Portuguese cuisine utilizes spices, possibly more than the food of any other European country. The use of spices most likely comes from the nation’s history as a major colonial power that controlled various spice-producing countries. Some of the most popular Portuguese spices include:
Peri-peri is an African name for the tiny red hot peppers that are sometimes called pili pili in Swahili. Peri-peri is used in former Portuguese colonies in Africa and is the popular spelling for the pepper in English.
These peppers originated in Central America just like all chilies, but they are best known for being the most popular pepper in Africa. They have grown there for centuries both wild and cultivated on farms. And that is where they came to the attention of the Portuguese who adopted the pepper and made it just as popular in Portugal.
Bay leaves come from the bay laurel tree and have an intense astringent flavor that enhances savory dishes. They are especially valuable in recipes that require an hour or more of cooking time, usually (but not always) with a significant amount of liquid such as broth or wine.
Bay leaves intensify their flavor when dried and must be used in moderation to avoid over-flavoring a dish. Portuguese cooks use them in a large number of preparations including the skewered dish called espetada and the stew made with pork or beef called cacoila.
Cinnamon is one of the many spices that Portugal introduced to Europe. It shows up mostly in desserts where its highly aromatic sweetness and spicy heat can elevate desserts like the custard tart known as pastel de nata. Traditionally, the pastel de nata custard tarts are lightly dusted with ground cinnamon.
Even though paprika is not a native Portuguese spice, it is arguably the most common spice in Portuguese cooking and gives its vibrant red color to many dishes. The Portuguese have been trading in this spice for centuries. The paprika used in Portugal is usually of the sweet variety rather than hot though spicy paprika occasionally gets used in some recipes. Paprika is added to the pork and clam dish known as carne de porco alentejana as well as in the grilled chicken dish frango no churrasco.
The earthy pungency and savory sulfur notes of garlic play a fundamental role in many savory Portuguese dishes just as it does in most cuisines from around the world. It is used to flavor the vast majority of meat preparations including the best-known sausages from the city: chourico sausages.
Bacalhau is dried fish that is used to give flavor to Portuguese dishes in the manner of a spice. It is used in dishes like bacalhau a bras where a small amount of the cod is added to a dish featuring potatoes, eggs, and olives. It provides a strong umami note to foods because cod is rich in glutamic acid and drying the fish concentrates it.
The Portuguese have been consuming salted cod since the time of the Vikings. The Vikings ventured down to Portugal to trade their cod for salt, which led to a mutually beneficial relationship. Salted cod allowed the Portuguese to travel further with a lower risk of malnutrition since they now had a protein source that could last for months.