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Portugal’s Cuisine and Cultural Influences

written by: Renae Haug • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 1/5/2012

Portugal’s early sea navigators set out in search of gold and discovered other valuable commodities, resulting in permanent transformation to its people and culture. But, unfortunately these epic journeys were often at the expense of the crew.

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    Expedition, cuisine and music are only a few features of Portugal’s history, but characteristics that are still connected to its culture today. What past events shaped its country and its peoples? History points to early settlers contributing to the diversity of Portugal’s culture, as well as its cuisine.

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    Portuguese History

    Prior to becoming a kingdom under the rule Alfonso I, in 1139 Portugal was inhabited by a range of settlers that included the Celts, Romans, and Arabs, to mention only a few. This all had a share in laying the foundation of Portuguese culture.

    Additionally, in Portugal’s history were the many maritime navigators that played a vital role in what Portugal has become today. One important figure is Vasco da Gama; he and his crew spent a great length of time at sea accompanied with great adversity, with what reward? They became the first Europeans to reach India by sailing around the southern edge of Africa. Unfortunately, these accomplishments were not without consequence, as many lives were lost during these remarkable voyages.

    Since the days of Da Gama’s laborious voyage, there have been great strides in technology. Yet with advanced knowledge and far less life threatening consequences, it would still be a demanding voyage today. Da Gama’s voyages were neither the beginning nor the end of Portuguese sea explorations that lead to a changed world.

    Another principal figure of the early Portuguese empire was the navigator Prince Henry. He was credited for the beginning of the worldwide European explorations. Henry was not only a promoter… but also a participant in conquering the Muslim port on the North African city of Ceuta, Spain, in 1415.

    He saw this as a new opportunity of profit in the African trading routes--hence possibilities to expand the Portuguese empire.

    Early explorers discovered something else in addition to wealth--new foods. Upon returning to Portugal, they brought back with them these newly discovered fruits, nuts, and plants from lands around the globe. This came from lands such as Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Madeira and the Azores--lands eventually coming under Portuguese control.

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    Food, Wine and Song

    Portuguese food is an important part of their culture. The menu typically consist of simple ingredients, emphasizing fish, meat, olive oil, tomato, and spices, it features hearty soups, homemade bread and cheeses, as well as unique blends of meat and shellfish.

    Portugal is a birthplace of famous wine. The Portuguese wine is part of the ancient traditions introduced to the region by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks and mostly the Romans. Exportation of wine from early times continues to be an important export for the economic welfare of the country today. Portugal produces wide assortment of wines with distinctive characteristics--hundreds of varieties. The Oxford Companion to Wine describes the country as having "A treasure trove of indigenous grape varieties.” It is interesting to note that eight percent of the land in Portugal is dedicated to this ancient old art producing some of the world's best wines.

    As with most cultures, music has a vital role in history. Through music, people can express the deepest of their emotions--love, anger, sadness. Interestingly, this defines Portugal’s unique, nostalgic type music, Fado. The very name denotes the expressing of sentiments or emotion. It is believed by some that this unique music is the result of the blending of Portuguese sailors, African Slaves and Arabic influences. A music that is still popular today.

    The inspiration of early settlers, sea explorers and peoples of lands that came under Portugal’s control are visible in its culture today, in everything from art and architecture, music, food and dance, mirroring events in history that shaped the country and its peoples