Iberia’s Hidden Gem
Portugal’s legendary seafarers discovered exotic ingredients that laid the groundwork for a distinctive cuisine that has received little international recognition…until now.
In a paradox that can only be explained by the vagaries of geopolitics and immigrant culture, one of Europe’s most delicious and interesting cuisines is also one of its least known.
The food of Portugal—often mistakenly identified with that of neighboring Spain—is a mix of gutsy Mediterranean flavors and subtle traces of the exotic spices brought home by early Portuguese navigators. Yet few people outside the Portuguese community can begin to describe this soul-satisfying cookery. Portugal’s heyday as a world leader is several hundred years in the past, and because of its relative isolation since then, its cuisine has become one of Europe’s best-kept secrets. On this side of the Atlantic, unlike newcomers from other lands, Portuguese immigrants have tended either to assimilate into the culinary mainstream or remain cloistered in immigrant enclaves, relegating their cuisine to private gatherings and informal eateries in immigrant neighborhoods, most of which are in the Northeast.
Over the past few years, however, Portugal’s gastronomy has gained new respect from America’s foodie population. Food lovers from New York to Sonoma, California, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Coral Gables, Florida, have enthusiastically embraced new restaurants that serve Portuguese and Portuguese-inspired fare. This year, a new Portuguese cookbook has hit the bookstores. Port has become a standard after-dinner libation; at the same time, Portugal’s entry into the European Union has catapulted its wine industry into the world market.
“Until recently, Portugal has been a forgotten country,” says Chef Manuel Henrique Azevedo, who as a child came to California from the Azores, a Portuguese island province in the Atlantic. In 1998, he opened LaSalette Restaurant in Sonoma, California, serving Portuguese food as well as dishes inspired by the Portuguese colonies. “It’s very exciting to think where the wine industry and the food is going to go from here,” he says.
“Portuguese food is definitely up-and-coming,” agrees Joseph Cerqueira, owner of three Portuguese eateries in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He opened Atasca Restaurant in 1995, O Cantinho Café in 1999 and a second Atasca in 2000. “All my relatives were chefs, but none went into Portuguese cooking. I thought, ‘Why not do the food of my country, my parents’ food?’ The timing made it possible.”
Indeed, New York City has seen two Portuguese restaurants open in as many years. Miguel Jerónimo, who opened Alfama in New York with Chef Carmen Santos in December 1999, was previously a career diplomat at the Portuguese mission to the United Nations. “As a diplomat, I had to host other diplomats, and there was nowhere to take them for Portuguese food,” recalls Jerónimo, who was born to Portuguese parents in Portuguese-controlled Madagascar and educated in Portugal. “I ended up doing it at home, and everyone said, ‘You should open your own restaurant.'” When he did, he explains, “my concern was to be authentic. My idea was to tell New York City what you can get in Lisbon.”
A taxi ride away, the partners who opened Pico, in January 2001, had a slightly different idea: They devised a Portuguese-inspired cuisine that would take the traditional flavor profile and refine it for the New York market. “Our concept was to take the Portuguese flavors, the spicing, the wines and the culture and bring it to New York,” says soccer-player-turned-restaurateur Mark Rakauskas. “I try to take some of the old ideas and mix in some of my own,” says his partner, chef John Villa. For example, seared rare tuna encrusted with turmeric, cardamom, coriander and other spices from the former Portuguese colony of Goa, India, has its roots in the old country, but is now hip enough for downtown New Yorkers.
The emergence of Portuguese food into the culinary mainstream is a good thing for folks who like hearty, unfussy, strongly flavored food. “It’s very simple cooking,” says Vidal Vieira, owner of Tony da Caneca, a 35-year-old restaurant in Newark’s Ironbound district, long a Portuguese enclave. “We cook like we cooked 50 years ago.”
“There’s a lot of one-pot dishes and soups,” says Ana Patuleia Ortins, author of Portuguese Homestyle Cooking, which was published last March. “Soup is really central to the culture.” Slow-cooked, one-pot stews and soups were born of necessity in a poor country where the women worked in the fields with the men, and families had to economize, using whatever ingredients were available.
With a long Atlantic coastline and an even longer seafaring tradition, fish and shellfish play a major role in Portuguese cuisine. Salt cod, or bacalhau, is a particular favorite, and Portuguese cooks like to boast that there are at least 365 ways of cooking salt cod—one for each day of the year. Pork and all kinds of zesty sausages are favorites; beef, lamb and mutton, kid and rabbit are also popular. Bread, rice and potatoes often appear together at a single meal; beans are also commonly used.
Although Portugal doesn’t actually have coastline on the Mediterranean, it’s obvious that its proximity to the so-called Mediterranean Rim has profoundly influenced Portuguese gastronomy: Portuguese cuisine relies on olive oil and garlic, as well as citrus juices, which are used to season both meat and sweets. Onions, bay leaves and cilantro are ever-present seasonings. Wine-and-garlic marinades are used to tenderize meat, and vinegar sauces often accompany fish. The use of nuts and figs in Portuguese cuisine stems from the Moors’ 700-year occupation of the Iberian peninsula. The fact that many Portuguese dishes rely on tomatoes, potatoes, cinnamon, curry powder and nutmeg shows how the nation’s cuisine developed alongside its global explorations.
Spices often turn up in savory dishes, but the extent to which they’re used depends on who’s cooking. As Vieira puts it, “We use spices, but just a touch. You’ve got to taste the food, not the spice.” Cooks from the Portuguese mainland tend to use spices subtly, while those of the Azores apply them more liberally. Azorean-born Azevedo explains that when other ingredients weren’t as readily available on the islands, spices, with their long shelf-life, added variety and flavor to daily fare.
Another product of Portugal’s global explorations is piri-piri—the fiery pepper that the early Portuguese traders encountered in Africa. Piri-piri is used in many forms, according to Patuleia Ortins: dried and chopped, infused in olive oil and ground and mixed with vinegar or salt. Piri-piri is a staple in Portugal and parts of Africa, but on the mainland of Portugal it is used sparingly; Portuguese food is not known for its heat.
What Portuguese cookery is known for are no-holds-barred combinations of ingredients: pork is stewed with shellfish, lemon juice adds tang to red meat, and cinnamon and nutmeg bring extra dimension to savory dishes.
Nor do the Portuguese stand on ceremony when it comes to pairing wine with food. Portuguese food often relies on fish, shellfish and poultry, yet—with the exception of its light young vinho verdes and a smattering of other whites from such regions as Bucelas, Terras do Sado/Setúbal, Dão and Alentejo—most of its wines are red. Among these reds are light- to medium-bodied wines from the Douro, Dão and Alentejo, which pair well with the country’s many strongly flavored, often robustly sauced, seafood and poultry dishes. Often, these wines are not matured in oak, but are marketed younger and lighter. For heartier dishes—the celebratory suckling pig or lamb roast—the Baga grape, favored by the winemakers of the Bairrada region, provides the right degree of complexity and depth.
Chef Azevedo, who is based in California wine country, includes both Portuguese and local wines on his list. Among California wines, he favors Pinot Noir, because, he says, the grape “most closely resembles Portuguese wine. In Portugal, you don’t find a lot of full-bodied wines.”
Portuguese wines, says Rachid Abdelouahad, service director at Pico, “are a little different.” Many of the grape varietals are unique to Portugal, and the wines these varieties produce vary from place to place within the country, due to variations in terroir and winemaking technique. Blending is typical, although in response to the world market, Portuguese winemakers are producing more varietal wines.
“It’s not like Bordeaux,” says Abdelouahad, where tradition calls for an identifiable flavor profile and bouquet. “If you taste two wines from the Alentejo region, they’ll taste different—and sometimes they’re made from the same grape. The same is true in some of the other regions.”
For culinary adventurers and wine enthusiasts outside Portugal, there’s a wealth of food and wine just waiting to be discovered.
|Caldo Verde (Green Broth)|
|Atasca’s Stewed Chicken|
|Açorda de Mariscos (“Dry” Bread Soup with Shellfish)|
For more Portuguese recipes, see the September 2001 issue of Wine Enthusiast.