Portuguese food has to be some of the most underrated in Europe.
It is a country that has a rich merchant history that brought with it a range of flavours and techniques from every corner of the world- and it is that which really sets it apart from anywhere else.
Nowadays, Portugal is best known for port, fish and scenic beach holidays in the Algarve but the food there is mind-blowing as anyone who has been will tell you.
Portuguese restaurants in Manchester are few and far between, but they do exist (outside Nando’s of course). Your guide to eating this delicious food right here in Manchester is as follows. Life is too short so let’s start with dessert…
The Portuguese certainly have a sweet tooth, especially when it comes to pastries. It is said that Portugal got into cane sugar a lot earlier than the rest of Europe as it was imported from its sister island Madeira, which can be held responsible for this early onset sugar craze.
When it comes to talking about Portuguese pastry, there is no better place to start other than with Pastéis de Nata or custard tarts. Developed by nuns in the 15th century who were the only ones with the time and patience to carefully craft their delicate pastry, the Nata in its most basic form is a case of puff pastry filled with vanilla custard which is then baked.
The top gains a beautiful golden-brown hue and your bite into it comes with a welcome crunch from the layers of buttery pastry which spills the just-set custard into your mouth. There aren’t any words to describe how delicious they are except, perhaps, orgasmic.
In Portugal you can visit a traditional Pastelaria and get stuck into a Nata with a cup of coffee on pretty much every street corner, particularly in Lisbon, but over here in Manchester, you will have to settle for (ever-so-slightly) less. I would recommend the Pastéis de Nata from Dish & Spoon in West Didsbury- they are exactly as they should be with a faint hint of orange zest which really sets them above the rest.
Another pudding that is a little closer to home would be Arroz Doce- or creamy rice pudding. It is made with a mixture of water and milk and can often have cinnamon, lemon peel, nuts and raisins added to it for flavour.
As I mentioned above, Portuguese restaurants are hard to come by here in Manchester, but if you want to get a taste of this delicious dessert the best place to go would be Tapeo & Wine for their Arroz con Leche which is more or less the same thing.
So I am pretty sure the only Portuguese food that anyone will know anything about is Peri-Peri. This sauce, which has been made famous by the likes of Nando’s in more recent years, originated when Portuguese settlers in Africa stumbled across the bird’s eye chilli and made a marinade with garlic, red wine vinegar, paprika and other European imports all the way back in the 19th Century.
The name is taken from the Swahili meaning ‘Pepper-pepper’ and has spread more recently as a junk-food favourite some 200 years later and We are saturated with low-rent versions of the stuff in late-night takeaways. If you want a hint of the real thing, I would look no further than Taste of Portugal Delicatessen in Salford.
This unassuming little restaurant is a lesson in how you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. The place is fantastic, relaxed, laid back with great grub and everything else a good neighbourhood restaurant should be. Their peri-peri chicken comes in varying levels of spice to suit every palate and served with a side of salad, rice or fries. It is also outrageously cheap – eating a whole chicken is certainly an affordable option.
Another food that is big in Portugal as well as Spain and South America too would be Morcela. This is a pork-based sausage which is entrenched with pig’s blood to give it the characteristic dark colour. Please don’t let the contents put you off. It is such a delicacy and has a rich flavour which unlike anything else.
It has a high fat content (so surprise, surprise it isn’t exactly good for you) but it gives it a soft texture which melts in the mouth. Typically it is best served grilled, but can also be served in stews and rice dishes.
I enjoy ordering Morcela at Lunya alongside a few other of their delicious tapas. They serve theirs rolled in cornflakes and deep fried with an orange and honey syrup and pomegranate molasses which is as good as it sounds.
If you have ever had a holiday in the Algarve you will know how great the fish is in Portugal. Looking at the cuisine as a whole, seafood has to be the stand-out star, and for a bloody good reason. I always think about the delicious grilled sardines I ate as a kid- but I couldn’t find anywhere here that did them (apart from as an occasional visitor to the specials board at Fin Fish Bar over at Mackie Mayor).
To be honest, even If I did I might not have mentioned it because It is imperative that sardines are as fresh as physically possible and it is near impossible to get them like there here in landlocked Manchester. Sardines in Portugal are so fresh you could be eating them just hours after they were swimming in the sea and anything less than that simply will not do.
Other than Sardines, the Portuguese like cod. One of their specialities is salt cod or Bacalhau. This was brought over by the Vikings whenever they were knocking about, and the process of curing with salt was practical for long trips at sea and general preservation.
To this day, Portugal is still the world’s largest consumer of cod. They cook it in stews, make it into fritters or crispy cakes or cooked in rice dishes.
If you want to try bacalhau for yourself, I would suggest the looking to central Manchester’s only Portuguese restaurant Canto and sampling their salt cod fritters. Served with a tartare sauce, they are the perfect marriage of old and modern and are one of those things that become more delicious upon every bite.
La Bandera, a Canarian Spanish restaurant just off King Street, has dish on their menu which takes inspiration from Portuguese salt cod. The dialogue between Portugal and the Canary Islands goes back as far as the 14th century and the two have been sharing and appropriating each other’s culinary culture ever since.
One thing that shows this is a dish called Carrilleras de Bacalao which takes cod and marinates it with a range of Canarian spices and serves this with sweet peppers and onions. It is fresh, light, incredibly moorish and is the perfect addition to any selection of tapas if you ask me.
There is also Cataplana– which is Portugal’s answer to a fish stew. Like most of its kind, it is a peasant dish that doesn’t really have any rules- just whatever is available at the time. It usually contains cod, prawns, cockles, tomatoes, wine and stock but really, but it can include anything and differs from place to place, from family to family.
The name actually refers to the round copper pot it is cooked in- which steams everything and keeps the texture soupy. Again, it is difficult to get here in Manchester, but if you don’t fancy the flight you can head to Revolucion de Cuba– they have Cataplana on their fish tapas menu.
In short, Portuguese food can most appropriately be described as worldly-wise and well travelled. The cusine is inspired by the country’s colonial history, but it is also interesting to map the mark it has left on other places too. If you like seafood, port and confident use of spices, then Portuguese cuisine is just what you’ve been looking for.