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Ready for the next big food trend?

The Mediterranean is the gift that keeps on giving: first Italian, then Spanish and now? Enter Portuguese.

As if the Mediterranean hadn’t already given us plenty. Now, it appears, the next, Next Big Thing in food trends may come yet again from the Med Rim region. Portuguese cuisine could be the next Spanish — and we already know that Spanish is on its way to becoming the next Italian.

Surely, the foods of Portugal have a lot going for them. They are lusty and earthy in style, with big flavors, interesting ingredients and a touch of the exotic. Many enjoy an air of healthfulness due to the Portuguese style of simple preparation of fresh ingredients. And as for that all-important ethnic authenticity angle, well, how many cultures are said to have a different salt cod recipe for every day of the year?

Marketers take note: Portugal and its cuisine also have a great back story. Though the country is close to but not on the Mediterranean Sea, culturally it might as well be. It shares many things with its Mediterranean cousins Spain and Italy, including climate, proximity to the sea and a deeply ingrained olive and grape culture. Portugal’s Atlantic coast and protected interior valleys make it wealthy in seafood, olive oil and wine.

Portuguese food was shaped by the history of a once-great seafaring nation, with an empire that stretched from Brazil and the East Indies to the coast of Africa, the Indian province of Goa and to Macau, in China (which was administered by the Portuguese until 1999). The age of exploration was propelled by the desire for exotic spices, and it was the Portuguese Vasco da Gama who discovered the maritime route to India in 1498, thus establishing the fabled spice route. It was Portugal that introduced the rest of Europe to such products as coriander, ginger, curry and saffron, to rice and tea from the Orient, coffee and peanuts from Africa, and peppers, tomatoes and potatoes from the New World.

Here in the United States, Portuguese restaurateurs and chefs are exploiting their heritage for all that it is worth. At O’Porto, in Hartford, Connecticut, owner Sergio Desau and executive chef Adelino De Sousa populate the menu with dishes from wherever in the world there are Portuguese people. When Desau took over the 32-year-old Casa Lisboa in March 2005, he changed the name to O’Porto (the second-largest city in Portugal) and gave the menu a contemporary spin. “Portuguese food is one of those things that’s pretty easy to understand,” Desau says. “The ingredients and techniques tend to be fairly uncomplicated, like roasting and grilling, and that makes them easy to translate into a more modern approach.”

He and De Sousa retained plenty of the most popular traditional recipes that were Casa Lisboa’s stock-in-trade (caldo verde, pork with clams, the rice and seafood dish known as arroz de marisco). But they added recipes that speak to Portugal’s many global influences, such as parelhada (a mixed grill of skewered shellfish, nodding to Brazil) and prawns with piri piri sauce (named after an incendiary little pepper originally from Mozambique).

Specials go even farther afield, like curry-scented samosa-like turnovers from Goa, or a fried seafood dish Macau-style. “Portuguese food is the original fusion cuisine,” says Joseph Cerqueria, who owns Atasca in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “We use spices from all over the world and have exchanged culinary traditions with many countries.”

Wine may turn out to play a key role in Portuguese cuisine’s ascendance. Portugal is the sixth-largest wine-producing nation, yet its wines are little-known outside Europe. Expect that to change any minute, as wine lovers dig deeper to find interesting and affordable new wines to enjoy. Not only are Portuguese wines moderately priced, they are light and relatively low in alcohol. And that makes them especially food-friendly.

All Mediterranean food is wine food, says Antelmo Faria, the chef of La Salette in Sonoma, California, one of only a handful of contemporary Portuguese restaurants out west. “When Italian wine was ‘discovered’ by Americans, that’s when regional Italian food came into prominence, and the same thing has been true of Spanish food. With the emergence of the Portuguese wine market, it’s also a good time for Portuguese food.”

Spain has had great success promoting its products, in particular wine, Serrano ham, olive oil and cheeses, and Portugal is poised to follow in its neighbor’s footsteps. Many Portuguese entrepreneurs here believe that the only thing that’s been holding Portugal back is the country’s traditional disinclination to be in the spotlight. “The Portuguese are quite shy by nature, and they have had a huge difficulty promoting themselves,” says Cerqueria, who is a native of the Minho region.

Portuguese restaurateurs in the United States hope to popularize their native foods by combining traditional specialties and ingredients with a lighter, more modern touch.

“In Portugal, we use a lot of lard, which is wonderfully tasty, but people here don’t want to hear about it,” says Cerqueria. “The Portuguese also eat two starches with many of their meals—rice and potatoes. But we’re lightening that up, too.”

In fact, many of Atasca’s signature dishes are petiscos, or Portuguese small plates. While the Portuguese tradition of entradas, or first courses, is not as culturally pervasive as Spanish tapas, these appetizer-size foods are a handy way for customers to try Portuguese food in small doses. Small plates are also a great way for chefs to introduce less familiar foods. Atasca’s petiscos menu includes not only two kinds of grilled sardines and pastels de bacalhau (codfish cakes), but also dobradinha (a scaled-down version of the traditional white-bean stew with linguiça, chouriço, smoked bacon and tripe).

“We can really experiment with small courses,” says Manuel Azevedo, who owns La Salette and who emigrated from the Azores in the 1960s. “Customers in the wine country are very sophisticated, but they may not have had a chance to try much Portuguese food.”

Over the years La Salette’s menu has been considerably refined, culminating two years ago with the addition of Antelmo Faria to the kitchen. Faria, who is also from the Azores, believes that Portuguese food has the potential to be every bit as important as Spanish food. “The two are similar, but Portuguese food really has its own identity,” he says. “There is a tradition in Portugal of really showcasing the ingredients, treating them simply so as not to overpower them. But a lot of the ingredients, especially the spices, are naturally very flavorful.”

Portuguese chefs and restaurateurs in the United States are a bit like missionaries. “We want to educate and entice people,” says Tarcisio Costa, co-owner of Alfama in New York City.

“If we did Portuguese food as it’s done in Portugal, even New Yorkers would not be pleased—it is too strong,” says executive chef Luis Caseiro, whom Costa brought in last year from the northern coast of Portugal to bring Alfama’s menu into a new era. “Instead we pull a lot of flavor from certain key ingredients, like olive oil and spices, but we make it more contemporary.” Alfama’s menu delineates second courses as Classicos do Alfama (Alfama classics), Cozinha Tradicional (traditional Portuguese cuisine) and Nova Cozinha Portuguesa (“new wave”).

Caseiro also pulls from global Portuguese traditions. One of the best-selling items on the menu is Frango Naufragada, a new wave signature that takes its inspiration from Mozambique, which declared its independence from Portugal in 1974. Caseiro marinates organic chicken breast in a spicy blend of onion, garlic, ginger, coconut milk and jalapeño for at least 24 hours, then grills the chicken and sauces it with the marinade ingredients which have been thickened with ground peanuts and brightened with lemongrass—the ingredients are sautéed in a bit of olive oil one by one so that they maintain their distinctive characteristics. The chicken is served over sautéed spinach and a rice pancake made with both white and wild rice.

The beverage program, created by Costa, is equally ambitious: a Wine Spectator award-winning assemblage of more than 100 different wines from Portugal, as well as 52 Ports and 10 Madeiras by the glass.

All well and good, but does Portuguese food have the “legs” to go mainstream? At Avec, Chicago’s highly regarded wine bar, you’ll find a number of Portuguese wines, and chef Koren Grieveson peppers the pan-Med menu with such ingredients as cured sardines and Sao Jorge, an aged Portuguese cow’s milk cheese.

Seth Salzman sees the possibilities. As VP of operations for Atlanta-based Raving Brands, which operates a stable of trendsetting fast-casual concepts, Salzman was instrumental in developing the new Boneheads Grilled Fish & Piri Piri Chicken—an excellent example of the back story that Portuguese food and culture can provide. Though it’s not overtly a Portuguese restaurant, spicy South African piri-piri is a key ingredient in the marinades and dipping sauces that enliven Boneheads’ menu, including Piri Piri Shrimp, wings, chicken, and as a spice on grilled fish.

“When we were ready to start work on our next brand, we had a look at what was missing from the fast-casual marketplace, and that was grilled fish,” says Salzman. “At the same time, we came across the idea of piri-piri chicken restaurants in Africa and realized we had a signature flavor concept to build a menu around.”

Rather than a strict interpretation of piri-piri (a pepper discovered by Portuguese explorers on the coast of Africa), Raving Brands tapped into the appeal of the spice—its fun name, its peppery flavor, the fact that it’s rumored to be an aphrodisiac—and recast it as a series of sauces ranging from medium to extra hot, with lemon & herb and other versions. With four units open and more in development, the concept has done well and in some cases even better than expected.

So, is America ready for piri-piri sauce and cuttlefish?

“If you look at the success of other sauces, like pesto and aïoli, and now churrasco, we obviously do think the time is right,” says Salzman.

For Portugal, that is. Just watch.         


The Portuguese Pantry

Salt cod: Called bacalhau in Portugal, dried salt cod is already catching on, thanks to America’s love affair with all things Mediterranean.

Piri-piri: A spicy chili sauce, often made with olive oil, garlic and lemon juice or vinegar. The condiment takes its name from the incendiary piri-piri pepper, which grows in the former Portuguese colonies of Africa.

Sardines: Sardinhas are a specialty of many coastal Portuguese provinces.

Olive oil and olives: Portuguese olive oil (azeite) is more aromatic, fruity and intense than the Spanish variety, as the olives are left to ripen longer before being pressed; olives themselves (azeitonas) are grown all over Portugal and are used with abandon.

Rice: The short-grain arroz (rice) of Portugal is a key ingredient in many specialties.

Garlic: No Portuguese cook would be without alho (garlic).

Almonds: Amendoas are widely used in sauces and desserts, as well as an accompaniment to Port, and are an important reminder of the Arab influence.

Chouriço and Linguiça: Two of the most popular of many robustly flavored sausages used in Portuguese cooking.

Presunto: Portuguese ham, similar to Serrano.

Cilantro: Also known as fresh coriander, coentro is prevalent in Northern Portugal.

Acfrao: Saffron, which is used more sparingly in Portuguese food than it is in Spain.

Aguardente: “Firewater,” or an eau de vie from grape pips, figs, cherries or arbutus berries.

Feijao: Beans such as chickpeas, black beans, white beans, favas and butter beans are a staple of Portuguese cooking.


Specialties of the Country

Caldo Verde: If there’s anything like a Portuguese national dish, it might be this hearty traditional soup, made
with potatoes, kale and chouriço.

Parelhada: Mixed grill.

Porco a Alentejana: A classic stew of pork, clams in the shell and tomatoes, seasoned with paprika, garlic and cilantro; anything in the style of the Alentejo province will be seasoned with plenty of the last three ingredients.

Paelha: The Portuguese version of paella.

Rissoles: Turnovers, usually made with shrimp.

Dobradinha: Stewed kidney beans with Portuguese sausages, smoked bacon and tripe.

Caldeirada: Fish stew with tomatoes, onions and other seasonings.

Pao: Country bread.

Cataplana: Named after the domed copper vessel that it’s cooked and served in, this seafood stew includes shellfish as well as sausages, tomatoes, onions and red peppers.

Pastel: Fritters: such as those made with salt cod.

Arroz Doce: Sweet rice pudding.

Broa: A round, rustic yeast-raised cornbread.

Bife a Portuguesa: Steak with a traditional tomato-based sauce, topped with presunto and a fried egg.


Field Trip: Newark’s Ironbound

The Northeast is home to many Portuguese communities, thanks to its heritage of fishing, whaling and other maritime activities: Hartford and Danbury/Waterbury, in Connecticut; New Bedford, Gloucester and Fall River, Massachusetts (home of Emeril Lagasse); the industrial areas north of Boston; and a swath of spots around Providence and Newport, Rhode Island.

One of the largest populations of Portuguese outside of Lisbon, however, is located in Newark, New Jersey, in the Ironbound section, so-named because of the large number of iron foundries that were located there in the mid-1800s, many to support the building of the area’s great bridges. The Portuguese came in large numbers beginning in the 1910s, and another wave of Brazilian-Portuguese immigrants arrived in the 1970s. While many immigrants have reached their eventual goal of a house in the suburbs, the Ironbound is still a vital, thriving neighborhood of Portuguese restaurants, bars, social clubs and stores. 

Although the Ironbound encompasses a four-square-mile area, many of the most interesting shops and restaurants are strung along and just off Ferry Street, an easy walk from the Newark train station. Allow a couple hours at least to explore Seabra’s Supermarket (260 Lafayette St., 973-589-8606), a fantastic treasure trove of fresh and dried fish, sausages and smoked meats, Portuguese cheeses, condiments, spices, cooking equipment, olive oil and more cuts of meat than you’ve ever seen.

Stroll Ferry Street for glimpses into fish stores and bakeries, then shop for Portuguese wines at Lisbon Liquor Store (114 Ferry St., 973-344-0139), which also has an excellent selection of Port.

Have lunch at another jewel in the Seabra family crown, Seabra’s Marisqueria (87 Madison St., 973-465-1250; www.njdiningguide.com/seabras.html), which specializes in seafood, Portuguese-style. Arrive just a little early to snag seats at the enormous bar (rather than in the blue-tiled back dining room), and watch the room fill up with Portuguese diners of all stripes, enjoying the enormous daily specials and a glass or two of Dao or fizzy Vinho Verde. Feel free to put yourselves in the waiter’s hands—they are, to a man, just as anxious as you are for your meal to be perfect.

Iberia Peninsula (63-69 Ferry St., 973-344-5611; www.iberiarestaurants.com) is the place to sample authentic riodizio, the Brazilian/Portuguese feast of grilled skewered meats that are brought around to the table until you holler “stop.” Iberia, the sister restaurant across the street (80-84 Ferry St.; 973-344-7603) has a more traditional Spanish/Portuguese menu and truly charming atmosphere. Other local favorites include Casa Vasca (141 Elm St., 973-465-1350), which serves a number of Basque specialties along with Portuguese and Spanish food; Tony da Caneca (72 Elm St., 973-589-6882; www.tonydacaneca.com); and Mompou (77 Ferry St., 973-578-8114; www.mompoutapas.com), a trendy new tapas joint-cum-wine bar.

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