Portuguese cuisine’s divinities

Our exploration of Lisbon continued, and even more so of the divinities that make up Portuguese cuisine. While we treated ourselves to delicious local seafood on Monday, today, we tried the famous Portuguese egg tarts from Pasteis de Belem, famed for using the ancient recipe once used by nuns at the Jeronimos Monastery, Portuguese piri piri spicy chicken, Mozambican cuisine (given Portugal’s proximity to Africa, many Africans and thus their different countries’ cuisines are represented here widely), and Portuguese wine and cheese. Chris declared the pastel de nata (egg tart) from Pasteis de Belem the best egg tart he’d ever eaten. He rarely gets that visibly excited about anything, but after waiting in a short line (he absolutely hates waiting for anything), he purchased four egg tarts and said to me, “Okay, we’re getting four and then we’re leaving.” But I insisted we eat them there and take pictures. After taking his first bite, he exclaimed, “Holy crap. That’s the best egg tart I’ve ever eaten in my life,” then immediately and without hesitation made a beeline back to the counter to buy four more.

Chris grew up eating Nando’s piri piri chicken, so he was especially interested to try the famed Portuguese chicken while in Portugal. I’d enjoyed it with him a couple times during visits to Australia, and while I always thought it was tasty, nothing could have compared to the piri piri chicken we had today at a tiny hole-in-the-wall during lunchtime. We were served a little chicken (you know, the way they were before Americans decided to fatten them up and make them double the size of what they should naturally be), less than 1 kilo in weight, that was spatchcocked, marinated, and roasted over coals and a vibrant fire, constantly basted with additional piri piri marinade (the piri piri pepper originates in Southeast Africa, but was spread by the Portuguese to India). And finally, once the little bird is done roasting over high flames, the cook gives it one last brush with the piri piri oil glaze, chops it up ,and serves it to us on a long platter.

The smell was making me salivate as we waited for it. And when it arrived at the table, there was no mistaking it; it actually smelled and tasted somewhat like the Sichuanese (hua jiao) peppercorn chili oil I’ve been so used to having, just mixed with lots of herbs, spices, and the delicious smell of coal. The roasted coal flavor was evident, and the meat was moist throughout. This was probably one of the absolute best roast chickens I’d ever had in my life. In my humble opinion, this made Nando’s seem plain. The kicker really was the piri piri oil they brushed on at the end, which gave the chicken a slightly numbing and floral flavor. I was so sad when we were at our last bites. I kept licking my fingers and trying to mop up the remaining chili oil at the bottom of the plate with my last tiny bites.

The other delicious and surprising thing we ate today was at a random wine bar that we tucked into when the on-and-off rain came on again. It was a quaint little bar with no more than four or five small tables, a short menu of nibbles and local wines, and one server working there. We enjoyed two glasses each of local wine, ridiculously cheap for the quality and complexities, and since we were getting a little hungry but not too much from having two mini lunches earlier, we decided to eat a bit lighter and ordered a cheese plate, only 12 euros, which included five different local cheese, some mini toasts, and a little cup of house-made pumpkin jam.

I could honestly say that this cheese plate we ordered was one of my absolute favorite cheese plates I’ve ever had. I’ve always loved cheese, though I don’t really eat much of it, but this cheese plate really was the best and most interesting one I’ve ever had (and such a deal). Before we arrived in Portugal, I did a lot of research on the local food, and overall from food lovers who have visited Portugal, it’s pretty much agreed upon that Portugal is completely underrated for 1) wine, 2), olive oil, 3) bread, and 4) cheese. The cheeses of this multicultural and diverse country should be more known and celebrated, but I suppose they are like the Swiss with their delicious wines; they’d rather enjoy it and keep it to themselves rather than export it to other countries to make more money off of them; it’s a very anti-capitalist attitude, isn’t it? We enjoyed amarelo da Beira Baixa, a herby goat-and-sheep milk mix cheese, a cow’s milk cheese, two firmer sheep’s milk cheeses, and a softer goat milk’s cheese. They all went so well with the pumpkin jam, which I wanted to bottle and bring home with me. They were all a mix of grassy, vegetal, creamy, tangy, complex, and sweet. I looked back at pictures of the cheese plate when we returned to the hotel, and none of the pictures could do the cheese justice. they just look like cheese on a wooden board, but these cheese were truly spectacular.

It’s okay that we can’t get these cheeses as easily back home. I guess it’s one of those bittersweet things about travel; sometimes, it’s probably just better to enjoy the local foods and drinks in that area rather than trying to bottle and bring it back home. It makes it more special that way, and we’re then more grateful for the fact that we can be so lucky to travel to these lush regions with their incredible food.

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