Dubai: The world was obsessed with them for a while, now that has eased into a gentler liking – we are talking about the egg custard tarts from Portugal. Every mall had an outlet serving the cup-shaped tarts. And, of course, this was along with the whole piri-piri phenomenon. It was great that the world was discovering more of Portuguese cuisine, but, as you guessed, there's much more to it.
On the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula in south-western Europe, lies the country of Portugal. To truly understand its food, we need to understand the elements that comprise it, which are seafood, meat, pastry and the famed sweet Port wine.
Gulf News spoke to two UAE-based Portuguese chefs who have mastered their country’s cuisine over the years – Executive Chef Saul Andrade from The Cove Rotana, Ras Al Khaimah and Chef Helio Lino from famed Portuguese restaurant Lana Lusa in Dubai.
Seafarers all the way
Buried within each dish, lies a little bit of history and influence. Borrowed from several countries ever since the 15th century, these influences had come along with mariners who called the seas their home. Looking back, each voyage has shaped the country’s cuisine into what it truly is today.
Chef Andrade says the culinary culture of Portugal is a blend of its colonial past, along with European and Mediterranean cooking systems.
“Many countries were discovered by Portuguese navigators, who introduced their culture, gastronomy and way of life in the new territory. We can say that we got a big heritage from the colonial period. A lot of influences from many countries such as Macau, India, Brazil, Angola, Timor, Bissau and some Arab countries also.
"In fact, we still have a strong Arabic influence in our cuisine. Many dishes are similar with different names – for example – Caldeirada de Peixe, which is similar to Fish Harra, Cabrito assado com Arroz de miudos, which is similar to Lamb Ouzi with rice, Arroz de Marisco, which is similar to Seafood Machbous. Even the cooking process is very close to Portuguese style of cooking,” he said.
Accoding to Canadian chef (who resides in Portugual) Aaron Okada, the cuisine’s diversity emerged from the Neolithic era or the end of the Stone Age, as noted in his website.
“It [Portuguese cuisine] is extremely rich due to its location, with an open door to the Atlantic Ocean. Our main influence has to be the sea and the freshness of our products. Portuguese cuisine and its roots are very humble, and you can notice in the simplicity of its main dishes, although it is intense and full of taste,” said Chef Lino added.
Focus is on the main ingredient
When we Google the notable dishes of the Portuguese cuisine, the search results often end up with the pastel de natas (custard tart), sardinhas assadas (grilled sardines), and francesinhas (sandwiches).
However, the Portuguese will tell you that there are more than 365 ways to just cook cod, a different style for each day of the year, as an example of how the cuisine is not restricted to just one type of menu.
It differs from region to region, and the food specialities differ by a great margin, especially with a coastline that spans 1,800 kilometres. So, seafood does play an important role - dried, cooked, boiled, salted... the list is endless. “It is always easier if you understand the ingredients of the region and its culture. Portuguese cuisine is really simple, it is just to give the right amount of seasoning and cooking times,” said Chef Lino.
From the Phoenicians, the Romans to the Moors, the country's past also features red meat as a key part of their gastronomy, along with spices and vegetables.
In addition to this, there is the concept of simple presentation, which is also how the Portuguese serve a good meal. But here’s the catch, each ingredient tells a story of a voyage, from where the ingredient was imported into the country. For example, spices were brought in to the country by famed Portuguese explore Vasco da Gama during his voyage to Asia, Northeast Africa and Europe.
Olive oil is staple to the cuisine, especially because of its enviable reputation in the country for over 3,500 years. The golden liquid is the essence of every Portuguese meal, although additions of garlic, olive oil, herbs like coriander and parsley, heighten the dining experience.
“In Portuguese cuisine the star of the dish is the main ingredient, we don’t add much sauces or butter. For example, if we grill a squid, you will mainly taste the squid, and not the tomato sauce on top. We always make the main ingredients shine, and I believe that is what differentiates us from the majority of the other cuisines,” said Chef Lino.
All it takes is a mortar and pestle
Cooking a good Portuguese meal does not come easy. Food critics would argue that if one were to perfect the flavour, practice is key, especially because there are certain techniques to master it.
Portuguese cooking, like every other kind of cooking, and isn’t just limited to the ingredients you use. They are known for using wood-fired ovens to enhance taste but unfortunately for modernisation, very few are used in Portugal these days.
"When I use a wooden fire to cook food, there is a notable difference in taste. Each note of flavour could be tasted well and that's what challenges me today. The oven or grill in itself is an art and the flavour that comes from it is the goal I aim to achieve through all my meal preparations," added Chef Andrade.
Some age-old practices such as the leavening of bread, meat frying methods after braising, and making casseroles are still taught today. One of the most popular (although underrated) utensils used in Portuguese cuisine is the mortar and pestle, which is primarily used to pound essences and spices into a paste, and then rubbed on meats to keep it raw and rich in flavour.
Food is a source of comfort. And the Portuguese will help you find that in the simplest of meals. For Chef Andrade, his comfort food reminds him of home: "I am from the South, a place called Algarve, which is a small fishermen’s city and over there we find quite an assortment of seafood especially sardines, razor clams, oysters, among others, and that is usually my comfort food."
For Chef Lino though, comfort is a three-course meal. “Either you are in a street restaurant or a fine diner, you need to have all the courses. For example, this is a typical meal in Portugal: put some bread and olives on the table, and then you start with some seafood, later you move to fish usually with soft boiled potatoes and olive oil with garlic, some grilled meat with a fresh salad on the side, a nice cheese to finish…,” he said.
Discover the heart of Portuguese food in a tavern
Speaking of street restaurants, the Portuguese have a special place – or should we say ‘places’ – in their hearts. It’s called a tasca. These taverns are quite famous in the country, and you would often find them tucked away in every street corner. Served all around the clock, these no-frills and petite inns are inhabited by locals and tourists alike, who relish authentic Portuguese food off an aluminium platter.
Not only do they specialise in Portuguese comfort food at comfortable prices, but these unpretentious eateries are sought out for petiscos (snacks) with a beverage to go hand-in-hand and the famed custard tart as well.
But it’s not always the same across the country. Yes, you would find these dishes, but if you were to travel up North, tascas are occupied with diners waiting to try out meat and stews with legumes during the winter, to keep warm. During the summer, seafood, fish and crustaceans are in abundance as 60 per cent of Portugal faces the ocean.
Ask any local where their go-to meal would be at, and they would direct you to the nearest tasca. And if you can’t spot one nearby, keep an eye out for a handwritten tablecloth fixed against the window, with the menu on it.
Perfecting Portuguese cooking at home
However, the Portuguese cuisine isn't restricted to meat-lovers. A few vegetarian meals have continued to stay in spotlight.
"We use tofu or feta as substitutes for the meat, and we try to encapsulate the same taste that's there for non-vegetarian recipes. From the cod fish polenta with broccoli and green peas, if you just remove the cod fish out, it would make a fantastic vegetarian dish in itself," said Chef Andrade.
As for those who are trying to perfect the cuisine at their own homes, Chef Lino has one advice: “I would suggest having fresh products with high quality and of course some cod, sea bass, sardines, and try to use simple seasonings with a great olive oil. That would make a simple, yet great Portuguese meal.”
A mix of influences and festive cuisine
Piri-piri is Portuguese, but it doesn’t represent the cuisine. India’s famed vindaloo was first introduced during one of Portugal’s voyages, and continues to find favour in one of the Asian country’s biggest holiday destinations, Goa.
If you’re a fan of Japanese cuisine, you’d be surprised to find that the tempura is actually from Portugal. These flash fried beans are natively called Peixinhos da horta. All examples of its seafaring past.
Additionally, the Portuguese have exclusive meals for special days through the year as well. According to expatica.com, during Christmas in Portugual, a traditional table would feature the famed Bacalhau (cod fish) and a rice pudding arroz doce as dessert.
On New Year’s Eve, they keep it simple by preparing bacalhau cozido; a boiled cod with potatoes and cabbage cooked in water. This is done with anticipation of the desserts that will be served after midnight mass, but of course it differs from house to house and region to region.
Easter meals are a tad bit different, for the exception of dessert. Cabrito, a dish made with roasted lamb is served with chestnuts and potatoes to moderate the flavours evenly. For accompaniments, the traditional Portuguese bread broa is replaced with folar, which is made with flour and stuffed with meat or sausages.
While these dishes take up the front page of the Portuguese cuisine, there are a few that still go unnoticed. Chef Lino said: “Tripas a moda do porto (tripes), Arroz de cabidela (giblet rice), etc., are quite ignored. There are much more, not so well known due to the brutality in its way of cooking. In the mountainous regions, we have some dishes created by hunters where there is not a single waste of the animal.”
A tasteful challenge
Like all good things, it doesn’t get better till one overcomes a challenge. For Portuguese cuisine, the challenge has been to get the flavour right, especially since some of its roots have diminished due to modernisation.
Chef Andrade’s greatest challenge has been bringing out the authenticity of Portuguese flavour in UAE, especially because it varies from product to product. "Even the potato over here [when compared to Portugal] is different. It has lesser starch and takes a longer time to get that perfect and tender texture, especially when I make my signature cod fish dumplings,” he said.
For Chef Lino, the concern has been strengthening Portuguese roots, he said: “We lost a bit of our roots, although I believe it’s normal in the society we live. Maybe we are just creating new roots, but honestly, the excess of tourism in Portugal, I believe, is making the restaurateur’s adapting their recipes to everyone’s taste, and that might compromise our food culture.”
Looking beyond the custard tart
Today, as the UAE transforms itself into a hub for international cuisines, Portuguese cuisine has etched its way into the city’s growing gastronomy.
Chef Lino is still amazed at the magnitude of the diners’ acceptance of Portuguese cuisine. “I believe this is the right place to showcase our cuisine… honestly, the reaction has been beyond my expectations. People really love it…. My aim is to share our food and culture to everyone.”
Chef Saul Andrade is known for his fusion recipes. “The possibilities are limitless…. We all just need the right ambience to make a realistic symphony of tasty and colourful food. The trend of trying out Portuguese cuisine seems to be growing in Dubai…."
In the mood for Portuguese food? Try out these recipes for pudim de ovos, braised beef cheek, green peas stew with poached eggs and golden cod fillet with broccoli, green peas and creamy polenta.
Or if you know of some more recipes in Portuguese cuisine, share them with us at firstname.lastname@example.org