Portuguese Culinary Tour

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March 1st 2011
Published: March 13th 2011
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I can't think of how to explain Portugal, so instead of trying that momumentous task, let's talk about my favorite thing: Food. Portuguese cuisine not only varies from region to region but from town to town. There is a well deserved culinary pride. The details of this post are by no means family secrets or specialties, but merely a few things that I have found interesting that I hadn't necessarily encountered before living in Porto.

Pastéis de Nata:
Literally, Cream Pastries, pastéis da nata can thankfully be found at every cafe (and there's probably at least one of every corner). They are enjoyed throughout the day by the Portuguese, and best served when freshly sprinkled with cinnamon (canela). Note: when ordering, "pastel de Nata" will get you one, "pastéis de nata" says you want more than one. The best of the best are the Pastéis de Belém.

Wow. What a great idea. I can't believe we haven't done this in the US yet. Try this on for size: Start with a thick slice of bread. Then add at least four different kinds of cow and pig meat. Add a second slice of thick bread. Now, put cheese on
World's Largest Aletria!World's Largest Aletria!World's Largest Aletria!

Alegria com aletria! A dessert made of angel hair pasta
top of the bread and heat until it's melty. And finally smother in a spicy beer sauce resembling gravy. Let the sandwich swim in it. Fantastic. Amazing. Unbelievable heart attack on a plate. There is a lord. Even better: It literally translates as "little French one," but feminine, so if you have the sense of humor of a five year old child like I do, you can order and enjoy "a little French girl."

There are different variations of the Francesinha. If you want the real experience, you should probably get an "especial." Like most things in Portugal that are "especial" this means that there will be a fried egg on top. There are also some with shrimp on top, and I've even heard of a vegetarian one ... although I have no idea what they would look like.

Francesinhas are best served with a cold beer, or so I've heard. There are two main Portuguese beers: Super Bock and Sagres. The former is popular in the North while the latter dominates in the South. Being an adopted Northern, I whole heartedly recommend the Super Bock.

Who knew that angel hair pasta could be so good? The Portuguese don't just see it as pasta, but as a wonderful dessert. Cook it in milk instead of water, let it thicken in a flat pan and then decorate with cinnamon. I had the good fortune to see the largest Alteria ever be made: a total of 300 kilograms of angel hair goodness. This is really good warm, but the Portuguese don't seem to mind eating it at room temperature. You may only see this if you're around at Christmas time.

Another fabulous dessert. Sounds gross in theory, but tastes fantastic in reality. It's an egg cake/egg custard/caramel custard/caramel pudding/egg flan. It is basically really good egg fluff. The Portuguese do amazing things with eggs. Where Americans see eggs and think "scrambled," the Portuguese think "opportunity."

Port Wine:
I can't really testify for this one too much because I've obviously never tried Port wine. However, I live in Porto, the proud home of Port wine, so it would be odd not to say anything. Wine isn't just a beverage here; it is an ingrained piece of the culture. Going over to someone's house for dinner? You are obliged to bring a bottle of wine or two. Usually even if you're bringing something else with you, you should still bring a bottle of wine. There is of course red wine and white wine. But there is also green wine, pink wine, Port wine, etc. You can't simply order vinho here. "Wine" in the Portuguese language is like an eskimo saying "snow;" there are about 12 words to say what for me is all the same thing.

If you're here, make sure go visit a couple wine caves in Vila Nova de Gaia (the city just South of Porto); it's the best excuse you have for getting drunk at 12 PM.

Bacalhau/Roupas Velhas:
Oh Bacalhau ... how I hate you. Don't get me wrong, a lot of people love codfish, but I'm not one of them. Traditionally being a country of sailors, salted codfish is a popular dish as it takes a long time to go bad. Nowadays, not that many people are sailing the high seas, but the salted codfish has made its way into the daily life of Portugal. Walking into most supermarkets, you will see a bin, just in front of the fish counter, filled with what appears to be large pieces of dusty cardboard that suspiciously smell like fish. This is salted codfish, or Bacalhau. There are as many ways to prepare it as there are towns in Portugal. Everyone soaks it in water to loosen it up and get rid of some of the salt, but after that, it's anyone's game: Bacalhau com natas (codfish with cream), Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá (baked codfish with potatoes, eggs, and onions), Bacalhau à Brás (fried codfish with potatoes, eggs, and onions, etc. If you like fish, you have to try it. If you're like me and fish creeps you out, you should probably stay away.

Besides being an everyday meal, Bacalhau served with hard boiled eggs, potatoes, and spinach (or another green vegetable) is the traditional meal for Christmas Eve dinner. For the Christmas day, the leftovers are tranformed into roupas velhas. Roupas Velhas literally translates as "old clothes." The fish, potatoes, eggs, and spinach are shredded and blended together into a green mush that resembles something that might be sold at Whole Foods for $50 a kilo ... or baby food. This may sound odd, but I think I like roupas velhas more than the normal bacalhau. However, all the Portuguese have assured me that this cannot be true.

Much like Port wine, there's not much I can personally say here as I don't drink coffee. But, it is impossible to talk about food in Portugal and not mention the important role that coffee plays in meals here. Coffee here is strong, much stronger than anything that is normally found in the US. If you ask for "um cafe," you will be brought what appears to be a shot glass only half-filled with an espresso shot. "Um pingo" is more or less the same except that it will come with a drop of milk. "Um meia de leite" would be half coffee, half milk. And "um galão" is coffee with milk again, but bigger, so it looks a little more like what we're use to seeing in the US.

Coffee is found throughout the Portuguese day: in the morning like elsewhere, but also after lunch and dinner. This aftermeal caffeine fix is an important and necessary part of every Portuguese meal. If don't want a coffee after the meal, the waiter may look at you funny. If you want a coffee during the meal (breakfast and snacks excluded), the waiter will definantly look at you funny.

Nespresso is also something new to me that is very popular here. If I understand it right, it's an instant coffee machine that works with capsules, not beans. And George Clooney is their spokesperson.


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