It was day 12 of our trip through Spain and Portugal, and my friend and I were ready for some traditional Portuguese cooking when we arrived in the quaint, cobblestoned city of Lisbon.
Walking along the tiered and winding roads, the Atlantic Ocean horizon would greet us and then disappear again behind the hilltops. Above, clothes hung out to dry along white, curved iron balconies, a rainbow of clips holding the waving pants or undergarments in place.
We settled on a recommended authentic Portuguese restaurant at the corner of one of the many small Bairro Alto roads. Inside were red-and-white-checkered tablecloths, rickety and worn wooden chairs and waitresses who paused to eat their own dinners, a pile of rice cooked with meat and tomatoes, alongside us. On that day's list of specials were the usual contenders: a nice cut of meat served with potatoes, grilled fish and then, tucked into the mix, shrimp curry.
Assuming I was ordering the least authentically Portuguese dish, I battled my inner desire to live the local life and my craving for a pinch of curry spice. I ordered the shrimp. A plate of white rice arrived covered in a light orange curry sauce over plump shrimp. The shrimp were cooked perfectly, tender and light. The curry was mild, the ideal mix of sweet coconut milk and heat of the spice blend.
I learned that Asian spices are not uncommon in Portugal. The Portuguese have integrated many of the traditions of their colonial territories into their cooking. I saw more the next night when we ate at a Cape Verdean restaurant, the menu a relic of Portuguese colonial history.
Portugal, now struggling economically, was once the leader of colonial exploration. With docks in South America, Africa and Asia, the Portuguese left a culinary trail behind them, easily observed today. Eating in Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Goa or Macau, it is likely you will have a dish influenced by traditional Portuguese ingredients such as chourico sausage, or ingredients introduced by the Portuguese from another colonial territory.
African chicken in Macau (the first European colony in Asia) includes the piri piri pepper from Mozambique (or, as some argue, Brazil), and "Macanese" cooking often incorporates the Portuguese staple of salt cod. Vindaloo, a common Goan dish, is derived from a Portuguese dish carne de vinha d'alhos, red-wine-and-garlic-marinated pork, combining the Portuguese words vinho for wine and alhos for garlic. Vindaloo did not exhibit its current level of spice until the recipe was boosted by several colonial discoveries: peppers, cumin, cinnamon, coriander and cloves among them, and adding an additional kick by replacing the wine with vinegar.
Sope de grao, a popular Portuguese soup made from chickpeas, greens and the smoky chourico sausage, has similar iterations in nearly every Portuguese colonial territory. Cape Verde's national dish, cachupa (or manchup) is a blend of beans, this time hominy, kidney beans and lima beans, along with hearty meats including chourico, blood sausage and spare ribs, with extra vegetables thrown in the mix. Feijoada, translated as bean soup, appears in Brazil and Mozambique, again melding beans, greens and chourico.
Pastel de nata, a custard pastry touted along every main drag in Lisbon, is also available in South Africa, carried along by the Portuguese workers who once settled in Angola and Mozambique.
Portuguese cooking is infused with a mix of cultures, spices and techniques. A culinary world largely unfamiliar in the United States incorporates what many food-minded Americans like most: fusion, flavor and history. Portuguese cooking allows you to travel the world in one big bite.
Recipe: Caldo Verde (Collard Green Soup)
A traditional winter soup, this comfort dish is found throughout Portugal. This is adapted from a recipe by executive chef Carlos Arriaga from Alfama Restaurant in New York (214 East 52nd St.).
Makes 6 to 8 servings
7 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 pound Idaho potatoes, peeled and diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
10 ounces whole chourico*, Portuguese smoked sausage (may substitute pepperoni or Spanish chorizo)
4 cups water
1 pound collard greens or kale, thick center stems and fibrous veins removed
Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper, to taste
Heat 5 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat until it simmers. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until light golden, about 10 minutes. Add the potatoes and cook, stirring often, until they start to spot with color, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute more before adding the whole 10 ounces of chourico, unsliced.
Pour in the water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until the potatoes are cooked tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the chourico, let it cool down and slice it into 1/4-inch-thick slices.
Stack several collard green leaves, roll them lengthwise into a tight cigar shape, and cut crosswise into whisker-thin slices. Repeat with the rest of the greens.
Puree the soup with a hand-held blender or liquefy in batches in a food processor. Return it to the pot, and bring it back to a boil. Turn the heat to low, stir in the greens and simmer, uncovered, until just tender, 5 to 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Ladle the soup into warm bowls, crown each with 3 slices of chourico, and drizzle with remaining olive oil.
*Available from specialty stores or online
Recipe: Sardinhas Grelhadas (Grilled Sardines)
Usually prepared with lemon, garlic and a grill, sardines are a must-have when in Portugal. If you can't make the trip, try this recipe adapted from one by executive chef Carlos Arriaga of New York's Alfama. In Portugal it's common to serve this dish with a side of roasted bell pepper salad and slices of cornbread.
Makes 4 servings
2 bunches broccoli rabe
2 pounds small, thin-skinned potatoes
Kosher salt, to taste
5 tablespoons olive oil
12 fresh sardines, 3 per person, approximately 7 ounces each
1 1/2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons red onion, thinly sliced into half-moons
Half a lemon
Preheat the oven to 450.
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the broccoli rabe and remove it from the pot once the water begins to boil again. Place the broccoli in an ice bath. Dry and refrigerate until needed.
Wash the potatoes with skin on, place in an oven tray, sprinkle with salt and cover with aluminum foil. Roast them for about 40 minutes. Check and allow more time if needed, depending on the size of the potatoes. When done, uncover and let cool. Slightly compress each potato, allowing it to be deformed from its original shape. Drizzle with olive oil.
Clean the sardines by removing the insides and scales, leaving a smooth skin. (You can ask your local fish seller to do this for you.) Dress with salt and let the fish rest for 10 minutes, allowing the salt to dissolve.
Preheat the grill.
Put the sardines on the hot grill, in a spot where they can slowly cook without burning, flipping the sardines every 2 minutes, for about 6 minutes. (Depending on size, you may need more or less time.)
Saute the broccoli rabe with one clove thinly sliced garlic, and then add the roasted smashed potatoes to the pan, dressing each with salt.
Assemble the dish by placing the vegetables in the center of the dish and the grilled sardines on top of them. Garnish with the raw red onions, the remaining half clove of fresh garlic, finely minced, the chopped parsley and half a lemon for squeezing. Drizzle with olive oil.
Recipe: Camarao Mocambicana (Mozambique Shrimp, Or Shrimp Piri Piri) With Arroz De Tomate (Tomato Rice)
These shrimp are super simple to put together and packed with flavor. If you want to use store-bought piri piri sauce, go right ahead. You can usually find it in specialty food stores. The shrimp recipe is adapted from The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent By Jessica B. Harris (Simon & Schuster 1998), and the tomato rice recipe is from The Secrets of Portuguese Cookery by Ilidio Lacerda (Books on Demand GmbH 2009). The shrimp require some marinating time.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
For The Camarao Mocambicana
2 pounds uncooked jumbo shrimp
1 teaspoon minced piri piri pepper, Thai bird chili, Serrano chili or 3 heaping teaspoons dried cayenne pepper
4 medium cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2/3 cup peanut oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Lemon quarters for serving
For The Arroz De Tomate
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small sweet onion, chopped
1 garlic clove
1 bay leaf
2 large tomatoes, chopped
1 cup long grain rice
Salt, to taste
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Devein the shrimp but leave the tails and shells intact. (You can do this by splitting open the back, or use a toothpick or fork to pull out the vein from between the body shell and tail.) Wash them under cold water and pat them dry with absorbent paper. Place the chili, garlic and lemon juice and 1/3 cup of the peanut oil in a bowl and whisk them until they are well-mixed. Gradually drizzle in the remaining 1/3 cup of oil and add the salt and pepper.
Place the shrimp in a separate large bowl and pour the oil mixture over them, making sure they are well covered. Cover the bowl and place it in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours to allow the shrimp to absorb the marinade, stirring occasionally.
While the shrimp marinate, stir-fry onion, garlic and bay leaf in oil until the onion has softened. Add tomatoes and rice, mix together, and add 2 cups of water. Season with salt, bring to a boil and cook for 15 minutes. The rice should remain moist. Sprinkle with parsley when ready to serve.
When shrimp are ready to cook, preheat the broiler. Remove shrimp from the marinade and place them on a pan under the broiler. Cook for about 2 minutes on each side, or until the shrimp are pink. Serve hot with rice and lemon quarters.
Recipe: Sopa De Grao A Alentejana (Chickpea Soup Alentejo Style)
This soup is remarkably good. I can't think of anything better to eat when craving a hearty meal. Recipe adapted from Food of Portugal By Jean Anderson (HarperCollins 1994).
Makes 6 to 8 servings
4 medium garlic cloves, peeled and minced
4 large yellow onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons peanut, corn or vegetable oil
2 medium Yukon potatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon thyme, minced
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground coriander seeds
1 large bay leaf
1 quart beef or chicken broth
2 cups canned chickpeas
1/2 pound pepperoni, chorizo or, if available, Portuguese chourico or linquica, sliced into 1/4-inch thick pieces
2 cups finely chopped spinach
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Stir-fry the garlic and onions in the oil in a large, heavy saucepan until translucent. Add the potatoes and stir-fry 2 to 3 minutes. Add the herbs and cook over low heat for about 2 to 3 minutes more. Add the broth, chickpeas and sausage, raise the heat and bring the soup to a gentle simmer. Cover and cook slowly for about 1 hour or until everything is soft.
Ladle out 2 cups of soup, avoiding the sausage. Using an immersion blender or standing blender, blend the soup until smooth and add it back to the pot along with the spinach, stirring to mix everything together. Simmer another 10 to 20 minutes. Stir in salt and pepper to taste, and serve hot with crusty bread.
Recipe: African Chicken With Baked Plantains
Chef Kevin Chun of Macao Trading Co. in Manhattan's TriBeCa neighborhood (311 Church St.) told me almost every mother in Macau has her own recipe for African Chicken, a clear fusion of African and Asian traditions. This is adapted from a recipe provided by Macao Trading Co. Chun recommends making the sauce a day ahead to allow the flavors to develop. The chicken also needs to be seasoned overnight. The sauce for the plantains takes time to rest as well, 3 to 4 hours, and can be made a day ahead.
Makes 2 to 4 servings
Seasoning The Chicken
1 tablespoon minced dried piri piri peppers (may substitute dried Thai bird chili or Serrano chili)
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon paprika
2 tablespoons Chinese five-spice powder
1/2 teaspoon fresh chopped rosemary
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 1/2 pounds whole chicken
Combine piri piri pepper, garlic, paprika, Chinese five-spice powder, rosemary, salt and pepper. Then add the vegetable oil and stir to form a pastelike consistency. Rub the paste all over the chicken, cover and place in refrigerator to absorb flavors overnight.
Making The Sauce
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 tablespoons minced garlic
1 cup minced yellow onion
3 tablespoon minced ginger
1 teaspoon minced lemongrass, bulb part*
1 teaspoon ground piri piri peppers (may substitute Thai bird chilies or Serrano chilies)
3 tablespoons minced tomatoes
1/2 cup red curry paste*
3 pieces Kaffir lime leaves*
1/2 cup chicken stock or water
2 cups coconut milk
In a medium saucepan, heat the vegetable oil then add the garlic, onion, ginger, lemongrass and piri piri peppers and stir for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes, curry paste, lime leaves and chicken stock or water. Bring to a boil and stir, making sure the curry paste is completely incorporated into the sauce.
Add the coconut milk and let simmer for another 10 minutes. Pour sauce into an airtight container and refrigerate up to one day to let flavors meld together.
Making The Baked Plantains
1 vanilla bean pod
1/4 cup water
1 cup pure honey
1 tablespoon fresh chopped ginger
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 yellow plantains (look for a yellow peel with black spots)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Start by cutting the fresh vanilla pod in half lengthwise, scraping the entire pod, reserving scrapings. Place the vanilla pod and scraped part of the bean into a small saucepot with the water. Bring the water and vanilla bean to a boil. Add the honey while stirring. Bring to a boil again, then add the ginger and vanilla extract and mix well. Let cool for 3 to 4 hours. Strain out solids and discard them, reserving the infused honey.
You can do this next step while the chicken is roasting.
Once ready to fry the plantains, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Remove the plantain peels and slice the plantains on the bias. Heat the vegetable oil in a hot saute pan, then add the plantain slices, carefully caramelizing them on both sides. Place the slices on a baking tray, then generously drizzle with the vanilla-ginger honey. Bake in oven for 6 to 8 minutes. Serve immediately.
Roasting The Chicken
Split the seasoned chicken in half.
Using an open grill on high heat, sear the chicken halves, skin side down first. Make sure you get a nice deep char on both sides. You do not need to cook the chicken all the way through.
Place the chicken halves in a shallow baking dish. Cover the seared chicken with the red curry sauce and finish cooking in the 350-degree oven for 18 minutes. Before serving, finish the chicken with a light sprinkle of sea salt. Serve the baked plantains on top of the chicken or on the side.