In the 15th century, Vasco da Gama and other Portuguese seamen left their Atlantic-facing nation to cash in on the spice trade. They established colonies in South America, India, Africa and beyond, and as they gathered up the riches of their explorations, they spread their culture and cuisine and returned with the ingredients to spice up their own.
From Africa came what the colonists called “piri piri,” a searingly hot pepper that lends its name to an elegant new cookbook on Portuguese cuisine, “Piri Piri Starfish: Portugal Found” by Tessa Kiros, published by Murdoch Books in the U.K. and Australia and available at Cook’s Library in Los Angeles and online at Amazon.co.uk.
Kiros, a Brit born to a Finnish mother and a Greek-Cypriot father, spent a year in Portugal exploring its cuisine. She has written three other cookbooks that draw on her travels and multinational roots. Another is coming out in the fall.
Kiros’ South African childhood inspired her colonial orientation to Portugal’s cuisine, and the pepper that symbolizes the country’s former empire adds fire to many of the recipes in this book -- as a piquant sauce, splashed into a gazpacho, for example, or in a tomato-based oil drizzled onto grilled prawns.
It’s a fiery embellishment to the nation’s typical Mediterranean dishes based on ingredients not unusual for a seafaring nation -- tuna, shellfish, bacalhau or salt cod, bay leaves, tomatoes, vinegar and olive oil.
“Piri Piri” is as much journal and travelogue as cookbook, and Kiros takes a conversational tone that makes you feel like you are sitting around a kitchen table laconically chatting with a good friend.
That just-us-friends tone, though, makes Kiros’ recipes difficult to follow. Although the techniques are not complex, she assumes her readers have a certain confidence in the kitchen; recipes permit, even encourage readers to wing it.
I spent an hour wrestling with peeling fresh, oozingly ripe tomatoes for the gazpacho until I realized that blanching them would accomplish the task in 15 minutes. A steak recipe asks you to “heat blob of butter.” Another recipe notes that a cake batter will look “split” but doesn’t explain the term. Still, I found many healthful recipes ideal for a hot tomato-season day. A delicious dish of fried, breaded tuna steaks served on a bed of tomatoes and onions could be adapted for the grill and served with a cold black-eyed bean salad. Eating the Portuguese-style gazpacho is almost like slurping a chopped salad.
Since this is not an American edition, it’s not surprising that some detective work is necessary for rounding up ingredients. Most were easy to find, except the book’s namesake piri piri pepper. A version of the sauce by the South African company Nando’s Chickenland is available at Bay Cities Italian Deli in Santa Monica. In recipes, piquin or Thai chiles are good substitutes.
I loved the desserts: The four-ingredient honey tart is easy and would be delightful with cheese or nuts. A dense beer cake with cinnamon, nutmeg and walnuts makes a lovely coffee cake alternative.
You don’t even have to be thinking of cooking to sit down with this beautifully designed book. Photographs -- taken by Manos Chatzikonstantis and styled by Michail Touros -- of the dishes are unadorned, letting the food itself entice.
Among the recipes, Kiros intersperses engaging stories and journal entries that describe travel scenes or encounters -- a wobbly table at a restaurant made right by half a lemon or the harrowing taxicab ride she took to Cascais with her “eyes glued to his speedometer wishing time away.”
Portugal’s empire may have faded long ago, but thanks to Kiros’ intimate portrait, its contribution to global cuisine has not been overlooked.