On Portugal, food and nostalgia

pastel de nata_3_beyond lisbon

Yesterday I was reading an article on The New York Times which made me think of the emotional link we, Portuguese, have with food. The text is all about a Portuguese-American chef, George Mendes. I found it amazing that this man, who runs a Michelin-starred restaurant in Manhattan, can have the same feelings towards Portuguese food that I and so many other people have. And it has a lot to do with mothers and family in general.

If you’ve been to Portugal you’ll know that, more often than not, we love food. More than that, we love Portuguese food, which always brings some memories of good times, bad times, childhood times… you name it! I know a person who, when recalling a place that he’s been to in the country, will say something like: “Oh, I remember that place! I had this and that for lunch!”.

Personally, one of the things I love the most about Portuguese food is that so much of it is made with basic ingredients but can still taste wonderful – that is something you can only achieve if you have good produce!

Many such dishes are what I call “poor man’s food”. Not in the sense of  “I only have a few bucks so I’ll just get something to fill up my stomach” but in the sense of getting the most out of every ingredient. One good example, in my opinion, is the sopa alentejana: back in the day, when salted cod fish was something the poor could eat every day, someone came up with this soup. The recipe? Incredibly simple: It uses the water in which the fish was boiled, garlic, slices of bread (best made with day old bread), fresh cilantro leaves and a few drops of olive oil. If they happened to be making the “rich man’s version” they’d include a few bits of cod and a poached egg. Sounds bland? It’s delicious! The fact is, a lot of this “poor man’s food” is actually our version of soul food.

No, this is not “poor man’s food”. Meet the bitoque: there’s the rice, the fries, a tiny salad, a fried egg and underneath all that there’s a fried steak, which can be of beef or pork. Particularly in city areas this is the kind of thing we order when we want a full plate of something and we want it quickly. It can (in a very special way) be considered “soul food”.

Sometimes tourists will make funny faces looking at certain dishes or reading about them. I get it.

But the way I see it it’s all a bit relative: I’m sure it took someone very hungry to think of eating snails (which the French also eat, by the way), but how is that any worse than eating processed food? So next time you’re in Portugal and someone offers you pig trotters, for example (also eaten in Spain, Italy, France, Japan, Korea and, I’m sure, several other countries), before you put on your disgusted face think of what might have taken someone to eat it – and then order something else from the menu!

If you’re curious about the article from The New York Times you can read it here.

I’m sure other countries have their version of “soul food”. I’d love to hear about in the comments!

     — You can also listen to this blog post here. —

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  1. I am glad to know you appreciate our food! 🙂 as for the nails I am Portuguese and I can’t eat it!! But truth is yeah, it something very usual! But also true our traditional food is not processed at all and it is all made from scratch! Did you try our bacalhau (cod)? Carne de Porco à Alentejana? Or our pastries? Pastel de nata? 🙂

  2. In Ireland we have a traditional dish called Coddle. It’s basically a soup type dish made from the constituent parts of a full Irish breakfast! Sausages, rashers (bacon), potatoes and onions (cooked in the water that you use to boil the rashers and sausages) plus salt, pepper, and parsley.

  3. I remember having pig’s trotters in UK when I was a little boy. (Now I’m a big boy!)
    We also had Tripe then. Now we can’t eat it in UK because of health and safety!
    I’m glad to see that I can relive my childhood in Portugal with Dobrada.I’ll have to go now – my stomach is rumbling, even though I’ve just had lunch! AND, I haven’t even started on the seafood, wines or Ports…….. or Pasteis de Belem…….. or Castel Branco picante cheese!

      • There is a little place in the village where my grandparents live that does skate in a heavy based pan. it lays on top of potato, and they put cloves of garlic on the top and slow cook it. The mash takes this buttery, garlicky taste. I cant think what they call it but its delicious! I also LOVE secretos too.

    • Aaaah… secretos! They used to be a kind of well kept secret and when they started showing up in restaurants everyone was a bit, well, suspicious: Why were they ‘secret’? Was it some odd part of the pig, that should not be named? 😀 But no, they’re nothing of the sort!

  4. We eat snail here too, love it!! I think its a good idea to try other countries delicacies before putting up a disgusted face, especially when visiting, I mean how bad can the food be?

  5. Ohh, such a good soul, that “Oh, I remember that place! I had this and that for lunch!” person must be.

  6. The one thing, although I ate a lot of others, but the one thing that I definitely remember as if it were today, is the pastel de nata in Belem. I even asked a friend when she was over there to bring me some 🙂 I think it’s the cinamon that completes the trick when they are hot from the oven… Gorgeous!

    • I’m not a fan, but here it’s also fairly common, most of the times simply boiled in cozido à portuguesa or in pézinhos de coentrada (also boiled but then with added onion, garlic, olive oil and a few more seasonings).

  7. Certainly as someone who has moved to Portugal . . . wow, the Portuguese love food. I think it also has to do with the very convivial nature of the Portuguese. 🙂 Where we live our neighbours are virtually self-sufficient, so soups, homemade bread, and migas are very popular. And for us, as vegans, the vegan restaurants in Lisbon & Porto, are the best we have ever visited. 😉

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