Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Long Reach - Portugal's Culinary Heritage

One of the wonders of the history of the second millennium CE (from the year 1000 to 2000) is how a miniscule nation tucked into a tiny corner of the Iberian peninsula could have conquered and governed colonies all across the world, some of them thousands of times larger than the mother country.

No historian has been able to prove what it was about Portugal (for that's the miniscule nation we're talking about here) in the years beginning in the middle of the 15th century and carrying on almost until the end of the millennium that allowed it to gain such a massive colonial empire and allowed it to maintain that empire much longer than most other European colonizing countries. At the time of the original expansion of Portugal's empire, about the year 1500, Portugal's total population was approximately 1.7 million. That's just a bit more than the current population of Estonia or Gabon and 111 times smaller than the 2010 population of Brazil, Portugal's largest former colony.

Whatever it was in the Portuguese spirit, economy, politics or trade history that gave Portugal its colonial empire, one 21st century result of the empire is the fact that from South America to Africa to Asia people who have no native culture, no race or no native language in common share a common Portuguese heritage and common cultural traits.

The most obvious of these cultural traits, of course, is language. Counting language populations is not an exact science, but according to one source, Portuguese is today the fifth or sixth-largest language in world, with about 200 million native speakers. It's the second-largest Romance language, after Spanish, and there are approximately 50% more Portuguese speakers in the world today than French speakers. Since Brazil has 51% of the total population of South America that continent has more Portuguese speakers than Spanish speakers. Today Portuguese is an official language in Portugal, Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Cabo Verde, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe and Timor-Leste. Portuguese-speaking communities remain in former colonies such as Goa and Macau and the language is spoken in Portuguese-immigrant communities in Canada and the USA, in Europe (Luxembourg, Germany) and Australia.
The Community of Portuguese Language Countries

But it's not just language that the Portuguese left behind in their former colonies. Other reminders of a shared Portuguese-colonial past are the Roman Catholic Church, a shared artistic patrimony - baroque architecture and hand-painted ceramics, and of course many culinary traditions. It's these culinary traditions, of course, which are of major interest to this blog. Many ingredients, techniques and recipes traveled with explorers, conquers, traders and settlers from Portugal to all corners of the world, and today similar recipes can be found from Lisbon, to Rio de Janeiro, to Luanda, to Goa and on to Malacca and Macau.

In the next posts on Flavors of Brazil, we'll take a look at this common culinary heritage, using cookbooks and recipes from Portugal and from its former colonies to see how Portuguese cooking traditions have changed, or have not changed, as they've been carried across the oceans and across time.


  1. Nice post and can't wait for the next one on the common culinary heritage! My husband is Portuguese and Cape Verdean and I myself am a long-time Lusophile!

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