Portugal’s Foodie Empire

July 9, 2014

Quite rightly, the wall-to-wall media coverage of every aspect of Brazilian life that has accompanied the global fixation on the football World Cup has paid little attention to the country’s history as a Portuguese colony.

Quite rightly because Portugal’s empire in the Americas, Africa and Asia was perhaps the least memorable of the European colonial adventures of the last 500 years. Whatever one’s stance on the history of European colonialism, the French, British, Spanish and Dutch empires all contributed something positive to the territories they occupied. But it’s hard to find anything to put in the plus column when checking off the record of imperial Portugal.

And, if the way Portugal abandoned most of the last bits of its overseas possessions is anything to go by, the Portuguese themselves had little attachment to the places they had occupied since the mid-1400s. After the “Carnation Revolution” in April, 1975 overthrew the military regime and established democracy, Portugal abandoned almost overnight its remaining colonies. Angola, Mozambique, East Timor, Goa, Cape Verde, Sao Tome and Principe, and Guinea-Bissau, were cast adrift with no concern for a managed handover.

Departing Portuguese colonists sometimes showed the depth of their contempt by burning their homes and destroying public works such as the water systems and electricity power plants as they left for the airports. Only the gambling enclave of Macau on the South China Coast remained and was finally handed back to Beijing in 2000.

Yet of all the restaurants I have patronized around the world, three of the most memorable are in former Portuguese colonies. It’s not that the Portuguese ran an empire of gastronomy. The common theme in all three restaurants is high quality ingredients, cooked simply and without fuss.

Now, I have to admit that two of the restaurants, one in Mozambique and the other in Angola, were refuges from war reporting. Having survived another day in those circumstances undoubtedly adds zing to the appetite and enlivens the taste buds.

I first went to the Pensao Ideal (the Ideal Inn) in Mozambique’s central coastal city of Quelimane in 1990 while reporting on the civil war that raged for two decades after the departure of the Portugese. The restaurant was in an ordinary colonial villa opposite the municipal soccer stadium and run by the taciturn Pereira brothers, Portuguese who stayed on after 1975.

Colleagues and friends Agence France-Presse reporter Lawrence “Pop” Bartlett and photographer Alexander “AJ” Joe developed a sort of good luck ritual every time we got back into Quelimane from the murderous chaos in the countryside. We’d start with evening beers and bowls of fresh-steamed clams in the outdoor bar at the swimming pool, which didn’t look as though it had been cleaned since the Portuguese left, and had become a fetid haven for reptiles.

Then we’d saunter along beside the river before turning up Avenue Samuel Magaia to the Pensao Ideal. The dining room was nothing special; a high, gloomy room with dark, heavy Portuguese furniture and bad paintings on the walls.

We always ate the same thing. One of the brothers would produce a first course of soup in large bowls whose ingredients were always obscure. That didn’t matter because the main event was the incomparable Mozambique crayfish, cut in half lengthwise, basted with garlic butter, grilled in a barbecue – known by the Afrikaans name of brai in that part of the world – and served with fried potatoes. Mozambique crayfish are one of the world’s delights, as big as lobsters, but without the large claws. With a bottle of vino verde at hand, there are few more potent pleasures.

The fresh grilled fish served at the Restaurante Bordao in the Angolan capital Luanda came close. The Bordao was just a beach bar and café, little more than a palm-thatched hut, at the very end of the long spit of sand that protects Luanda’s harbour from the South Atlantic. Apart from the simple and fresh fish straight from the sea, one of the attractions of the Bordao is that it is cheap and cheerful. This is a stark contrast to the rest of the places on the sand spit, known as Ilha do Cabo, which are grotesquely lavish playgrounds for Angola’s disgustingly rich ruling class. To see the way the bastions of the kleptocratic regime of President Eduardo dos Santos indulge themselves while much of the rest of the country was riven by civil war and starvation would make a revolutionary out of anyone.

One of the great gifts the Portuguese obtained from their East African subjects was the small, red, intensely hot and delicious peri-peri pepper. It is used to make a spicy sauce, which is delicious in many recipes. The classic use, though, is as a basting sauce on chicken, which should by cut along the backbone, splayed and grilled whole over a hardwood barbecue. This recipe was undoubtedly created by Africans long before the arrival of the Portuguese. But the Portuguese, and more recently South Africans, deserve some credit for making peri-peri chicken a global favourite.

I’ve had many fine peri-peri chickens all over east and southern Africa, and especially at the Portuguese Coimbra Restaurant in Harare, Zimbabwe, where we lived. But I think the best was at the other side of the world in Macau on China’s Pearl River delta. A Lorcha near the A Ma Temple on the tip of the Macau Peninsular is a Portuguese restaurant with Chinese characteristics. Grilled peri-peri chicken and a bottle of vino verde in A Lorcha are as fine a way to waste an afternoon as any, though the grilled sardines are also superb and warrant a second visit.

Then it’s time to saunter round to the Clube Militar – members and those from reciprocal clubs only, I’m afraid – for an evening of fado music in the basement bar. Why the Portuguese came up with such lively food and such depressingly mournful music is beyond me.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com 

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