The Top 5 Spices Used in Portuguese Cuisine

Key flavors the dishes depend on

Most Portuguese recipes tend to use just a couple of key flavorings in any given dish. The dishes rely on the food itself to create big flavors. There are a few key spices that any Portuguese cook will absolutely depend upon. Stemming from a complicated history of exploration and colonialism, the Portuguese spice profile is diverse, with global influence.

Try to choose the best quality spices you can find. These spices can often be found in specialty food stores or in local spice shops. Avoid supermarket brands if you can and remember that spices go stale after just a few months.

  • 01 of 05

    Piri Piri

    Chicken cooked in piri piri spice

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    It was during the Portuguese subjugation of the African coasts, beginning in the 1400s, that their huge love affair with the small hot pepper piri piri was sparked. The pepper, an integral part of Angolan and Mozambican cuisine, is now also a central part of Portuguese cooking and used in several different forms.

    Molho de piri piri is a sauce similar to commercial bottled hot sauces that can be kept on the table to use during meals, as well as used as an ingredient in many dishes. There are many different recipes for piri piri saucesMassa de piri piri is a paste made from the peppers ground with coarse salt. Some cooks like to add a touch of lemon or vinegar to the paste.

    Unfortunately, it is very difficult to obtain the whole piri piri pepper in North America. Portuguese specialty shops, which can be found in areas with large Portuguese immigrant populations, will at least carry the bottled sauce. You can substitute it with either dried or fresh cayenne peppers. You can also try substituting it with the New Mexican pequín, but with caution, as they are a good deal hotter than the piri piri. Another option is to try using bottled hot sauce in recipes that call for molho de piri piri.

  • 02 of 05

    Cinnamon (Canela)

    Cinnamon sticks tied together
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    Cinnamon is used often in Portuguese desserts (sobremesas), as it is in many cuisines. It is also used very frequently in Portuguese savory dishes, which is not as common in European cuisines. A little cinnamon is a common addition to all kinds of chicken soups and stews.

  • 03 of 05

    Paprika (Colorau)

    Capsicum annuum, ground Hungarian Paprika in small ceramic bowl, close up.
    Dave King / Getty Images

    The Portuguese are responsible for distributing this much-loved spice around the globe during their centuries of colonizing, exploration, and trading. Paprika is made from dried, ground red peppers. Sometimes these are smoked prior to being ground. A good quality sweet, smoked paprika, or colorau doce, (such as Hungarian or Spanish) should meet most of your needs while cooking Portuguese food. If the recipe calls for a hotter version, choose a hot Hungarian paprika.

  • 04 of 05

    Bay Leaves (Louro)

    Bay leaves in white bowl
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    Bay leaves appear in almost every soup and stew in Portuguese cooking. The bush the leaves are harvested from can be seen across the countryside in Portugal and were often used to delineate property lines in the past. Bay leaves are one of the few spices that actually become more potent in their dried form than fresh. Always remove the leaves once the dish is finished since even when cooked bay leaves still have sharp edges that are not good for the digestive tract.

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Salt (Sal)

    Coarse and fine sea salts

    Isabelle Rozenbaum and Frederic Cirou / Getty Images

    Some of the best Portuguese dishes rely on just coarse salt and garlic for flavor. One example is the exquisite trout from the Serra de Estrela region. Although it is possible to find salt imported from salt fields in Portugal, you can easily rely on the coarse kosher salt available in most supermarkets. A good quality sea salt (flor de sal) is nice to have on hand for adding salt at the table.