By the time the tiny, packed elevator reached the fourth floor, I could already hear the sounds of Cape Verde’s distinctive morna music reverberating down the elevator shaft. The vocals dominated, simultaneously conveying despair and happiness, even to someone who doesn’t understand a word of the Creole language. When we reached the eighth and top floor of the building, the doors opened to reveal a restaurant and dance floor packed with bank clerks, museum curators, and businessmen who had all tucked their ties into their shirts and taken off their jackets to feast and dance.
But we weren’t in the African island nation of Cape Verde. We were in Lisbon, in the offices of the city’s Cape Verdean Association. The customers were Portuguese and Cape Verdean both, and they ate at tables laden with communal servings of island staples such as cachupa, a rich stew of beans, corn, and meat. They tossed back bottles of beer and peeled off from the table in pairs to whirl across the dance floor with their coworkers, lovers, or friends for as long as their lunch breaks would permit. Though it was just half past two on a weekday afternoon, before long the place assumed the desperate atmosphere of a nightclub about to close—each couple trying to pound out one last, fervid dance before the band packed it in. As I looked down at the office workers scurrying across the street below, I realized I’d found an island of liberating, tropical freedom high above the generic office buildings and preppy clothing shops in the bourgeois heart of Lisbon.
Soon we were all shooed out of the restaurant and dislodged from our lunchtime reverie. But that taste of Cape Verdean culture and cuisine was a revelation. It made me think of all the lands that Portugal once ruled, places as diverse and distant from each other as Goa and Brazil, East Timor and Angola, Mozambique and Macau. Of course, the populations of other European cities reflect their countries’ colonial history: Indians and Jamaicans in London, Maghrebis and West Africans in Paris. But Lisbon is different. No other city can claim such a diverse group of immigrants who are already united by a common language and culture before they arrive. Portuguese colonies were often isolated enclaves amid the domains of different colonial powers. Did that lead the people who lived in those lands to feel more tightly bound to the colonizing country? Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) immigrants from these far-flung places come to Lisbon not just to find a better life, as most immigrants do, but also because the city is the undisputed center of their world, where the music, culture, and cuisine of all once-Portuguese lands come together. And so I decided that my mission for my next trip to Lisbon would be to track down the postcolonial echoes and influences in this city, to discover how the flavors of Africa, Asia, and South America are shaping today’s Lisbon.
A year later I was back. I had heard about a Brazilian restaurant in a renovated warehouse along the waterfront, so I was wandering the docklands fronting the river Tagus in search of the sights and smells of Brazilian food. When I found Uai!, I hesitated to venture inside for two reasons: the gratuitous exclamation point and the lunchtime buffet. I couldn’t fix the punctuation, and I have a general distrust of buffets, but when I saw the owner bring fresh food from the kitchen to quickly refill each small serving dish as soon as it was depleted, I decided to give Uai! [*] a shot. As I decorated my plate with the offerings, I realized that this wasn’t a generic barbecue or Bahia cuisine place—the usual suspects for Brazilian food abroad—and so I asked a few preliminary questions of Antônio Amaral Gomes, the Portuguese owner. He tailed me back to my table, answering me in such loving detail that I could hardly get a bite in edgewise.
“I worked in housing construction,” he began, inauspiciously. “But two years ago I decided to pursue my dream: I wanted to bring the unknown food of a Brazilian region called Minas Gerais to Lisbon.” He paused for a minute and gazed down at my plate, and I understood that the break signified his permission for me to take a bite of the pão de queijo before me, a warm cheesebread made from manioc flour, which gives it a springy texture. “So many of the foods you now find around the world came out of the Portuguese colonies,” Gomes continued. “Starting in the 15th century, the Portuguese brought coconuts and pineapples from Brazil to the world, okra from Sudan to Angola and then Brazil, sugar from Ilha Madeira to Africa and then Europe and the Americas. This process was some of the earliest globalization of food.”
As I sampled the little-known genre of Brazilian cuisine Gomes had prepared, distinguished by fresh cheeses, subtle meat stews, and sweets made from raw ingredients imported from Brazil, he told me that he’d spent about a year in the library studying the history of Minas Gerais and its cuisine. During that time, he made three exploratory trips to the region before opening his restaurant. “Nowadays, no one outside Brazil even knows the name Ouro Preto. But back in 1780, that city in Minas Gerais had a larger population than New York City.”
Eating Brazilian food on the Lisbon waterfront and hearing this lost history recounted to me, I thought about what travelers often seek. We come to a place like Lisbon with a desire to experience the real Portugal: to eat Portuguese food, listen to fado music, and immerse ourselves in what we think of as the native culture of the place. The one, authentic Portugal. But the reality, as Gomes pointed out, is that every culture—and especially this one—is formed and re-formed by exchanges, influences, and adaptations. If we want to see a place as it truly is, and not just as we imagine it to be, we have to be open to the multiple immigrant cultures that are an essential part of that place.
And nowhere are these combinations and innovations more manifest than in the eating and drinking culture of a place, where you find this convergence not just in recipes and flavors, but also in ways of coming together through dance and drink, feasts and workaday dinners.
If you look closely at the dishes the Portuguese consider their own, you can easily tease out strong foreign influences. Chamuça (samosas), a ubiquitous café snack all over Portugal, came here from India. Fiery piri-piri sauce, the nation’s most popular condiment, was first prepared with peppers that originated in Mexico, crossed down to Brazil, and then made their way to Angola, thanks to trade among the Portuguese colonies. And curry, originally from India, then transplanted to Mozambique, is now a standard menu item in Portugal. These exchanges started long ago, but they’re still going on today, shaping the gastronomic contours of this city.
At the end of the meal, Gomes brought over a bottle of artisanal cachaça, the sugarcane liquor that is considered to be Brazil’s national spirit. “This should have become one of the great liquors of the world in the 18th century,” he told me as he poured out two shots. “But in 1718, the king of Portugal banned the export of cachaça from Brazil, because he wanted to sell his own aguardente [firewater] around the world, and he didn’t want any competition.” Gomes took a sip. “We’re only now beginning to understand what we’ve been missing for the last three centuries.”
Once a week, at a waterfront restaurant called Ibo, chef João Pedro Pedrosa clears his kitchen of cooks and helpers, dons a protective breathing mask, and goes to work. He blends cinnamon, ginger, cumin, coriander, Indian cinnamon, garlic, roasted coconut, tamarind, turmeric, and chili peppers into a base for a fierce curry called chacuti that originated in Goa. Ibo is a Mozambican restaurant, named for an island off the country’s northern coast, so when I visited, I asked Pedrosa why he was serving a Goan standard. “Chacuti came to Mozambique via Goans who settled there in Portuguese times,” he explained. “Now it’s a part of Mozambican cuisine. And I want to make it a part of Portugal’s cuisine, too.”
There is a small population of immigrants from Mozambique in Lisbon, but Ibo is the only Mozambican eatery in the city center—and it’s run by a white guy from Portugal. Both Ibo and Uai! represent a new culinary trend in Lisbon: A generation of Portuguese chefs are reaching out to the former colonies for culinary inspiration and transporting these flavors back to Lisbon with their own interpretations.
“I want to prove that Mozambique’s cuisine can be sophisticated and gourmet,” said Pedrosa. Before he opened his restaurant, he lived in Mozambique for three years and devoted himself to learning the local cuisine. What distinguishes Mozambique’s food from many other African cuisines are the complex curries, a reflection of the many influences that converged there in southern Africa a hundred years ago, when Ibo was a center of commerce for India, Africa, and Europe.
Pedrosa started me off with a few shrimp served with a trio of colorful sauces, including a mayonnaise with curry and mango that complemented the fresh taste of the shrimp. “Mozambique has amazing products, of course, and we use those wherever possible,” Pedrosa said. “But we also have to adapt. For those fried prawns, the ones from Europe are fine. But when I grill prawns, I have to use the Mozambican kind, because they’re the only ones fatty enough to keep their flavor and texture in the fire.” I finished the meal with the chacuti. The stewed goat meat was so tender I could cut it with a fork. The complex heat of the curry was tempered by a white mound of glutinous manioc, another staple that the Portuguese carried from Northeast Brazil to the world, served as a side dish.
Pedrosa’s project to refine and adapt Mozambique’s cuisine carries with it the danger that the original, essential flavors will be lost when transplanted to a white-tablecloth environment such as Ibo, which targets a primarily non-Mozambican clientele. “Originally, I made this curry milder for the Portuguese palate,” Pedrosa told me. “It was much easier. I didn’t have to wear a mask to protect me from the fumes. But that version lacked character. I decided I would make the real thing, and people would have to eat it if they wanted chacuti. And they do.” At the end of my spectacular and surprising meal, Pedrosa told me that his ultimate dream isn’t just to bring the excitement of Ibo’s cuisine to Lisbon, it’s an even more daring culinary exchange: “Eventually, I want to take gourmet Mozambican food to Maputo, Mozambique’s capital,” he said. “People there love their own cuisine, of course, but they don’t think of it as something worthy of a gourmet restaurant. I hope to convince them otherwise.”
All of this cultural interchange I had been looking into began in Belém, an upscale district west of downtown with wide boulevards, a vast, ornate monastery, a string of museums, and imposing government buildings protected by uniformed guards. Portuguese explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries departed from there on their voyages to corners of the world then unknown to the West. Down by the waterfront, there are now a few berths for sailboats, and on a summer’s night couples stroll along the Tagus toward the bridge that links Almada, the city on the opposite shore, to Lisbon’s center.
I headed past the Monument to the Discoveries, a hulking stone structure that depicts a variety of people involved in Portugal’s exploration of the world, to the Altis Belém Hotel and Spa, a new addition to this historic waterfront. José Cordeiro, one of Portugal’s most acclaimed chefs and, after a stint as a judge on Portugal’s version of the TV show Master Chef, one of the country’s most prominent food celebrities, runs its restaurant, Feitoria.
Feitoria takes the concept of the discoveries further than the other spots I had visited, drawing on flavors and foods from not only the lands Portugal colonized but also anywhere Portuguese explorers set foot. Though many of those exchanges have long been forgotten by both sides, Cordeiro told me that they left traces.
For instance, a Portuguese fried bean dish called peixinhos da horta was the antecedent to Japanese tempura. Pastéis de Belém, the egg tart named after this historic neighborhood, is now a staple sweet in Asia, having arrived there via Macau. Another Portuguese sweet, pão de ló, is one of the most popular desserts in Japan, there called castella. One Portuguese baker even spent a year in Nagasaki learning how to prepare it before returning to Lisbon to open a teahouse called Castella do Paulo, where Portugal’s explorations of the world come full circle in a sponge cake.
For Cordeiro, Portugal’s culinary exchanges with the world inspire dishes that take the finest ingredients of Portugal—fresh tuna, red snapper, partridge, lobster—and combine them with flavors and techniques from the world of the discoveries. For his menu, which changes with the time of year, Cordeiro might sear tuna in the Japanese tataki style, then marinate it in vinegar and season it with ginger. He makes lobster risotto with a coriander, lime, and leek emulsion, combining flavors never found in Portugal but present in regions where Portuguese sailors ventured.
The next day, as Cordeiro and I dined at an Angolan restaurant called A Moamba [*] in the Alcântara neighborhood, he shared his personal story. Cordeiro is what the Portuguese call a retornado. He was born in Angola, to Portuguese parents, and lived there until he was 8. After Angola became independent in 1975, almost all Portuguese residents had to leave. Many returned to Portugal, hence the term retornado. “My family left Angola and we’ve never been back,” he said as we ate the classic dish of Angola (and the restaurant’s namesake), a chicken stew called moamba, prepared with a rich, slick palm-oil sauce and accompanied by pirão, a cornmeal-based starch that soaks up the red gravy. “It makes a certain kind of sense that my restaurant now explores the flavors of many of the places Portugal once discovered,” he said.
The day after my meal with Cordeiro, I thought of the Cape Verdean lunchtime concert I had witnessed on my previous visit. The nostalgic, mournful style of that morna music taps into a vein of emotion the Portuguese call saudade. Saudade is a much repeated—and overused—term in the Portuguese-speaking world that describes a longing for something forever lost, be it love, home, family, or country. But the word gets more interesting when you follow it down this country’s complicated colonial path. The Portuguese who settled in far-off lands, cut off from everything and everyone they knew in Portugal, were tortured by this emotion. For Cape Verdeans, saudade came to signify the longing they felt for their own island home when they journeyed abroad, often on Portuguese whaling ships. But the permutations of nostalgia don’t end there. Retornados such as Cordeiro found themselves experiencing a new kind of desire after they landed back in Portugal—saudade for the former colonies they could no longer inhabit.
And so now they all dance together on a Lisbon rooftop, Cape Verdeans and retornados alike, dreaming of the places and states of mind they can never recapture except through music, dance, a taste of food, their memories, and imagination. The Lisbon I’d found, I realized, is in the throes of this same kind of mesmerizing and nostalgic dance, and it’s playing out in kitchens across the city. Antônio Amaral Gomes unearthing the magnificence of cachaça; João Pedro Pedrosa braving toxic curry fumes; and José Cordeiro trying to interpret and understand, through his food, the voyages, like his own, that started from this port city centuries ago.
This article appeared in the May 2013 issue. The aforementioned Lisbon restaurants, Uai! and A Moamba, are no longer in operation.
Tom Downey I write about the worlds of Brooklyn firemen, Yemeni jihadis, Chinese internet vigilantes, Malagasy river guides, and Barcelona private eyes—anyone whose story moves me. A year before 9/11, I began producing a television documentary and reporting a book about a group of elite rescue firemen in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. The Last Men Out: Life on the Edge at Rescue 2 Firehouse, published by Henry Holt, follows ten years in the life of their company, from the high of knocking down a wall of flames to the low of losing a brother.