Despite being relatively restricted to an Atlantic sustenance, Portuguese cuisine has a lot of Mediterranean influences. The influence of Portugal's former colonial possessions is also notable, especially in the wide variety of spices used. These spices include piri piri (small, fiery chili peppers) and black pepper, as well as cinnamon, vanilla and saffron. Olive oil is one of the bases of Portuguese cuisine both for cooking and flavoring meals. Garlic is widely used, as are herbs such as coriander and parsley.
Portugal is a seafaring nation with a well-developed fishing industry and this is reflected in the amount of fish and seafood eaten. The country has Europe's highest fish consumption per capita and is among the top four in the world for this indicator. Foremost amongst these is bacalhau (cod), which is the type of fish most consumed in Portugal. It is said that there are more than 365 ways to cook bacalhau, one for every day of the year. Cod is almost always used dried and salted because the Portuguese fishing tradition in the North Atlantic developed before the invention of refrigeration - therefore it needs to be soaked in water or sometimes milk before cooking.
The simpler fish dishes are often flavored with virgin olive oil and white wine vinegar.
For such a small country, Portugal has a broad range of terrains and climates within its bounds. There are rocky coastlines on the western shores, and fine sandy beaches in the Algarve, to the south. The islands of Madeira are semi-tropical. The plains of the Alentejo are dry and home to olive groves and cork trees. In the north are cool mountains and running brooks.
One of the biggest influences on Portuguese cooking is, without a doubt, the ocean. Portugal is on the southwestern-most tip of the Iberian Peninsula, and is bound by the sea on two of its borders. Portugal also contains two island archipelagos: Madeira and the Azores. Seafood is an integral part of the cuisine, from Shrimp to the hundreds of varieties of bacalhau (dried codfish).
Each of the provinces of Portugal contains its own culinary traditions based on the terrain and the foods available. For example, in Tras-os-Montes, which is sheep and goat grazing country, meat dishes are prevalent. Madeira is famous for its black scabbard fish (found only in this environment) served with fried bananas. The town of Alcobaça in the Estremadura province is known for the Frango na Pucara (jugged chicken with ham).
The biggest external influence on Portuguese cooking, however, must be attributed to Portugal’s famous history as maritime explorers and colonists. Driven to find a better route to trade with the East, the ships headed south and began to explore the coast of Africa. This initial exploration brought unknown items such as coffee, peppers and peanuts home.
The Portuguese became the first to round the Cape of Good Hope and make their way to the Far East. This began the robust trade of spices such as cinnamon and curry and foods like rice and tea into Portugal’s boundaries and, from there, all over the rest of Europe.
The Portuguese embraced these strong flavors with gusto and these popular Portuguese cooking spices appear in higher proportions in Portuguese cuisine than any other European country.
Bacalhau dishes are common in Portugal, in the northwest of Spain, and to a lesser extent in former Portuguese colonies like Cape Verde, Angola, Macau, Brazil, and Goa. Bacalhau can be considered the iconic ingredient of Portuguese cuisine (but curiously the only fish that is not consumed fresh in this fish-loving nation). It is often cooked on social occasions and is the Portuguese traditional Christmas dinner in some parts of Portugal.
Similar recipes can be found across Europe. It is also found in the cuisines of other territories and regions like Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. In Norway, where most of the salted and dried cod is produced, bacalhau commonly refers to a specific dish prepared with salted and dried cod, potatoes, onions, tomatoes and olives.
Bacalhau is often served with potatoes. Green (Vinho Verde) or mature wines (Alentejo Wine, Dão Wine, or Douro Wine) are served alongside.
The Cataplana is a peculiar and unique Portuguese cooking utensil, whose origin is still little known, since there are no official historical records of its appearance and creation. To find the roots of Cataplana, we are almost obliged to investigate in this case the Arab influence from North Africa, which for over 500 years marked the great destinations of the Algarve region and is still well reflected in their culture and crafts.
The Cataplana as we know it today began to be produced many decades ago in the Algarve region by former ancient copper artisans, masters in the art of working with copper, for which this region was once widely known.
The Cataplana is basically two half concave pans, joined by a hinge and two side locks, allowing an hermetic cooking of the dishes, becoming really, the forerunner of the current modern pressure cooker, what makes the Cataplana a truly ancient primitive pressure cooker.
Initially produced in Zinc, soon began to be produced in copper. The use of copper, besides allowing an excellent conductivity of heat throughout all the Cataplana structure, it also gives a special unique and incomparable flavor.