Portuguese / Japanese / Hot Chillies
Wherever the Portuguese went, fusion foods followed.
The Portuguese Empire was the earliest and longest lived of the modern European colonial empires. From the capture of Ceuta in North Africa in 1415, to the return of Macau to China in 1999, the Empire spanned nearly six centuries. Access to commodities, such as spices, fabrics, and gold, motivated the Portuguese to extend their reach across the globe. For around 200 years, during the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal dominated world trade.
It’s empire, like that of many European countries, was built on violence and exploitation. But there were also moments when Portuguese cuisine mixed with foreign food cultures to create iconic and delicious dishes. Wherever the Portuguese went, a mingling of food and flavours followed.
Nanban, thank you ma'am: The birth of tempura
In 1543, a Chinese ship en route to Macau was blown off course towards the Japanese island of Tanegashima. The ship had three Portuguese travelers onboard who were about to become the first Europeans ever to set foot in Japan. This marked a turning point in Euro-Japanese relations, and from this time on a steady stream of Portuguese traders and Jesuit missionaries arrived in Japan. They came to be known by the locals as ‘southern barbarians’ or nanban, a name which also became associated with their food. Until 1639, Portuguese trade with the island nation would prosper, afterwhich Japan would close her doors to foreigners. But this didn’t stop the exchange of food.
One dish the Portuguese left behind, and one of Japan’s most iconic, was peixinhos da horta, a meal of battered and fried green beans. It became known in Japan as tempura.
Traditionally, the Japanese don’t like oily or greasy food and their cooking steered clear of all fats and oils, but these traditions would soon make way for tempura. Japanese cooks adapted the Portuguese recipe, producing a light, crunchy batter that became a mainstay of their cuisine.
The earliest recipes date from the 1600s and refer to fried fish in a broth. This dish was so well loved that it’s said Ieyasu Tokugawa, founder of the Tokugawa dynasty, died in 1616 from overeating it.
Tempura also became important in Buddhist vegetarian cooking and by the second half of the 18th century it could be bought from the pushcart vendors across old Edo (modern day Tokyo). Today, tempura is often considered an art in Japanese cooking and there are special tempura-ya, or tempura shops, dedicated to the nanban dish.
Goan, have a bite: Cooking up vindaloo
The Portuguese first landed in Goa in the early 16th century, and, after defeating the ruling sultan, they governed the state for around 450 years. Acting as a gateway to the East, it was an important possession for the Portuguese. The long period of rule witnessed a mix of Latin, Hindu and Muslim cultures, reflected through the blending of Portuguese and Indian cookery.
The best known example of this is vindaloo. We Brits know it today as rich and (very) spicy curry that’s a mainstay of the Indian takeaway - and also an annoying football chant. You, and many footy fans, might be surprised to know that vindaloo actually traces its roots back a traditional Portuguese stew, vinha d’alhos, literally meaning ‘wine and garlic’.
Upon arrival in India, the Portuguese found that wine vinegar, a key ingredient in vinha d’alhos, as well as many other Portuguese dishes, wasn’t produced but that a similar sour-hot taste could be achieved by combining tamarind and black pepper. Some enterprising Franciscan priests supposedly then manufactured vinegar from coconut toddy, the alcoholic drink made from fermenting palm tree sap, and added this to the tamarind and pepper mix.
It was also the Portuguese who introduced the chilli to Goa, and subsequently the rest of India. As we’re now aware, chillies became an important ingredient in many dishes across the subcontinent, including, of course, vindaloo. In fact, within 30 years of the Portuguese first reaching Goa, at least three different types of chilli plants were growing there, with some vindaloo recipes called for as many as 20 red chillies.
By the time the British invaded Goa in 1797, they found a rich, flavourful dish of pork, coconut vinegar, spices and red chillies. And, after ruling for 17 years, they returned Goa to the Portuguese but took vindaloo and the Goan cooks who made it with them.
The primary sauce: The origins of piri piri
From 1415 until the 1600s, Portugal explored most of the West African coast in search of gold, ivory, and pepper. It was a period when over 175,000 people were enslaved and taken to Europe and the Americas. During this time Portugal established colonies in present-day Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique.
It was also a time that saw the transmission of food and recipes. One ingredient was piri piri, or the African bird’s eye chilli, that today grows in many parts of Africa. The piri piri chilli, as you might have guessed, is the central ingredient in piri piri sauce, along with garlic, red wine vinegar and paprika.
There are two origin stories for piri piri sauce. The first maintains that it was Portuguese colonists who carried piri piri chillies to Mozambique from the New World. This could have happened anytime from the early 1500s after the Portuguese gained control of the Island of Mozambique and the port city of Sofala. Either the Portuguese brought the sauce ready made, or they concocted it there. Either way, the people of Mozambique found the sauce so delicious they named the chilli pepper after it and eventually adopted it as their national dish.
The second story believes that the Portuguese came across the piri piri chilli in Mozambique and created the sauce there. They were so enamoured with the sauce and with the chillies that they spread them across their empire, notably to Goa, where it was used to add heat to dishes, including, of course, vindaloo. But if this story is true, how did the piri piri chilli, a South American fruit, arrive in East Africa without assistance from the Portuguese?
The details surrounding the introduction of chillies into Africa are unclear. It likely happened during the transfer of flora and fauna between the New World and the west African coast during the slave trade, also known as the Columbian Exchange. From here, Guinea traders spread chillies across the Sahara and into North Africa, where people then transported them across the rest of the continent. Humans would have also been helped by Africa’s keen-eyed birds, who were so handy at spreading plants that chillies often arrived in areas long before foreign explorers did (hence its other name - the African bird's eye chilli).
So, whether or not the Portuguese introduced the piri piri chilli or found it already being grown, piri piri is now considered an Afro-Portuguese sauce that in recent years has been spread even further afield through 1000 restaurants in 30 countries by the well-known South African chain, Nando's.
More fusion foods…
The Kristang are a creole ethnic group with Portuguese and Malaccan heritage who live in Malaysia and Singapore. Their cuisine is famous for its pork and seafood stews, the most popular being cari debal, or Devil’s curry, traditionally served at Christmas.
Macanese, if you please
Macanese cuisine is a unique blend of southern Chinese and Portuguese cooking, which uses ingredients from Africa, Europe, India, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. Popular snacks include the pork chop bun, ginger milk, egg tarts, and almond cake.
United Plates of América
In the late 19th century, many Portuguese emigrated to the eastern US, particularly New England. Their presence can still be tasted in dishes like the local clam or fish chowder which is spiked with a sausage resembling linguica or chourico (Portugal’s version of chorizo).
Timor or less
Portuguese Timor, modern day Timor-Leste (or East Timor), was a colony from 1702 to 1975. Up until the mid-19th century, sandalwood was the island’s chief export, supplemented with honey, wax, and slaves. It was the Portuguese who introduced coffee, which now accounts for three-quarters of all its exports.