CANNED! 10 Delicious Things That in Portugal Come Out of a Can
In the past few weeks, forced by current events, it seems like the global appreciation for canned goods is on the rise. While often perceived as cheap, quick, non-elegant options in many parts of the world, canned foods are actually a staple of Portuguese cuisine.
Portugal has a long tradition of preserving fish. More than 2000 years ago, our country was already the main supplier of dried and salted fish, specially with Garum sauce, for the Roman Empire that covered most of today’s Europe. Nowadays, it will take you a simple visit to any restaurant in the country to understand that we still adore salted fish, particularly cod, known in Portuguese as bacalhau.
Preserving fish in cans is a more recent technique, dating to less than 2 centuries ago. The first commercial cannery in Portugal was founded in 1853, specializing in sardines preserved in olive oil.
For many decades, canned fish was an affordable option that allowed for fish to stay longer in the pantry, making it to the kitchens of those who didn’t actually live near the sea. Historically, there was nothing fancy about canned fish. It existed for practical reasons. Yet in the past decade or so, Portugal has experienced a switch in the way canned fish and seafood are produced, consumed and perceived.
These days, Portugal’s offering of seafood extends way beyond good ‘ol sardines. Of course we still eat those! They are ubiquitous, healthy, and come in many, many flavors and attractive packaging. In fact, here in Lisbon, we have entire shops dedicated to just selling canned sardines. But there’s just so much more that we hope you get to try here in Lisbon with us sometime. What we are about to share with you, is truly just an appetizer! We could start this list highlighting sardines, the ex-libris of Portuguese canned foods, but that would be too cliché.
1. Sardine Roe, aka Portuguese Caviar
Ovas de Sardinha
When it comes to Portuguese canned seafood, high quality doesn’t necessarily mean too expensive. Sardine roe may just be one of those exceptions. But splurging on this delicacy will be worth it for seafood loving food explorers visiting our country.
The roe is preserved in olive oil and is best enjoyed like actual caviar, on top of a thin buttered rusk toast, along with a glass of chilled sparkling wine. Sometimes, you can get lucky and find roe in a normal can of sardines, inside the fish itself.
It can look odd if what you were expecting was regular fleshy fish. But in the world of Portuguese conservas that would pretty much be the equivalent of winning the canned fish lottery!
If we say that in Lisbon there’s an entire shop dedicated to just selling canned eels, you realize right away the cultural relevance this and other canned fish have in our country. Other countries have donut chains, we have canned fish stores. Why not?
The country’s most famous eels come from the region of Aveiro, in the centre of Portugal. This snake looking fish may appear intimidating when in one piece, at least to those who aren’t used to coming face to face with such creatures. But once deboned and inside a can, eels are wonderful.
You may find them plain or smoked swimming in luscious olive oil, and even more commonly in escabeche, a vinegary sauce often served with fish not only here in Portugal, but also across the border in Spain.
Fresh or canned, Portugal sure is big on octopus! Traveling around Portugal and not tasting hearty dishes such as fresh Octopus Lagareiro style or tangy octopus salad is synonymous with not indulging in some of the greatest things our country has to offer food wise.
When it comes to the world of preserves, expect to find ridiculously tender pieces of octopus flavored in straightforward yet never to be underrated olive oil, olive oil and garlic, or tomato sauce.
Boil some potatoes, open a can of polvo, plate it allowing the potatoes to soak the juices from the can, and you’ve got yourself a satisfying meal with an aftertaste of sea inspired Portugal!
4. Azorean Tuna
Atum dos Açores
Most people will think of tuna when picturing a can of fish. You know those boring cans you find in the supermarket in most parts of the world? Forget all about them when you are trying to picture what Portuguese canned tuna tastes like.
The archipelago of the Azores, in the Atlantic Ocean, is the source of the incredible tuna fish we are lucky to enjoy in Portugal. Apart from sunflower or olive oil, tuna is perhaps the fish preserve that comes in most flavors.
Plain in good ‘ol salty brine. Lemony oil. Olive oil and pennyroyal. Spicy sauce. Oriental spices. With bacon. In salads with beans or vegetables, all packed in the can! Tuna seems to be the most versatile canvas in the world of Portuguese canned fish.
Want to cut straight to the good stuff? Look for barrigas de atum, that is, tuna belly, the most succulent and flavorful part of the fish.
Somehow similar to tuna when it comes to flavor and texture, Atlantic mackerel is just as healthy and readily available when you go shopping for conservas in Portugal. The methods for canning mackerel are just as varied as those used for tuna.
While tuna may be canned in little fillets, chunks or shreds, mackerel will normally be preserved in clean fleshy fillets.
Eating cavala simply out a can is mouthwatering, of course. But this is such a versatile fish that you can easily also use it for salads or, for example, on top of toast over a bed of marinated chunks of tomatoes and onions, like a sea rich bruschetta.
You can’t talk about Portugal and fish and not bring cod into the discussion. After all, bacalhau is the country’s favorite preserved fish.
While mostly eaten salted and dried, canned cod is also common for a quicker bacalhau fix. A simple visit to your neighborhood supermarket will serve as an introduction to the potential and versatility of cod in a can! Not only when it comes to recipes and methods of preservation, but also uses of different parts of the fish itself.
Start your canned cod exploration with straightforward cod fillets in olive oil, olive oil with garlic, or olive oil with spicy piri-piri. Move onwards to marinated cod salad with chickpeas and allow yourself to get fancy with cod roe, simply salted in olive oil or smoked for extra depth of flavor.
7. Stuffed Squid
Squid is such a common food in Portugal that the world of cans would naturally have to feature some squid preparation too. In this case, lulas are elevated in a more complex preserve than just olive oil. In fact, this is more of a recipe, a proper dish, than just a preservation method. Caldeirada is Portuguese for fish stew.
Normally, a fish to caldeirada would feature the catch of the day in a loose sauce made with tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, olive oil and rather simple seasonings. This is exactly the sauce you’ll find when you open a can of lulas em caldeirada. If the can reads lulas recheadas em caldeirada, then there’s even more to it!
Before being packed in the can, the squid is also cooked and stuffed. While the first version will present the squid cut into rings, lulas recheadas would feature the whole squid stuffed with its own legs chopped up into pieces and mixed with onions and other vegetables. When we are talking about an actual meal out of a can, it hardly gets any more complete than this!
If you like smoked salmon, you have got to try canned smoked trout. Chunky cuts of trout that have soaked the most brilliant of Portuguese olive oils for that extra luscious flavor and appetizing texture.
Other varieties of canned trout will also include tart escabeche sauce or the ever present and much beloved olive oil. Some brands that specialize in gourmet conservas have developed treats such as trout paté with Port wine. It goes to show that the options are limitless when it comes to the uses of canned fish.
Either they pack it up for you so that you can eat straight out of the can, or you can take your fish to the next level mixing and matching in your own kitchen. Quality products, a sense of taste, and a little imagination is all it takes!
9. Fish and Seafood Patés
When you first eat out anywhere in Portugal, you will notice something that doesn’t necessarily happen in other parts of the world: before you even order, the restaurant staff may place an array of snacks on your table. A bread basket, olives, patés, perhaps even some cheese or cold cuts.
This is locally known as couvert, and it is not an offering of the establishment, but rather a suggestion of small bites you can enjoy while waiting for your order to arrive. It’s not complimentary, but you only pay for what you eat. Say you want the bread and not the rest, you’ll only be charged for it. Sardine and tuna patés feature very commonly on Portuguese restaurants’ couvert. But they are enjoyed in other places and moments too.
Not as something you’d spread on toast in the morning, but rather as treats you’d sample with a nice glass of wine. Apart from the most popular sardine and tuna patés, other patés such as mackerel, codfish, anchovy or salmon can also be found, in plain, smoked, spicy or other variants.
10. Tuna Muxama
Muxama de Atum
While technically not canned, muxama is also a type of preserved fish. This delicacy traditionally produced in the southern region of Portugal, the Algarve, is normally sold in the same stores that specialize in canned seafood. As such, for us Portuguese, it is very easily associated with the other products shared above.
If you have never had cured tuna, think of it as the prosciutto of the sea. Tuna loin is salt-cured and served in very thin slices. It is fishy, but also very pleasantly salty and intense. It is best enjoyed over very simple salad greens or with a drizzle of olive oil and, in some cases, some crushed almonds on top too.
While not as common or ubiquitous as other preserved fishes, it’s a treat we definitely suggest you try when you eat around Portugal.
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