Samui Wining & Dining
What Makes it Unique?

A look at the evolution of Portuguese cuisine.


16Unless you’re in the know, it’s tempting to simply lump all the Mediterranean countries together. After all, what more can you add to lots and lots of seafood? Well, every country has its fads and fancies, its own traditions and culture, and its own particular approach to using fruit, vegetables, herbs, spices, milk and cheeses. And a close look at Portugal’s history reveals something unique.

    It all began to happen around the beginning of the 15th century, when mankind found out for a certainty that you didn’t drop off the edge of the world as you sailed over the horizon. For this we have to thank the Portuguese sailor and explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, who became the first person to sail around the world. His expedition of 1519 (returning in 1522!) paved the way for a new breed of explorers. These were men sponsored by their nations and driven to seek wealth in far-flung places – particularly as far as the spice trade was concerned. In those days such items as cinnamon, pepper, saffron, cloves and nutmeg were worth a king’s ransom. And to this you could also add fabrics like silk, as well as rare gems and precious metals.

      Four European nations flung themselves onto the new seas of discovery but, other than the English and the Dutch, it was only Spain and neighbouring Portugal who were connected to the Mediterranean region. Most such adventuring nations had, however, a secondary agenda. With the Dutch it was straightforward – their sailors were backed by wealthy merchants seeking even greater riches, as were the English. The Spanish were driven by the wealth and righteousness of the Catholic Church – their first aim was to gain more converts; the riches and plunder that accompanied this were secondary. But the Portuguese had a different approach.

      It was Prince Henry ‘The Navigator’, the third son of King John of Portugal, who was their driving force. He quickly realised that such travels were the source of infinite riches – not from plunder, but by trading. His instructions to his captains were simple: seek out all exotic spices, herbs, fruits, nuts and plants. And so spices, tomatoes, potatoes, pineapples, avocados, chilli peppers, coffee, tea, cashews and other nuts, began to arrive in Europe. It was the Portuguese, in fact, who first introduced chillies and other spices to an otherwise flavourless Thailand in 1511!

      And, within a generation, Portuguese cuisine began to change. It’s true to say that there wasn’t a sudden increase in the manner, style and variety of dishes, but at least now food became flavoured with a variety of new seasonings. Previously a ‘nation of peasants with nearly all of its cuisine coming out of a single pot over an open fire’, now things became somewhat more diverse.

      Today the cuisine varies notably from region to region, but with fresh fish and seafood being common to all. Quaintly, the Portuguese national dish remains a throwback to those seafaring days of discovery from yesteryear. It’s known as ‘bacalhau’ and it’s simply dried, salted cod. It was originally an essential source of nourishment, caught on the move and dried on deck, but this has now evolved into a national icon, and it is said that there are 365 different ways of preparing it, one for every day of the year.

      Another of the things which hasn’t changed much over the centuries are the street ‘snacks’. Certainly every coastal town has its many vendors, crouched over a portable charcoal brazier and poking away at a selection of grilling sardines and mackerel. And, if your only experience of sardines is the little ones you find in tins, you might be surprised to realise that in the wild they commonly grow up to six to eight inches long.

      Another national dish that’s found everywhere is cozido à portuguesa, a thick stew of vegetables with various kinds of meat. The favourite is pork, cooked and served in a variety of ways. Roast suckling pig (leitão assado) is popular in the north of the country, as are pork sausages known as chouriço or linguiça.

      But, going back to regional variations, there’s one favourite item from the Porto area that stems directly from the days of Henry the Navigator. It’s said that he sent a vessel to conquer Ceuta, in Morocco, and the people of Porto, who were short of food at the time, slaughtered all their livestock to provision the crew, keeping just the intestines for themselves. Ever since then the people of the city have been known as tripeiros or ‘tripe eaters’. And their regional speciality is simply tripe (intestines) cooked with haricot beans. Although, today, it is said that some of the young people prefer one of the 365 ways to eat salted, dried cod instead!

      And, staying with tradition, breakfast is usually just coffee and a bread roll, but lunch is a big affair, often lasting up to two hours. It is served between noon and 3:00 pm, and dinner is generally served late, after 8 o’clock. There are usually three courses, often including soup, the most common of which is caldo verde, with potato, shredded cabbage and chunks of sausage – but no dried cod.

      Of course, today, even the smallest of the coastal towns has its fair share of visitors and holiday-makers, and the whole process of eating has gone upmarket, with indoor and open-air restaurants everywhere. Many of these feature artistic outside displays of seafood and crustaceans, and the menu lists all manner of fish, lobsters, shrimp, oysters, crabs and even eels. The thing to ask for here is arroz de marisco; a rich mix of seafood with rice, herbs and vegetables.

      And to end with (both the meal and the story) there’s the desserts. There are said to be over 200 different kinds of sweets and desserts native to Portugal, this fascination having originated during the Moorish occupation of Portugal when the first sugar cane was planted. Many of the names stem from this period, and what more whimsical way to end a meal than to ask for a portion of ‘heaven’s lard’ or ‘nun’s belly’. About the only thing they haven’t got around to is slapping chocolate sauce all over their dried cod. For that you’ll have to go to Japan – but that’s another story!


Rob De Wet


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