The Flavors Of A Portuguese Childhood

I am a first-generation American, born to parents who are from the Azores; a Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic sometimes called “the Hawaii of Europe.” My parents immigrated to the United States during the 1970s, looking for economic opportunity, aka hoping to achieve the American dream.

Like many other kids born to immigrant parents, I was constantly embarrassed by the “weird” food we ate. Stewed peas with sausage (ervilhas guisadas com linguiça), fried whole fish and baked yams, boiled salt cod (bacalhau) with cabbage… One of my favorite memories was when my cousins and I realized we knew nothing about the ‘lapas’ that our parents obsessed over as a rare delicacy. They are small, round shellfish eaten raw with red wine vinegar and thinly sliced onion (somewhat similar to raw oysters or clams). This realization occurred before the internet was widely available, so after much research we learned the translation for the Portuguese word ‘lapa’ is limpet. When we looked up limpet in the encyclopedia, the very short description included “eaten by those avoiding starvation on deserted islands.” That pretty much summed up how we felt about them.

Now, as an adult and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist I cherish my rich food heritage. What I love particularly is that Azorean food is deceptively simple. The ingredient lists are minimal yet the flavor far exceeds the sum of its parts. The dishes are rustic and hearty and although the islands are decidedly Atlantic and continental Portugal doesn’t even technically border the Mediterranean, the cuisine certainly mirrors a Mediterranean style of eating.

Of course, now the Mediterranean diet is trendy and popular. However, my family ate that way out of necessity simply due to being poor. As a child, my dad didn’t have electricity or running water. Since refrigeration was non-existent, you can imagine that whole cuts of beef or pork were rare and saved for occasional Sundays and celebrations. Cured meats and bones were used to flavor dishes. Chicken was consumed more often, when one could be slaughtered. The bulk of meals centered on fish and seafood, which could be caught daily. And of course, fresh fruits and veggies, beans, and dairy were daily fare as well since they could be grown in the garden or procured from the family cows.

Given that I’ve made it part of my life’s work to promote greater fruit and vegetable intake, I especially love to share my family’s fruit and vegetable traditions. Staple vegetables and herbs include garlic, onions, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, cabbage, Portuguese kale, peas, fennel, parsley, and cilantro. With a sub-tropical climate, local fruits include olives, figs, passion fruit, grapes, melon, pineapple, bananas, citrus fruits, and guava.

Our family recipes are yet to be published. In fact, they aren’t even written down. Like many traditional dishes the methods are passed down orally, in the kitchen, and often with vague instructions (“a little bit of this, some of that if you have it”). Regardless, here are two of my favorite dishes. I hope they inspire you to try a recipe with an Azorean twist!

“Sopa de couves” translates to kale soup. Simmer garlic, onion, peppercorns, red chile flakes, Portuguese sausage, white wine, water and a bay leaf with bone-in beef (like a shank) for about 2 hours to make the base of this soup. Then add collard greens (which are closer to Portuguese kale than American kale is), potatoes, and kidney beans to the pot and cook until the collards are tender. Finish with a little bit of red wine vinegar to add brightness to the broth. If you want to try this recipe, here is one version from David Leite’s The New Portuguese Table, a cookbook that I own and love.

Tomato salad was a common side in our house. My dad usually made it when we were having fish for dinner. This salad is an example of a recipe that is better than the sum of its parts. You will look at the ingredients and think, hmm, that looks boring. But when you try it, you will be amazed!

If you ever get the chance to visit the Azores, or a predominant community in the United States (there are large communities in places like Fall River, MA, Astoria, OR, the SF Bay Area and Hawaii) take the chance to immerse yourself in one of the lesser-known yet deeply delicious European cuisines. Your taste buds will be rewarded!

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