Cooking is the art of seasoning and the distinctive features of Arab culinary art are very much vibrant in Portugal’s Al-Garve region. This can be seen from the use of certain ingredients, cooking techniques, flavourings and consistencies. An interesting classification of ingredients begins with fragrances and spices. On top of this list are items like rose water, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, saffron, cardamom and mace. A second group of flavouring ingredients consists of dried fruits and nuts like raisins, almonds and pistachios. A third group includes both sweet and sour fresh fruits like apples and pomegranates. In fourth comes honey and sugar. The next group includes the likes of fermented fish sauce. Next come grains and beans followed by herbs and vegetables. Rounding out this classification are common items like salt, pepper, vinegar and dairy. Spices and flavourings distinguish one dish from another, define flavour and heighten taste. This is by no means a comprehensive listing.
The predominant fat used to cook and finish plates is olive oil. The Arabs extended olive oil production in the Al-Garve and introduced new pruning and irrigation techniques. This is a local fish called Cherne that is crusted with pistachio nuts, preserved lemon, salted capers. I took the liberty of adding a little bit of piri-piri pepper. As for the salt, the town of Tavira in the Al-Garve has the only D.O.P. accredited salt in the Mediterranean.
Both the cooking utensil and dish known as the Cataplana were introduced into the Al-Garve repertoire. The cataplana can be considered a fore-runner of the modern pressure cooker as well as the basis for the north African Tagine. Once upon a time, before the Age of Exploration, the cataplana was made without adding tomato or potato. I used my own spice blend to make my Cataplana. Amongst the arrangement of spices, I included ginger, coriander, cumin, cardomom and saffron. I used a apple cider vinegar as an acidity and rounded out the leading edges of flavour with honey. The most common honeys used today the Al-Garve are rosemary honey and orange blossom honey.
A lot of common culinary items traveled out the East. The list includes onions, garlic, beetroot, leeks, carrots and turnips . The Arabs are credited with introducing them to Europe.
Sweet fava beans are a staple of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cooking, which explains why they are so abundant here in the Al-Garve. Young favas can be eaten unpeeled and are a great snack with an aged and salty sheep’s milk cheese. Mature favas need to have their tough outer skins removed. Their flavour is excellent in everything from salads to hearty soups.
Damascus steel was a type of steel used in Middle Eastern sword-making. The exact method of production is still unknown. However, the history and reputation of Damascus steel has brought many legends. In 2006, a German research team published a report telling of nanowires and carbon nanotubes in a blade forged from Damascus steel. My point is to make sure to get yourself a decent of knives
Who does’nt love cooking over fire. Try grilling cauliflower next time. It was another vegetable brought by the Arabs along with celery, celery root, fennel, cabbage and eggplant. Spinach and arugula too.
The tuna no longer run off Al-Garve waters and so the traditional method of netting them is obsolete. The “Almadraba” style of steering the tuna through a series of nets was introduced by the Moors into the Al-Garve. You can still buy tuna fresh at the local fish market or buy it canned. If you purchase canned tuna,make sure it is packed in olive oil.Or you can do what I do and that is to make your own tuna ‘conserva”. And that way, you know you are using an excellent local olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil from Moncarapacho here in the Al-Garve can and has beaten the best the world has to offer. Look no further than olive oil fairs recently in New York City.
This is cilantro or ‘coentro” from my garden. It is flowering which means that it will go to seed. I pick and save the seeds for my spice blends and also to plant again next year. Insh’Allah.
Honey bees play a very important role in our food production system. Up to 70% of the food on your plate has been pollinated by a honey bee. Bee aware that fertilising chemicals brought to you by the likes of Monsanto are destroying bee populations across the globe. You want your food to be as clean as possible, not “pharm fresh”. Support your local, organic and sustainable farm network. I buy directly from Quinta Shanti in Conceicao in the Al-Garve. Thank you, Angela.
Fennel pollen is another under rated kitchen ingredient. I use it primarily as a seasoning for fish.
Lastly, where would we be if the Arabs had not cultivated coffee and brought it to Europe also. The history of coffee, coffee culture and Portugal goes hand in hand. I enjoy making roasted coffee blends with the spirit of Portugal in mind. The blends include Brazilian, Sumatra or Timor and Yemenese coffee beans. Enjoy that “bica”. A dhow is an Arab fishing vessel. Callous can be interpreted as jaded, tired and spent. Eat like a peasant.