My first experience of “Portuguese Food” was in a Nando’s restaurant in Malaysia and later in London. The flavors of Nando’s marinade chicken and their sauces were heavenly; it won my heart since the first time I dined at a Nando’s. The newly discovered “Portuguese food” was on top of the list of my favourite foods. It is the only “Portuguese food” I’ve ever tasted, until, we made a trip to Lisbon, Portugal. When we planned a holiday to Portugal in 2013, the first thing that came to my mind was “I’ll be eating authentic Portuguese food.” The possibility of eating Portuguese food in Portugal was an exciting idea and something I looked forward on that trip.
We arrived in Portugal as our last destination on our itinerary. Before Lisbon, we were in Berlin, Germany and Barcelona in Spain for a few days. Therefore, we’ve had European food all along, on the way to Lisbon. I remember being very excited about our first dining experience in Lisbon. We arrived in our hotel around lunch time. After check-in to our hotel, we had a light lunch by sharing a salad between us and each of us had a “traditional Portuguese lentil soup.” It didn’t taste extraordinary; I felt the texture and flavors were not outstanding. After lunch we didn’t waste any time but went out to explore the city of Lisbon.
When it was time for dinner, we were still on the go but tired. We looked into several restaurant menus displayed at the entrance of the many restaurants. To our disappointment, all the menus had salads, steaks, pasta and plenty of seafood and fish dishes. The food I had imagined and hoped to taste doesn’t seem to exist. I was hoping to find marinated chicken in that particular flavors I had tasted earlier. I was looking forward in having succulent chicken that is marinated in spicy, herby flavors. It’s tanginess making the chicken outstandingly unique that is served with rice or fries. Due to a preconceived idea about Portuguese food, that’s what I was trying to find, I had imagined as Portuguese food. Then I began to wonder, what is considered Portuguese food? What is their speciality? The few restaurant managers and waiters, who were able to converse in English told me they’re famous for seafood and various types of fish, especially cod. The meat dishes mainly come from different parts of pork. My experience and observation in Portugal made me realise their food is similar to many European dishes, mildly flavoured with various types of herbs. In most resturant tables, the African Bird’s Eye Chili soaked in olive oil, and Peri-Peri sauce was available for those who wish to enhance their taste buds with some extra flavours. I was surprised to find that chicken dishes are rare on restaurant menus. Some restaurants in Lisbon didn’t even have a single chicken dish that’s featured on their menu.
Many cafes specialized in savory and sweet pastries who served coffee and tea are popular among the tourists and Lisboner’s. Those cafes had played a substantial role in Lisbon’s history. According to one commentary we heard, Portuguese artists and writers and their intellectual community used to meet in such cafes and made critical decisions centuries ago. We had our breakfast and sometimes a late afternoon tea in some of those cafes. They served short-eats similar to Maldivian delicacies. One such item we found in a cafe was same as the ‘gulha,’ we have in the Maldives. ‘Gulha’ is a round ball of flour stuffed with a mix of tuna fish, onion, coconut, chilli and lime. The Portuguese version of ‘gulha’ is stuffed with meat, instead of fish. There was another similar looking item as our ‘biscutlets’ a pastry like a savoury item made with a boiled egg, tuna and potato mix. It was made exactly the same way replacing tuna with meat. We Maldivians make another savory item called “rolls.” To make rolls, one would have to make thin pancakes from the batter of wheat flour. Then the pancake is filled with spicy tuna and folded into a roll, The roll is then dipped into a mixture of egg and rubbed with breadcrumbs before frying. We found a similar version of the same item in Lisbon, the only difference being it stuffed with seafood. The main difference with Portuguese short eats was the meat and seafood they use for stuffing their short eats. Due to the similarities, I was curious to find about the origins of those delicacies but due to the language barrier it proved to be impossible. Our history suggests that the Maldives was under Portuguese rule for years, I couldn’t help but wonder about the similarities we have in savoury snack food we share with the Portuguese. Did we learn to make it from Portuguese or vice versa?