Out of the Shadows: 5 Dishes that Capture the Spirit of Portuguese Cuisine

Tiny Portugal has long stood in Spain’s culinary shadow. Portugal, Spain’s westerly neighbor on the Iberian Peninsula, is culturally distinct from its compadre to the east but relies on many of the same cooking techniques and ingredients as its more famous cousin. Too, the Portuguese diaspora is expansive, stretching from Macao and Goa in Asia to Brazil in South American and Angola and Mozambique in Africa.  In the U.S., pockets of Portuguese influence have long existed along the northeast coast, particularly New England (Mystic Pizza, anyone?), and in coastal California. Modern chefs are catching on to the broader flavors of Iberia, reigniting interest in this humble, traditionally seaward-facing cuisine.

San Jose, California-based chef Jessica Carreira grew up nearby and opened Adega with her family and Portuguese chef David Costa to reintroduce the country’s flavors to a neighborhood that was traditionally Portuguese and Azorean (an autonomous group of islands near Portugal).  “We really wanted to bring back an authentic Portuguese restaurant to this area known as Little Portugal and help with area’s revitalization,” she said.

Here are 5 dishes that capture the spirit of Portuguese cuisine and deliver on the culinary flair of Iberia and beyond.

Shrimp Alinho, Aldea, New York, New York
If one chef can be said to have revitalized interest in Portuguese cuisine in America, it is George Mendes. Mendes, who opened Aldea in New York City in 2009, brought the “gutsy soulfulness” of Portuguese cooking to an eager audience in the Flatiron district. Raised in Connecticut, Mendes credits his Portuguese-American heritage for his love of the simple flavors of Portuguese cuisine paired with the free-spirited culinary style that defines his cooking. Shrimp Alinho, a signature dish at Aldea, is typically Portuguese. “Shrimp and clams are very abundant in Portugal, and there are recipes dating back centuries,” said Mendes. His shrimp relies on an intense stock made from the crustacean’s head as well as classic ingredients of the Portuguese pantry: olive oil, paprika (both sweet smoked and hot), sea salt, and fresh parsley and cilantro. Mendes then sears the shrimp on the plancha and layers in more olive oil and parsley, lemon, and a swirl of that intense sauce. Red bell pepper juice brings the dish together. “For flavor and sweetness,” says Mendes, “and a lingering echo of paprika.” It’s enough to make a Lusitanian swoon. Make a reservation at Aldea.

Portuguese cuisine

Pollo Piri Piri, Ultreia, Denver, Colorado
Piri piri, the Swahili name for chile, indicates not only the color of this spicy chicken dish but its primary ingredient. While Portuguese cuisine is not typically known for bringing the heat, a bottle of piri piri hot sauce appears on many restaurant tables there. “Every now and then there is a curveball in Portuguese cooking,” says Ultreia’s executive chef, Adam Branz, whose menu spans the flavors of the Iberian Peninsula. Inspired in part by a visit Branz took to Nashville, Pollo Piri Piri will be familiar to fans of that city’s hot chicken — with a Portuguese twist. Branz chars the bird in a cast iron pan, then flips it into a sauce thick with onions, chiles, garlic, and bell peppers. “It’s really a dish for chile-heads,” Branz admits. A side of marinated cucumbers cools things off. Opening soon.

Portuguese cuisine

Cod Croquette, Batanga, Houston, Texas
Opening executive chef Ben McPherson developed an abiding interest in cod brandade after traveling to Spain. Known in Portugal (and some parts of Spain) as bacalao, cod croquette “is a simple one for the working class,” said McPherson “but when it is done correctly it’s spectacular.’ McPherson figured out what made the dish a stand-out when he tried it in Spain. He whips the cod and potatoes into submission before adding egg yolk and olive oil to emulate the flavor of the original. And if the fluffy texture is not enough, McPherson gives the not-so-sexy sounding fish cake a quick brûlée to add another layer of deep flavor that makes the dish impossible to stop eating. Don’t say you weren’t warned. Make a reservation at Batanga.

Portuguese cuisine

Shrimp Escabeche, The Iberian PigDecatur, Georgia
The Iberian Pig does, indeed, have a focus on the cuisine of Spain and Portugal and chef Eric Roberts waxes poetic about the black-footed pigs from nearby Ossabaw Island that are the source of the Ossabaw lardo on the restaurant’s extensive charcuterie menu. On the deep tapas menu, Roberts similarly looks to riff on the classic flavors of far western Europe, then pair them with local, seasonal ingredients. Escabeche made sense for his globally inspired menu. “Escabeche shows up in varying forms all over the world,” he said. “It’s sweet, spicy, tangy, unique. It spoke to me.”  Roberts’s sautéed shrimp escabeche uses shrimp from the Florida panhandle and a classic Spanish-Caribbean-Portuguese sofrito (refogado in Portuguese) – onion, garlic, paprika, and tomato – to define the dish.  Fresh fennel, tarragon, and thyme add herbaceousness, and a squeeze of farmer’s market yuzu pops on the palate.  A side of black garlic aioli returns the local sensibility to Portugal. Make a reservation at The Iberian Pig.

Portuguese cuisine

Polvo à Lagareiro, Adega, San Jose, California
Earning a Michelin star has not gone to the heads of Adega chefs David Costa and Jessica Carreira. “We are really passionate about this adventure,” said Carreira, whose father, David, owns the restaurant and sources the 400 wines on the Portugal only wine list. At Adega (or “wine cellar,”) the chefs like to mix old and new with a “classic” tasting menu and a modern “chef’s” tasting menu. But the dish that customers rave about is so simple, any fisherman or fisherman’s wife could make it in their sleep. “It’s the most simple dish on the menu,” said Costa. “It’s literally oven- roasted potatoes and oven-roasted Mediterranean octopus,” confirmed Carreria. A bit of spinach, garlic, and 100% Portuguese bay leaf, plus enough of a deeply flavorful Portuguese olive oil to earn the dish the name “olive maker’s octopus,” rouns things out. The secret, Costa says, “ is the octopus.” He pan cooks it, calling it “almost a braise and a roast at the same time.” No matter what the dish’s secrets, one taste and you understand immediately the appeal of this under-appreciated region’s cuisine. Make a reservation at Adega.

Portuguese cuisine

What are your favorite restaurants for Portuguese cuisine? Let us know here or over on FacebookG+InstagramPinterest, or Twitter.And, remember to snap + share your #dishpics with us on Instagram for a chance to win in our weekly giveaway.

Christina Mueller is a San Francisco-based writer, epicurean adventurer, and culinary sleuth. Find her at //christinamueller.com and follow her on Instagram @EatDrinkThink and Twitter @EatDrinkThink.

Photo credits: Rachel Adams (Ultreia).