• Spencer Low

Asian influence on Portuguese culture – Food

I recently had an interesting conversation with João Pimenta, bureau chief for the Portuguese Lusa News Agency who's lived in China for more than 10 years, about this blog on the Portuguese influence on different parts of Asia. João suggested that I also look into the other side of the story in terms of how Asia has influenced Portuguese culture. He commented, for example, that the Portuguese eat a lot of rice, and it is not uncommon to come across Portuguese people with somewhat Asian features.

Canja da galinha: a Portuguese soup with rice and chicken that's very similar to Chinese congee (粥)

Starting with food, it is true that the Portuguese eat a lot of rice, so much so that the country ranks #1 in Europe for rice consumption! (In terms of rice production, Italy is #1 in Europe, and clearly they export what they don't use for their own risotto.) Although rice was first domesticated in Asia thousands of years ago, it was the Arabs who introduced rice to Portugal in the 8th century during the Moorish settlement of Iberia. The Portuguese word for rice, arroz, comes from the Arabic أرز (’arúzz), which in turn is derived from the Greek, who took the word from the Persians, who possibly borrowed the word from Sanskrit, and the Sanskrit from a language further away in Asia...


Similarly confusing is the evolution of sarapatel, a pork dish (also made with lamb or goat) associated with Alentejo. It is speculated that this started with the Jewish community in Castelo de Vide, presumably using lamb or goat instead, or with African slaves in Brazil who had to make do with less desirable parts like tail, ear, intestines, tongue and even blood. The Alentejo version made it to India, and the Goans improved the recipe by adding, surprise, spices: chilies, cloves, saffron, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, ginger, garlic, and tamarind. It is this version of sarapatel that is common today even in Portugal.

Portuguese sarapatel, also known as sorpotel in India

Another interesting dish is canja de galinha, a Portuguese chicken soup with lots of rice. Popularly eaten when suffering from a cold, this dish was brought back to Portugal from China, where it's known an 粥 (zhōu). It is the English word for this, congee, that betrays the Asian connection. Both canja and congee are words derived from Dravidian languages in the south of India, the Portuguese from Malayalam (കഞ്ഞി kanji), the language spoken along the Malabar coast (see article on the Portuguese influence on Kerala), while the English from Tamil (கஞ்சி kañci). This was possibly the first international comfort food...


Canja was another way in which rice was further popularized in Portugal, changing it from an rare ingredient reserved for the wealthy during the Middle Ages. By the time António Maria de Oliveira Bello, the founder of the Portuguese Society of Gastronomy, published his book Culinária Portuguesa in 1935, it featured 25 rice recipes, including some from Macau and India.


In my conversation with João, I pointed out another ingredient common in Asia that seemed to set the Portuguese apart from other Europeans, namely coriander (also known as cilantro) or coentro in Portuguese. In fact, Portugal is the only European country to use coriander as a fresh herb for local dishes, which is the case for most countries in Asia. Research however shows that there are two complications for including coriander in this article: first, there's apparently a "coriander line" broadly following the Tejo River that separates Portugal into the coriander-eating south and the parsley-eating north (I clearly have spent more time south of that line). Second, coriander was introduced into Portugal by... the Moors, and connects Portuguese cuisine to that of North Africa. That said, Asians visiting Portugal will continue to remark on this culinary similarity.


Let's wrap up with beverages and dessert. Portugal today is probably more a coffee-drinking nation than a big tea-drinking one, possible thanks to Brazil being a big producer of coffee. It was the Portuguese who first introduced tea from China to Europe in the 16th century. When the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza married the English King Charles II in 1662, she brought her liking for tea with her to the English court and the rest is history. Finally, while Portugal exported its pastéis de nata or egg tarts to Asia, notice that cinnamon is often sprinkled on them. In fact even the custard is made with using cinnamon sticks for flavouring. Before the Portuguese started exporting cinnamon in large quantities from Sri Lanka in the 16th century, the spice was so precious it was a fitting gift for monarchs and even deities. Nowadays, the Portuguese use cinnamon liberally in their traditional desserts and savoury dishes. Enjoy!






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