FOOD CULTURE: Obrigado, Portugal
Gwynne Conlyn considers the culinary ties that bind the Portuguese community all over the world, and in SA specifically
Every weekend in Portugal there’s a festival that celebrates saints — and along with them, always, food. Cuisine has celestial-sized significance in that corner of the Iberian peninsula.
SA’s doyenne of Portuguese cooking, author of several cookery books and consultant for many years to the Nando’s group of restaurants, Mimi Jardim, says: "For instance, bacalhau is so important in Portugal — and to the local Portuguese community — that there’s even a Bacalhau Academy in Johannesburg, now in its 50th year, which meets on a regular basis." No surprise then, that this salted, dried cod dish goes by the nickname of Fiel Amigo (loyal friend).
As far as the SA Portuguese community goes, a large number of immigrants came from the island of Madeira (an autonomous region of Portugal), looking for work. Men who were mainly farmers became migrant workers in the fish industry and many worked in SA ports.
Their attitude to hard work is solidly entrenched in John Morte’s psyche. He is thecharismatic owner of the award-winning Impala Meat Centre in Northcliff, Johannesburg.
"My forefathers had to go to market at 4am six days a week to buy stock. There was nothing lucky about their success. It was all due to hard work.
"My father was in retail. Before I could even see over a countertop, I was behind it. If we didn’t have sport on weekends, we’d have to go help in the family shop. I was the unpaid counter hand and till operator. The Portuguese are focused on keeping the ball rolling. It’s a survival thing.
"Our forefathers were willing to do what others wouldn’t: stand in a fish and chips shop from four in the morning to 11 at night. And do that seven days a week for 10 or 20 years.
"Our grandparents were separated from their families back home and worked in SA until they had enough money to bring their families here. They opened shops, started to trade, and saved money in order to do so."
The Portuguese first arrived in SA in large numbers in the 1920s. By 1938 the community was flourishing, though the largest influx was in the 1950s.
Morte’s butchery is famous for its produce. Its contemporary interior and fridges stacked with trendy wagyu beef steaks have not replaced traditional solid service and goods. Homemade peri-peri basting, chicken livers — you’ll find them there. "We Portuguese people love meat, especially pork," he laughs, "and we believe whole-heartedly in the head-to-tail use of the animal."
This "head to tail" cooking means you use everything; prime cuts for the best dishes, then the trimmings for chorizo, for instance and black sausages. "We also cure a lot of our meats."
In rural areas families keep pigs and chickens and grow vegetables, no matter how small their gardens. Taken that every part of the animal is used, meats like the spicy chorizo sausages are cured and hung in fireplaces to dry out.
I visit one of my favourite Portuguese restaurants, 1920, in an unassuming shopping centre in Ferndale, Johannesburg, looking for a plate of caldo verde (literally green soup) — the go-to starter among many Portuguese diners. When it arrives the soup is the greenest I’ve seen anywhere. Jardim tells me her secret is to add the steamed kale at the end so as to not overcook it and to use — always — Portuguese olive oil, a small pool of it drizzled over the soup just before serving.
The menu also features amêijoas (clams braised in white port and tomato), much-loved prawn rissoles and lulas (calamari). The Portuguese cook hundreds of their favourite fish and seafood varieties in the ever-popular cooking receptacle, a cataplana, which is also the name of a regional dish — the famous clams in cataplana.
Portuguese spices include something from every part of the globe — a reminder of Portugal’s colonial past. Peri-peri has been an essential ingredient in Portuguese food since the 14th century, and is used in everything from soups to shellfish. The African bird’s eye chilli, cultivated mainly in Mozambique, is used in abundance here. It might not be the predominant taste in many dishes, but if you’re clever, you use it to add to the depth of flavour.
When the Portuguese settlers in Africa came across bird’s eye chilli, they inventively made a marinade with garlic, red wine vinegar and paprika. This chilli packs a punch. Depending on the crop, it can register up to 175,000 heat units on the Scoville scale (which rates the hotness of the chilli) — and that’s high!
One cannot consider Portuguese or, as we’re in Africa, Mozambican feasts without sweeping ourselves — or visitors — off to one of two major, legendary restaurants, one in Johannesburg and one in Cape Town. Both are centres of peri-peri excellence.
In Johannesburg, the renowned Radium Beer Hall, which opened in 1929, serves, for instance, Mozambican piri-piri frango (grilled chicken with the Radium’s famous peri-peri marinade, which is made using chilli, paprika and garlic).
At Dias Tavern in Cape Town there’s an extensive menu, plastic chairs, sailors, journalists, tourists and, of course, locals craving their Portuguese steak (with the obligatory hot sauce). It’s served with the ever-popular Portuguese cured sausage, chorizo, and their fabled chips.
The Portuguese also love to use what they drink in the dish they’re preparing — for instance, brandy in their soup, which they flambé just before serving.
Says Morte: "I remember a vineyard in Kensington, here in Johannesburg, where the owner — an uncle — made his own wine. We’d have a feast. The whole family was there, with my cousin playing the accordion."
Jardim’s family came from their homeland of Portugal. "My father came here because he wanted to give us children a better way of life. We had a reasonable way of life in Portugal but the thing is, if they had all the comforts there, they wouldn’t have come."
So what about the provenance of ingredients?
Says Jardim:"For instance, the goats in Portugal are very selective and because of that they’re much tastier than the goats here. It may be a joke, but because of special herbs the goats there eat in the mountains, they taste so much better to us. "I also get my oreganum from Portugal. And I use Portuguese olive oil — I can’t cook with anything else."
Is Portuguese food seasonal? "In the old days you ate according to the season, whatever ingredients were available.
"For instance, there’s a dish that I love: peas with eggs. However, you can only eat that dish in spring when the peas are young and fresh."
Fry chorizo and (spring) lamb and then add peas, then poach the eggs in the dish. It becomes almost like a shakshuka(a dish of eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, chilli, onions with added cumin, paprika and cayenne pepper).
The boldly coloured Barcelos Rooster, Galo de Barcelos, is considered to be the unofficial symbol of Portugal and the embodiment of the Portuguese love of life.
The legend takes place in 15th-century Barcelos. One version of the story goes that an impoverished pilgrim was arrested for an unsolved crime and condemned to hang. He asked to appear in front of the judge who had sentenced him to death.
The pilgrim was brought to the judge’s house while he was having a banquet with friends. The pilgrim pointed to a cooked rooster and said that the rooster would crow at the hour of his hanging as proof of his innocence.
The judge set aside the rooster and refused to eat it. As the pilgrim was about to be hanged, the roasted rooster stood up on the table in front of the crowd and crowed just as the pilgrim predicted. The judge realised he had made a mistake and rushed to save the pilgrim.
This rooster is considered a blessing, not only in Portugal but also wherever Portuguese people have settled. Pertinent, then, that the rooster is linked forever with food.
SA peri-peri bastion Nando’s uses the Galo de Barcelos as its emblem. Very apt, I’d say.
Try them yourself:
Impala Meat Centre: 011-782-7755
1920 Portuguese restaurant: 011-886-0804 / 011-326-3161
Radium Beer Hall: 011-728-3866
Dias Tavern: 021-465-7547