THE CUISINE OF an entire country cannot be captured in a single volume. That’s a lesson learned the hard way by Leandro Carreira, the chef behind the beautiful, ambitiously titled “Portugal: The Cookbook,” out now from Phaidon. A fixture of the London food scene, Carreira opened the much-loved but short-lived restaurant Londrino in 2017 and is now involved in the Pavilion Road gem The Sea, The Sea. He had spent years living outside his native Portugal when he was approached by an editor to take on this project.
Though he’s been busy, he couldn’t turn down the opportunity to gather the recipes of Portugal, which felt fated. The book, he writes “is not — and cannot be — an exhaustive catalogue” of the national gastronomy of his country — it’s simply too vast. Rather, he presents “the most significant cornerstones of each region,” gathered over the course of two and a half years of research, some facilitated by his sister and his parents.
Some of the traditional recipes in this book are imperiled, as there is no one to take over their traditional preparation. Take, for example, “Fatias de Tomar,” or egg “cake” slices soaked in vanilla syrup. Carreira’s parents helped track down the last shop in the country that makes the proper vessel for the dish. An 87-year-old artisan handmakes the stainless-steel bain-marie-type pot, but has no one to whom he can teach this skill. It’s a state of affairs, Carreira writes, that lends a comprehensive cookbook like this one “such urgency and importance.” It is not simply a record of recipes — many passed down orally or handwritten by Carreira himself — but of the often lost or disappearing traditions surrounding them.
“Portugal: The Cookbook” takes readers on a tour through the surprising culinary diversity of this small coastal nation of 10 million inhabitants. Carreira opens the volume with an interesting history of the region, with tales of the Phoenicians popularizing salted fish (bacalhau, or salt cod, still predominates), as well as garbanzo beans, pomegranates, figs, olives, grapes, and almonds. And the Romans, who invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 219 B.C., brought the holy trinity of the Mediterranean diet, according to Carreira: “wheat, wine, and olive oil.” The Moors brought artichokes, asparagus, leeks, lentils, carrots, cauliflower, and much more. They also introduced sugarcane and sugar cultivation, which would have an outsized impact on global history. Iberian Jews, who cooked on Friday so they could rest on the Sabbath, developed preserving methods and dishes that would last, like adafina, a savory meat stew.
This rich history continues to be reflected in Portuguese cuisine. Fish is one of its stars. The fish chapter in this cookbook boasts around two dozen recipes showcasing salt cod, as well as dishes with hake, tuna, grouper, skate, eel, and more. (“Shellfish and Snails” get their own chapter.) Chapters on meat are robust enough to be separated by type: “Poultry and Game”; “Pork”; “Beef and Veal”; “Mutton, Lamb, and Goat”; and so on. The sections on sweets toward the end of the book are a reminder that the Portuguese make some of the best. Here, classics like pastéis de nata, or eggy custard tarts, sit side by side with surprising entries like “Milk Liqueur,” which is popular at the holidays, and a wedding cake from Alentejo called “Rancid Lard” (the ingredient, fortunately, does not appear).
To embark on certain recipes in this impressively exhaustive 450-page book, such as “Pork Offal Rice Stew With Pig’s Blood” or “Cow’s Hoof With Chickpeas,” you’d have to be satisfying a nostalgic craving or a strong curiosity. But this book is also filled with exceedingly simple, fresh recipes, like “Tomato Salad With Oregano” and “Stewed Peas With Poached Eggs.” For those curious about the Portuguese approach to flavor — both its history and its many variations — this volume is unparalleled.
Nina Renata Aron Writer
Nina Renata Aron is a senior editor of Departures based in Oakland, California. She is the author of "Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls." Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.