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Cuisines of Portuguese Encounters
by Cherie Hamilton

Reviewed by Elliot Essman

Cherie Hamilton’s Cuisines of Portuguese Encounters celebrates, in the language of food, the vast area the Portuguese touched since beginning their intrepid voyages of discovery five centuries ago. Portugal created the first European overseas empire. Brazil, in South America, is the largest country of Portuguese heritage. Malacca, East Timor, and Macao in Southeast Asia were all Portuguese colonies, as was Goa on the west coast of India. Stretching down from Portugal itself off the West African coast are the islands of Madeira, the Azores, Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe. Tiny Guinea-Bissau nestles in the western bulge of the African continent, while the large countries of Angola and Mozambique round out the picture. To give a truly adequate picture of Portuguese cultural influence, one must not forget southeastern Massachusetts, stretching from Fall River and New Bedford north through Boston, where Portuguese, Cape Verdeans, Brazilians, Angolans and others celebrate their language and cuisine in vibrant communities. Culinary television’s biggest star, Emeril Lagasse, basks freely in these roots.

It’s all steeped in history, Hamilton stresses, and the broadest variety of cultural mix. Vibrant Portugal influenced its far-flung colonies, and these lands influenced Portugal in turn. The Portuguese brought the sweet potato from its native South America to Africa, where it is today an important staple. They brought the peanut to Africa from South America as well, in time for African slaves to bring the peanut in turn to North America. Food colonization has strange ways. Because the Portuguese arrived in Asia so early (they were the first Europeans to reach Japan), they were also responsible for the initial spread of the rice crop to Africa, Europe and the Americas. They also left their mark in the East. The Japanese dish tempura owes its name to the Portuguese word tempero, meaning seasoning.

Any Brazilian will tell you that the country’s national dish is feijoada, a bean-based stew. Since Brazil is large, you’ll find as many varieties of feijoada, each with its passionate fans, as you do barbecue in the United States. Circle the world, and you’ll find varieties of feijoada in Portugal itself, Cape Verde, Mozambique, Indian Goa, and East Timor. Cuisines of Portuguese Encounters hence offers four recipes for the dish. Hamilton aims to be complete, and so has structured the book course-by-course rather than country-by-country. Within each course section—say fish—she provides country affiliations as well as copious head-notes explaining the significance of the dish. Maderia’s Atum de São Jõao (St. John’s Tuna) celebrates St. John’s day—June 24th—with a detailed story. Since John the Baptist is the “marrying saint,” young, unmarried women hold hands while they dance around the bonfire and sing to Saint John to bring them a bridegroom. Macao’s Empada de Peixe (Fish Torte) also has a religious connection; it is a favorite for lunch the day before Christmas, when the devout abstain from meat. Brazil has its Torta de Semana Santa (Holy Week Pie), a complicated concoction based on salt-cod, shrimp, lobster, oysters, crabs and clams, enjoyed on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. We enjoy the same copious detail in the sections on appetizers, salads, soups, meats, poultry, desserts, bread and more.

It would take a truly obsessed cook to make a dent in the recipe arsenal of Cuisines of Portuguese Encounters, but there is certainly something for everyone. You don’t have to cook any of these dishes if you don’t want to (although that would be a shame); there’s enough good ethnographic reading and warmth of detail in the book to serve you well even outside the kitchen. Top -- Culinary Reviews Home

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