The first time you walk into a Portuguese grocery store, you notice a peculiar smell. Actually, you detect a few, but there is one that has a tendency to overpower the others. Depending on the size of the store and how well it’s ventilated, you must be prepared for a reaction that could range from mere nose prickling to an unwelcome gag reflex and a great need to escape. However, you have groceries to buy, so you persevere. You really hope you won’t find the source of the smell, but inevitably you do: row upon row of dried and salted cod (bacalhau), that very Portuguese staple.
You hold your breath and rush off to the vegetable aisle where the attendant gives you a really strange look upon witnessing your heavy breathing. And so your education begins. It doesn’t take long to discover that Portuguese food is not for sissies.
Last year I helped out as mock examiner at a local English centre and as part of the students’ oral exam preparation, I had to ask them question like where they lived, what their parents did and of course what their favourite foods were. Forget hamburgers and fries and pizza and all the fast-food evils teens around the world crave. No, as one man these children declared that “sarrabulho” (arroz de sarrabulho) was by far their favourite. Sounds interesting, you might think, rather like a passionate Latin dance, but be warned, dear visitor or newcomer to Portugal: this is an exotic-sounding name for what the dictionary calls a “dish made with pig’s blood and meat”. Yes, pig’s blood. Lots of it. Pieces of pork adrift in a sea of thick, dark, red liquid.
Lesson one: never trust an innocuous dictionary translation.
Lesson two: if there’s a pork dish with blood, there will be a chicken dish with blood too (gentle suggestion: memorise the word “cabidela” – one day you’ll thank me).
You might be forgiven at this point for thinking I’m not an adventurous eater. I can, however, disprove your erroneous belief. On a more recent trip to the grocery story, I noticed some pretty good meat in the butchery department. What looked like it could be a piece of rump was labelled “maminha”. Taking my clue from the core of the word – “mama” – I had a good idea what the label said, but because my first Portuguese dictionary dared to tell me that a “pastel” (pastry) was a “samosa” (yes, Oxford pocket dictionary, you know it’s you!) and because a grocery store assistant once asked me what celery was, I decided to distrust both labelling and store expertise and buy this delicious piece of eh… rump.
Once home, groceries unpacked, with a cup of coffee and newer, better dictionary in hand, I investigated further. Labels were read carefully, translations were made. Somewhat unwillingly, I eventually had to admit to myself that I was indeed in possession of a cow’s udder.
Lesson three: first instincts and some dictionaries can occasionally be trusted.
Lesson four: a piece of cow’s udder bears no resemblance to the real thing (a relief, wouldn’t you agree?).
I wasn’t about to be intimidated and throw away good food, so the next phase led me to recipe websites. My old favourites yielded nothing. Apparently people who read recipes in English don’t tend to post recipes for cow’s udders. Hmm, what to do?
Of course! Switch to Portuguese.
And voila – countless Brazilian recipes for the chunk of meat that lay waiting for me!
Another translation, a spice rub, several cloves of garlic and a few hours’ roasting time later, I nervously served my masterpiece. My adventurous husband carved, looked tentatively interested, exclaimed in delight and went back for seconds. And thirds!
Lesson 5: be sceptical, but not too sceptical.
Lesson 6: when you enter “maminha” into google translate, it comes up with something else entirely which starts with a t and rhymes with “ditty” and compels you to rename, multiple times and with much hilarity, the thing you just cooked.
Lesson 7: open-minded spouses with a healthy sense of humour really are the best kind.
I suspect there will always be Portuguese dishes that require a certain amount of bravery, but perhaps a little fear goes a long way in heightening the local food experience. Besides, isn’t it true that bravery is simply the decision that something else is more important than your fear? Like hunger.
Or curiosity. So I’m all for cod – real and proverbial – but I must still draw the line at blood.