influenced by a roaring spice trade thanks to the nation’s lucrative mercantile history. When 15th-century explorers like Bartolomeu Dias set sail for the New World, they traded exotic flavours from the Americas including piri piri (small fiery chillis), allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and cumin.
This exquisite fusion, blending Mediterranean and South American spices has developed delicious regional dishes, distinct in flavour. From custard tarts spiced with warming nutmeg to rich stewed meats served with savoury rice and charcoal vegetables, you can’t miss the incredible, authentic taste of Portugal.
We’ve compiled a shortlist of our favourite dishes in the region, so whether you’re dining al fresco overlooking the Algarve or clinking glasses in a rustic taverna, be sure to sample some of these unmissable recipes.
Pastel de nata
Perhaps Portugal’s most popular culinary export, these scrumptious custard tarts are encased in a buttery, puff-pastry shell and baked in a scorching oven to caramelise the crème brûlée-like, sugary tops. The custard filling is enriched with nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla and egg yolks to make this little treat truly decadent.
The tarts are said to originate from as early as the 13th century, handcrafted by monks in the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon. Before the mod-cons of today, egg whites were traditionally used to starch clothing, giving a crisp collar and maintaining the structure of those flamboyant ruffs! Although clever, this process left a glut of unused yolks. The resourceful monks came up with a delicious solution, whipping up the golden yolks into a custard perfect for filling a tart case. The famous pastries were an immediate hit and were even purported to be served at the coronation banquet of Henry IV in 1399.
Bacalhau, or salted cod in Portuguese, is, without doubt, the nation’s best-loved ingredient. It’s found in just about every back-street cafe, traditional taverna and fine dining restaurant. Sample this delicacy shredded in scrambled eggs, deep-fried into patties or sautéed atop golden cornbread.
Mild, smooth tasting yet with a hint of sweetness, the salt plumps out the fish lending itself to a sublime texture you won’t experience elsewhere.
Made following time-tested preservation techniques, the cod is cured in salt before being hung out to dry, meaning the fish can be eaten throughout the year without the need for refrigeration. Portuguese sailors were among the first to learn the salt-based curing method in the late 1500s, allowing them to voyage further with less cargo to carry.
Piri piri chicken
Piri piri is a wonderful, earthy hot sauce best eaten generously slathered on juicy chicken – one taste and we guarantee you’ll be hooked. The chilli pepper used in piri piri sauce is the birdseye, cultivated by the first Portuguese explorers in the Americas. While culinary use of the pepper wasn’t initially favoured by the Portuguese, merchants traded the spice to East Africa and Asia where the chilli became hugely popular. Grown by the Portuguese in their African colonies, the chilli was renamed piri piri, meaning “pepper pepper” in Swahili.
A fusion of the African and Portuguese flavours, piri piri sauce was developed using a blend of Mediterranean and African spices: lemon, vinegar, garlic, bay leaves, paprika, tarragon, oregano and oil. The chicken is charred whole over a charcoal fire covered in piri piri paste or sauce.
The Portuguese love their sausages, and you’ll find any number of them smoked, seasoned, cured, fermented and dried in every restaurant across the country. The alheira sausage stands out as a sausage of particular interest and popularity due to its fascinating history.
In 1497, an edict of forced conversion meant any Jews living in Portugal were forcibly baptised and faced the penalty of death if they didn’t convert to Christianity. Those who converted were under the constant surveillance of the Inquisition, and, though many remained secretly practising their faith, they had to develop ways to disguise their beliefs.
So they tricked the locals by making pork-looking, pork-tasting sausages called alheira from chicken and other non-pork meats.
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