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The Top 5 Spices Used in Portuguese Cuisine

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Although most Portuguese recipes tend to make use of just a couple of key flavorings in any given dish and rely on the food itself to create big flavors, there are a few key spices that any Portuguese cook will absolutely depend upon. There is no doubt that the spices most commonly used by chefs, and in the home, reflect Portugal's diverse history as a country of explorers with vast colonial holdings. It is these spices that were the main inspiration for finding shorter routes for ships to deliver the goods!

Try to choose the best quality spices you can find. The best spices can be found in ethnic food stores or in local spice shops. Avoid supermarket brands if you can, and remember that spices go stale after just a few months.

1. Piri-piri

Chicken cooked in piri-piri spice
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It was the Portuguese exploration of the African coast, beginning in the 1400s that sparked their huge love affair with the small hot pepper, piri-piri, that is an integral part of Angolan and Mozambican cuisine. It is now also an integral part of Portuguese cuisine, in several different forms.

Molho de Piri-piri is a sauce similar to Tabasco that can be kept on the table to use during meals, as well as used as an ingredient in many dishes. There are many different recipes for piri-piri sauces.

Massa de Piri-piri is a paste made from the peppers ground with coarse salt. Some cooks like to add a touch of lemon or vinegar to the paste.

Unfortunately it is very difficult to obtain the whole piri-piri pepper in North America. Portuguese specialty shops, which can be found in areas such as New Bedford, MA, where many Portuguese immigrated, will at least carry the bottled sauce. You can substitute it with either dried or fresh cayenne peppers. You can also try substituting it with the New Mexican pequín, but with caution, as they are a good deal hotter than the piri-piri. Try using Tabasco sauce in recipes that call for Molho de Piri-piri. It is really a matter of personal preference.

2. Cinnamon (Canela)

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Cinnamon is used often in Portuguese desserts (sobremesas), as it is in many cuisines. However, it is also used very frequently in savory dishes, which is not as common in European cuisines. A little cinnamon is a common addition to all kinds of chicken soups and stews.

3. Paprika (Colorau)

The Portuguese are responsible for distributing this much-loved spice around the globe during their centuries of exploration and trading. Paprika is made from dried, ground red peppers. Sometimes these are smoked prior to being ground. A good quality sweet, smoked paprika, or colorau doce, (such as Hungarian or Spanish) should meet most of your needs while cooking Portuguese food. If the recipe calls for a hotter version, choose a hot Hungarian paprika.

4. Bay Leaves (Louro)

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Bay leaves appear in almost every soup and stew in Portuguese cooking. The bush the leaves are harvested from can be seen across the countryside in Portugal and were often used to delineate property lines in the past. Bay leaves are one of the few spices that actually become more potent in their dried form than fresh. Always remove the leaves once the dish is finished since even when cooked bay leaves still have sharp edges that are not good for the digestive tract.

5. Salt (Sal)

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Some of the best Portuguese dishes rely on just a coarse salt and garlic for flavor. One example is the exquisite trout from the Serra de Estrela region. Although it is possible to find salt imported from salt fields in Portugal, you can easily rely on the coarse kosher salt available in most supermarkets. A good quality finer sea salt (flor de sal) is nice to have on hand for salting at the table.
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