Arab Influences in Portuguese Cuisine
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
When, in 711 A.D., ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, the son of Musa ibn Nusayr, the Arab Viceroy of North Africa, set foot in southern Portugal, he found land which inspired his very soul. Yet, it was only natural that the country should bewitch him. Its sub-tropical climate, clear blue skies, perfumed air, and luxuriant vegetation were no different than parts of North Africa and the Yemeni highlands – the homelands of most of his soldiers.
In this land that the Arabs called Al-Faghar, later changed by the Portuguese to Algarve, from the Arabic al-Gharb (the west), he settled his Berber and Yemeni soldiers. In the ensuing centuries, the descendants of these warriors set about making Algarve one of the finest garden states in the world. Even after the Arabs final defeat 540 years later, in 1249 A.D., by the armies of Alfonso III, this part of Portugal retained much of its Moorish heritage.
Even though the Muslim armies went on to conquer most of the Iberian Peninsula, it was only in southern Spain and Portugal’s Algarve province that they felt at home. In Algarve, the furthest west of the vast Islamic empire, the Arabs, who later became known to the West as Moors, created a lush garden province that later historians were to label as ‘the orchard of Portugal’
Amid the luxuriant landscape in this southwestern part of the Iberian Peninsula, the Arabs introduced the magnificent homes found in the eastern Islamic world. Mostly whitewashed and built around enclosed courtyards, beautified with horseshoe arches and bursting with flowers, they have given, since that time, Algarve’s countryside a look of storybook enchantment.
Complementing these splendid dwellings, the Arabs brought along with them numerous new dishes. For the needed ingredients to create these foods, they introduced a considerable number of new vegetables, fruits, and spices, many of which still carry in Portuguese their Arabic names.
Orchards, first planted by the descendants of the Yemeni soldiers, cover the land. The perfume defusing flowers of the apricot Portuguese albricoguo from the Arabic al-barquq; carob (alfarroba: al-kharubah); orange (laranja; naranj); and pomegranate (romá: rumman) were Moorish gifts to the future Portuguese.
Besides the fruit trees, other plants brought to the Iberian Peninsula are, perhaps, more important. Rice (Portuguese arroz: from the Arabic al-ruzz), forming the basic part of the Portuguese diet, and sugar cane (açúcar: sukkar), now cultivated in Algarve, the last province wrestled from the Moors, were introduced and grown extensively by the Arabs.
Over and above the new plants they introduced into Spain and Portugal, the Arabs expanded the almond, olive, and fig orchards that they found in these countries. The blossoming almond trees initially planted by the Arabs on a large scale transforms Algarve’s springtime countryside to appear as fields covered with snow.
However, even more than the introduction of plants, the watermill (Portuguese azenha: from the Arabic al-saniyah) and its extensive use in irrigation was the greatest gift the Arabs bestowed on Portugal and the other countries of Western Europe. The rich fields of fruits and vegetables found in the Iberian Peninsula since the 9th-century bear witness to the Moorish-introduced plants and farming techniques. This is attested to by the 12th-century Arab writer Abu ‘Abdallah al-Idrisi who described Algarve as a land of beautiful cities surrounded by irrigated orchards and gardens.
The Arab introduced plants made possible a series of new culinary delights, expanding greatly the kitchen of the Iberian Peninsula. In Portuguese, Arabic derived names for foods are an undeniable testimony to the influence the Moors had on the cuisine in this part of Europe. Acepipe (hors d’oeuvres: from the Arabic al-zebib); aletria (vermicelli: itriyah); almôndega (meatballs: al-bunduqah); escabeche (pickles: al-sikbaj); azeite (olive oil: al-zayt); sorvete (sherbet: sharbat); and xarope (syrup: sharab) are a number of these foods.
More then all their dishes, the Moors had a fondness for sweets. This sweet tooth they passed on to the Portuguese. Candied fruits and pastries employing almonds, egg yolks, honey, and rose water, found today in all parts of Portugal, are of pure Moorish origin. Perhaps the credit for their preservation should go to the nuns in the many religious institutions, found in every town and city. No one knows the reason why the nuns, in the numerous medieval convents, kept the Arab recipes for sweets alive. Some writers have theorized that it was the undeniable sapidity of these products that have been responsible for their preservation.
In the days of the Arabs, lamb, and goat, along with some beef, were the basic meats on the everyday menu. However, when the Muslims were defeated, pork became the main meat consumed. To escape persecution and prove they had left their former religion behind, the Christianized Moors substituted pork for other meats, especially in the public eating-places.
Despite efforts made in the past, to erase the ways of the Moorish era, the imprints of Muslim rule still linger, especially in Algarve. Their remains in place names; architecture, culture, language, and culinary art can be clearly felt and seen.
Thanks to the Arabs, in both Spain and Portugal, the people play the guitar, fight bulls, cook with saffron, and are passionate, jealous, and dramatic. At night when a village woman, dressed in black, pours out her soul in a sad-piercing voice, she is telling a story of a lost past. The fado she is singing, and which casts a spell over her audience, is none other but the mawwal (sad Arab song) of the Arabian Desert.
Traveling through the villages and countryside, one is entranced by the dazzling white houses, well-irrigated orchards, and olive-skinned inhabitants. The dialect of these peasants impregnated with Arabic words, tells its own story. In the customs and characteristics of the people, Algarve’s Arab past is very discernible.
The black veils and traditional costumes of the rural women and the Arab type hospitality of the people are undeniable leftovers from that flourishing age. A stranger being invited into a village home for refreshment, or a proud yet humble peasant sharing his meager meal with a passer-by are Arab legacies which have not withered away.
However, Arab influences reach their epitome in the colors, aromas, and taste of the Portuguese cuisine – a rich kitchen, much of which is inherited from the golden age of the Moors.