The Fado of Portuguese Food


Since I moved to Italy, slightly more than two years now, one of the things that really impressed me from the start was how Italians, in general, have a good food culture and how they are proud of it. It is a spirit that I really admire and I think that this is one of the main reasons why Italian food became so famous.  That recognition worldwide elevated the Italian language to one of the official languages of gourmet, just like it had happened in the past with French food.

In Portugal, people are also very into food, especially lately with so many cooking shows and food channels on television. Everyone knows what is to confit and it is trendy to serve gourmet and well composed dishes when you have people over. But even with this spirit it seems that Portuguese food never reached a big visibility worldwide. Our food it is still a niche in the international food scene, and this, in my opinion is connected to an interaction of geographic, political and historic factors.

Portuguese cuisine is, without any doubt, my favourite. Everytime I describe someone what we eat in Portugal there is a word that I mention over and over, that word is diversity. Despite the fact that it is a very small country, each region has its own products and typical dishes that are very different from the next region. Close to the sea we have amazingly fresh fish and seafood and inland, dishes where the meat use is more prominent. And talking about meat products, we are also known for using up all of the parts of the animal, especially the pig.

The fact that Portuguese food can be very straight forward is also something very positive. To illustrate this I can tell you that our cuisine plays a lot with sweet/salty contrasts (like Requeijão com doce de Abóbora, a salty Ricotta with Pumpkin jam), or the symbiosis between land and sea ingredients in the same dish (Carne de porco à alentejana, which is a rich pork meat dish with clams and seasoned with garlic and paprika). Basically, our cuisine is not constricted by many rules and culinary dogmas, which still leave us great room for creativity and evolution. Except maybe the holy trinity in each dish start, the garlic, the onion and the tomato. Amen.

When the Portuguese decided discover the world many years ago, we brought and traded a never ending quantity of spices and aromatic herbs, many of which are still well present in most of our dishes. Our cuisine contemplates the Atlantic, but never turning back on the Mediterranean and Arabic heritages. We were influencers and were influenced by so many cultures of the world for so many years.

The reason that makes our cuisine still going under the radar in the world is certainly connected in some way to the lack of self-love that the Portuguese people have been suffering from so long, so long that might even have become chronical.

Amália, the greatest Portuguese fado singer, immortalized this condition in a fado song called “Lisboa Não Sejas Francesa“, which means “Lisbon don’t be French”. These lyrics tell us about a girl who is the personation of the city of Lisbon, that is willing to ignore its origins to embrace the more trendy French ways. This song pretty much sums up the spirit of so many Portuguese people, which sometimes is so open minded and eager to try new and trendy things that quickly forgets about the origins.

I have been noticing lately that anytime a foreign article in the press mentions something good in or from Portugal, the praise is received almost like an epiphany in the country. Are we living on the image that the others have from our country? Sometimes it seems so.

But how and when did we lose our self-love?

Portugal defined its borders many years ago, expelling the Moors and fighting the Spanish family. From those days it seems we have gotten a little too comfortable in our piece of land, maybe because few were the ones that really tried to take it from us ever since. We started the discoveries in the 15th century, that was so long ago but brought so much greatness to the country, that even up to this day we recall it to exalt it as the almost sole good thing the country has achieved (ah yes, along with the national football team achievements, of course). Are we so negative that we need to go that back in time to feel good about ourselves as a country?

After that, the country has witnessed a continuity of darker periods, failing monarchies, a royal bloodline in decadence, republican leaders lacking a vision of common good and a dictatorship that left the country economically, morally and intellectually poor. In these recent years, we still need to be saved from ourselves, with a never ending path of bad leaders, that are only looking to fill their personal bank accounts and getting jobs for their families and friends. But then again, the leaders only reflect their people. Also, I can’t avoid mentioning the deep financial crisis that we are facing since 2010.

But now something seems to be changing in Portugal. We are still under financial crisis, without industry, employment or money, but apparently this situation lead to a change of attitude at national level. Finally people seem to be willing to start going back to basics again, to our origins, valuing our products and our own heritage. Like if the big mental revolution that we had in recent years is giving out their fruits at last.

Could this be a changing point to Portugal? Can this change of attitude put the Portuguese gastronomy on the world food map? A new generation of great and passionate chefs are promoting Portuguese food inside and outside of the country. Promoting the quality of the products, services, restaurants and new food projects with the help of groups, associations and passionate people.

We should be the first to value what we have and only then we can really demonstrate and defend our real potential. Let’s continue to be the citizens of the world, like we always have been, but even more proud of our origins. We are still proving that we are in charge of our fado “destiny” and step by step we are building the foundations for something better.

Illustration credits: Pedro Loureiro |


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