20. Dec, 2012

Portugal’s rich culinary history: Smoke filled eyes, emergency 112 calls and dentists

Kicking off your shoes and feeling the sand between your toes on some of Portugal’s finest golden beaches is an unforgettable experience.

But you can work up quite an appetite!  Fortunately, the Algarve boasts some of Portugal’s best cuisine.  Tickle your taste buds with these three classic dishes when you’re next in the Algarve region.

Sardinhas assadas

Sardines usually evoke images of shrivelled fish on top of pizzas and long frowns as people wrinkle their noses in disgust.  But the sardines caught in Portugal’s oceans are meaty, flavourful and embedded in Portuguese culture.  Portugal’s reputation of having the finest sardines in the Mediterranean is rivalled only by Italy and Spain.  They have a much meatier flavour than you may expect – they taste more like a richer tuna.  I fondly recall spending many balmy nights fending off thick clouds of smoke and succumbing to the aroma of sardines being cooked over hot charcoals by the little quay in the beautiful seaside town of Portimão.

Sardines are such an important part of local culture that they play a role in local festivals.  In February, the picturesque village of Carvoeiro celebrates Carnival.  Families cram together (like sardines!) as they join processions of giant sardine floats winding their way through cobbled streets.  Or if you’re staying in the area in early to mid-August, join the locals as they celebrate the Sardine Festival in Portimão.

Chicken Piri Piri

If sardines are not your taste, don’t worry.  Portugal has much to offer the travelling foodie.  For a main course, consider the local specialty of chicken piri-piri.  This fiery entrée owes its name to the crimson coloured pepper that livens up the sauce.  Grown in southern Africa, in former Portuguese colonial territories, the piri-piri pepper (or African Birds Eye Chilli) is a dozen times hotter than a jalapeno pepper.  The first time I tried it, even the local Bombeiros (firemen) would have struggled to contain the fire that raged in all 4 corners of my mouth!

The sauce is made from crushed African Birds Eye Chillies, onion, garlic, pepper, salt, citrus zest, lemon juice, paprika, pimiento, basil, oregano, bay leaves and tarragon.  If you’re feeling adventurous and do not have asbestos lined tonsils, ask the waiter to put a splash of the sauce on the side of your grilled chicken.  But remember to have emergency number 112 programmed in your ‘phone and a full bottle of ice cold Sagres beer on hand.

Pastel de nata

No meal is complete without dessert and Portugal was single-handedly responsible for increasing demand for dentists in far flung places like Brazil, Mozambique, India and Macau.  As Portugal’s seafarers sailed to all 4 corners of the globe, they introduced Pasteis de Natas, a national egg tart pastry with centuries old history, to anyone looking for a quick sugar fix.   A pastel de nata is a wonderfully simple dessert and is synonymous with Portugal.  They’re soft and creamy on the inside and crispy on the outside – just writing about them, stirs up vivid memories of “having just one more” and licking my lips at the end of a wonderful meal.

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do” as the cliché goes and “When in Portugal, eat until your heart’s content”.  Shadow-box through thick clouds of barbeque smoke; tackle an African Birds Eye, and become best friends with your dentist because there’s a big prize awaiting you.  Discover Portugal’s love affair for fresh fish, spices and custard tarts and you’ll soon realise that there’s more to the Land of Navigators than Port.  It deserves its status as a country with a rich culinary history.