Fulbright in Portugal

Steve Doig in Lisbon August-December 2010

Lisbon skyline

Embracing all things Lisboa

I have never understood those American tourists who go to strange lands and then seek only what they get back home: American food, American music, American styles, American money. They complain, at least amongst themselves, that the hamburger tastes different, the coffee is too strong, the music sounds funny, the clothing is peculiar, the prices aren’t in dollars. So they get off the cruise ships and tour buses and flock to the all-too-visible outposts of American culture, like McDonald’s and Starbucks and Ben & Jerry’s and the Hard Rock Cafe.

For Ellyn and I, travel is an opportunity get out of our comfortable back-home rut and experience the very unusual. For instance, as I type this I am eating a salad that includes canned octopus (polvo). A meal of the suckered tentacles of an octopus is not something that would have crossed my mind as a choice back in Arizona, nor would I have found the main ingredient among the tins of tuna and sardines in my neighborhood Safeway supermarket. But we discovered octopus, in the form of polvo grelhado, on the advice of a waitress at Restô do Chapitô, a wonderful restaurant just down the street from our apartment. The octopus tentacles, grilled to perfection and soaked in garlicky olive oil, reminded us of the taste and texture of Maine lobster.

Back to sardines. Our first meal here was sardinhas grelhado, grilled sardines. You American readers are now wondering how the tiny sardines to which we are accustomed can be barbecued without falling through the grate. But robust Portuguese sardinhas are nothing like the puny finger-sized fishlets we get out of the tins. They are as long as your forearm and almost as meaty, coated with salt and grilled whole until the skin is crispy. A meal will be four or five of these monsters, which you filet on your plate with a fork.

Ellyn has written a whole essay on bacalhau, so I won’t go into detail about our samplings of the Portuguese love affair with codfish. To my tastebuds, codfish itself is pretty bland, but it serves as a protein base for delivering the varied flavors of the hundreds of recipes Portuguese cooks use for bacalhau.

We also have developed a habit a couple times a day for saying “Uma bica, por favor”, thus ordering a single-shot jolt of strong espresso sweetened with sugar. There are various legends about the origin of the name bica. One is that Bica was the name of a model of an espresso machine once widely used in Portugal. According to Coffeeratings.com, BICA might be an acronym either for “beba isto chávena aquecida” (drink in a heated cup) or “beba isto com açúcar” (drink this with sugar). Whatever the history, Lisboans knock back several of these a day, and we’re doing our best to keep up the pace.

Another daily habit of many Lisboans is sipping a shot of ginjinha, a sweet cherry liqueur made by soaking small sour ginja berries in alcohol with sugar and cinnamon. Tiny ginjinha joints are scattered around Lisbon, often with a small crowd lined up outside at any time of day to get a pick-me-up. Tastes great, particularly if a couple of the little cherries wind up in your shot glass along with the liqueur.

Our sampling of calories from Portugal include cheeses and sausages, which Ellyn and I often have as tapas in the evening if we’ve had our big meal at some restaurant or cafe during the lunch hour. I’m on a mission to try as many different varieties of cheese as I can find. The raw milk from cows, sheep and goats is transformed here into all sorts of delights, from the mild and buttery like Queijo de Azeitao to the much tangier Mistura Cabreira. Every time I spot an unfamiliar variety in one of the small mercados where we typically shop, I get a wedge or wheel of it. So far, none have disappointed, particularly when consumed along with sips of 10-year-old port.

Everything we eat or drink isn’t purely Portuguese. Lisbon is a very cosmopolitan and ethnically-diverse city. Thousands of people from former colonies in Brazil, Africa, India and Asia live here, bringing with them their tastes in food and drink. One of our recent visitors is a vegetarian who enjoys Indian food, so Ellyn and I began looking for an Indian restaurant — and discovered they were all over town. (Curiously, Indian restaurants here often also offer Italian food like pasta and pizza; go figure.) We’ve eaten at several, enjoying recipes like chicken korma and lamb saag wiped up with garlic naan.

Our efforts to embrace the culture of Portugal doesn’t mean we have avoided all things American. Lisbon’s modern multiplex cinemas are filled with American movies, which typically are shown in English with Portuguese subtitles (one reason so many people in Lisbon understand and speak English quite well.) During the week Ellyn will watch a couple of favorite American tv shows via the internet, and there are more to choose from (still in English) on the Lisbon cable stations. We’ve even been seduced into buying an iced coffee drink at the relatively new Starbucks in the Rossio train station. But we’ve had no trouble resisting a visit to McDonald’s!

I know that when we return to Arizona in late December, we’ll pretty much go back to that comfortable routine we’ve had for years. But I plan to keep up a few habits I’ve developed here: Lots of walking, a daily espresso, and good cheese with aged port. Oh, and the occasional grilled octopus. We gotta find a good recipe for that!

2 Responses to “Embracing all things Lisboa”

  1. September 22nd, 2010 at 10:51 am

    Ana Martins says:

    Going back to the states and enjoy a daily expresso like portuguese bica? Ah, you know you won’t be able to!
    Best wishes-

  2. September 22nd, 2010 at 11:34 am

    Steve Doig says:

    Ellyn and I have already decided we will buy an espresso machine when we return. But you are right — uma bica in Arizona won’t be as wonderful as one enjoyed at a streetside cafe in Lisbon!

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