Portuguese Food Isn’t Mediterranean!

Portuguese food isn’t Mediterranean!  I see many Portuguese and Luso-descendants people refer to our cuisine as being “Mediterranean” and they are dead wrong.  The Mediterranean term is applied to countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea and no inch of Portuguese coastline touches the Mediterranean.  The Mediterranean Sea begins at the straits of Gibraltar and Portugal’s southern coastline faces the Atlantic.  Having a coastline on the Mediterranean  influences the ingredients that do well in that climate.  Some of those also grow in Portugal  but that doesn’t correlate to what is actually grown.  Take eggplant for example: it can grow in Portugal but given its Asiatic origins the planting, widespread use, acceptance and eventual integration into the cuisines of European countries was influenced by the boundaries of the Mediterranean.  So just because the climate is similar does not solely influence the integration and use of a particular legume or animal.  So when I hear Portuguese people say time that  they enjoy a Mediterranean diet and that it is healthy I cringe.  First off all cuisines are healthy if you eat the right things in the right amount.  Secondly Portuguese cuisine is not Mediterranean!  A Mediterranean diet is eating primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts. Replacing butter with healthy fats such as olive oil and canola oil. Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods. Limiting red meat to no more than a few times a month.  Does this sound Portuguese?  It doesn’t even sound Mediterranean, it describes an almost vegetarian diet.  Being Mediterranean also has cultural implications.  Just being close to the Mediterranean or “in the region of” the place does not make our cuisine fit the description.   There are other factors that influence   what it is to be Mediterranean.  One of the things that influences the Mediterranean countries is that they share their boundaries with other countries. Without delving into sociology and anthropology I will just say that Portugal is physically isolated from the rest of the world.  It shares its boundaries with only one country (Spain) and is surrounding by the Atlantic everywhere else.  While Portugal discovered many parts of the planet and maintained colonies all around the globe it has remained largely isolated in culture and that is reflected in its cuisine.  Take Spain for instance: its culinary palate is more expansive than ours.  Their use of exotic spices and ingredients surpasses Portugal’s.  (BTW I am not saying Spanish food is better or that our cuisine is bland.)  When I look into different cuisines of non-Asiatic countries  I use the heat level as a gauge of cultural encroachment.  Do they feature spicy food?  If so how widespread is it?  In Portugal’s case the use of spicy hot ingredients is only used in the islands.  You don’t find a lot of spicy hot food on the mainland.  An aspect of the Mediterranean diet and cuisine is spicy ingredients so again we do not fit that mold.  So why do we keep describing our cuisine as Mediterranean ?  I think there is a tendency among the Portuguese for appropriation of standards, ideals and labels in order to propel and or promote uniquely Portuguese things.  Take for example the city of Aveiro which features beautiful canals.  The Portuguese refer to that as the “Portuguese Venice” instead of just promoting the city on its own.  Take the late  Portuguese Fado artist Amalia Rodrigues who throughout her career was called the Portuguese Edith Piaf (the famous French artist of that era).  Even Cristiano Ronaldo was referred to as being the Portuguese Pele.  I think that is what is at play here.  The proximity to the Mediterranean and the overlap of some ingredients and methods provides a bridge to link up our lesser known culture and cuisine with that of a more popular one.  We should not do that for two reasons: (1) it isn’t true as Portugal is not part of the Mediterranean in any way and (2) our cuisine does not have to appropriate anything as it is distinct and delicious all on its own.