Portuguese cuisine is an emerging food trend in the UK, as reported recently by the Telegraph, with restaurants, supper clubs, and bakeries serving Portuguese delicacies popping up all over the country. Restaurants like Nuno Mendes’s Taberna do Mercado in London’s Old Spitalfields Market, Edinburgh’s Casa Amiga bakery, and Norfolk Street Bakery in Cambridge are setting the bar for top-quality Portuguese cuisine. In this post we’ll take a look at the food traditions of Portugal with the help of La Belle Assiette Portuguese chef Miguel Mesquita, and explore how modern Portuguese food is about more than just grilled chicken.
While people might assume that Portuguese and Spanish cuisines are very similar, Miguel explains that actually there is a big distinction. “We do share a typical Mediterranean diet with Spain, but we prepare food quite differently. In Portugal there’s more stews and more grilled fish. Also we have a lot of influences from the Atlantic, so the type of fish we use is different to Spain, where fish from the Mediterranean Sea dominates. Portuguese cooking is all about tomatoes, peppers, bread, olive oil, and of course, the freshest seafood you can imagine. In Portugal every supermarket, even the small ones, will have a decent fishmonger and butcher selling local produce,” says Miguel.
Portugal is a nation of fish lovers, boasting the highest fish consumption per capita in Europe, and fourth highest in the world. One of the most famous and iconic Portuguese dishes is Bacalhau, or salted cod. “Bacalhau is a very important dish to the Portuguese and is something that is traditionally associated with festivities like Christmas,” says Miguel. Likewise Caldo verde, a soup made with potato and kale and often accompanied by slices of chorizo, is often eaten at celebrations such as weddings, birthdays, and is considered a national favourite.
Even though Portugal is a relatively small country, don’t be fooled into thinking that the cuisine is homogeneous across the land. There is a north-south divide when it comes to cooking. “Food in Portugal is very regional. The north has a completely different culinary tradition to the south. The south is very seafood oriented, whereas the north enjoys more mountain food – stews, sausages and more meat.” The south was historically quite poor, relying primarily on tomatoes, garlic, coriander, fish, and bread as sustenance. Out of these limited ingredients emerged a dish that is still popular today called migas, a savoury bread crumb pudding, now often served as a side dish to accompany fish or meat.
Alheira de Mirandela is a traditional sausage stuffed with garlic, bread, and various types of meat including veal, chicken, duck and rabbit (alheira de Caça includes only game meat). Originally created by Jews in the fifteenth century when they were under pressure to convert to Christianity, the sausage was designed to fool people into thinking it was made out of pork, thus warding off suspicion that Judaism was still being practised. Today the sausage is commonly enjoyed with a fried egg and fries – perfection on a plate!
Herbs and spices
During the Age of Discovery when Portuguese sailors started navigating the world and became involved in the spice trade, using spices in cooking was seen as a display of wealth. It became fashionable for food to be heavily spiced, however this didn’t last for long. “Gradually spices became so commonplace that the trend went in the other direction and liberal use of spices became unpopular. One spice that’s still used a lot today is cinnamon. For example in Lisbon it is customary to serve the pasteis de Nata, or custard tarts, with a little packet of sugar and cinnamon to sprinkle on top,” says Miguel.
Along with olive oil, garlic is a staple common to many Portuguese dishes all over the country. The north-south divide is also apparent in the use of the herbs coriander and parsley. “The south use tonnes of coriander whereas the north only use parsley. There isn’t really much crossover, so you can easily tell where a dish comes from if it contains one of these two herbs.”
Portuguese desserts are typically egg-based, with popular dishes including leite-creme (egg custard topped with hard caramel), arroz doce (rice pudding), and pudim flã (caramel custard). “A lot of the desserts we enjoy today were created in the Middle Ages by nuns and monks who used egg whites to starch their clothes and to make wafers for communion. They started making desserts with the surplus egg yolks and each monastery and convent competed to make the best desserts for the king. Now in Portugal every region will have its own speciality dessert, originating from this time,” says Miguel. Today many of these desserts are protected by denominação de origem protegida or DOP, an EU protected status for specialities from different regions of Portugal. “It’s a way to ensure that produce remains authentic. Only a few places can make these dishes and call them by their traditional name. Custard tarts (pastéis de Nata) can be called custard tarts anywhere in the world, but their traditional name is pastéis de Belém which is only used for those created in the area of Lisbon called Belém. They are the original and all the rest are copies.”
Modern Portuguese cuisine
If you go to Portugal today you can be sure to find restaurants using traditional recipes that have remained the same for centuries, passed down between the generations. However, according to Miguel, there is a new wave of chefs who have been trained internationally and are experimenting with traditional recipes, bringing new techniques to traditional ingredients. “You can find Michelin-starred restaurants doing traditional Portuguese cuisine, but modernised. These chefs deconstruct old recipes and find new ways to interpret them. A great example of this is chef Jose Avillez whose restaurant Belcanto has two Michelin stars. He leans towards molecular cuisine but uses traditional ingredients. It’s a very exciting time for Portuguese cuisine, with new ideas and new interpretations flowing freely, not only in Portugal but around the world,” says Miguel.
Portuguese food in the UK
While Portuguese food in the UK is done well in some places, it appears that it’s not well understood by many people. “Because of the popularity of Nando’s, a lot of people in the UK assume that Portuguese cuisine is all about grilled chicken. This really needs to change. I’m not saying that Nando’s is bad, but it just represents one Portuguese dish. For me, Nandos is from Portugal the same way that Pizza Hut is from Italy. Hopefully, with the excellent work of our young chefs who are broadcasting Portuguese cuisine around the world, Portugal’s food heritage will be better understood and enjoyed by more people,” says Miguel.
Miguel Mesquita combines his training at Le Cordon Bleu, London, with his cultural background to deliver flavours and aromas that transport you to his Portuguese roots. Creative and experimental, Miguel draws on influences from traditional Portuguese cuisine but always with a fresh and modern take. Check out Miguel’s two Portuguese menus on his La Belle Assiette profile. Miguel has participated in a number of TV cooking shows including the Portuguese edition of ‘MasterChef’, ‘Prato do Dia’ (Dish of the day), and he won the ‘Guerra dos Pratos’ (War of the Dishes), beating some of Portugal’s best chefs.