What is Azorean Cuisine?
The short answer is: cooking that is native to the Azores Islands, an Autonomous Region of the country of Portugal. Azorean cuisine is a rich, hearty, peasant-based style of cooking. Its flavors sing of seafood, spicy stews, sweet desserts and rich dairy products, among many others.
The exact answer, however, is a bit more complicated. Most people, if they have even heard of the Azores before, likely assume that the foods of these islands are the same as, or similar to, Portugal’s.
But while the language is the same, and some of the dishes are even the same, they are actually quite different cuisines.
Geography and Food
First, a bit about the Azores and its history: the Azores is an archipelago of nine islands of various sizes. The largest, Såo Miguel, is about 747 square kilometers and the smallest, Corvo, weighs in at a mere 17 kilometers. They are in three “groups,” geographically speaking, with Såo Miguel and Santa Maria being the eastern-most group. Terçeira, Faial, Pico and Graçiosa are the middle group and Flores and Corvo make up the northern group.
The islands are geographically isolated, both from the mainland and even from each other. They lie in the Atlantic Ocean approximately two-thirds of the way between the United States and the coast of mainland Portugal. It is believed that they were discovered by the Portuguese navigator Diogo de Silves around 1427.
There is no evidence that they had ever been inhabited prior to this.
This is one of the main reasons that the food of the Azores is so little known. It isn’t easy to get to them and, in fact, it isn’t even that easy to get from one to the other! Even today people who live on one of the islands are more likely to have been to the mainland, or traveled to other parts of the world, than to the other islands in their archipelago.
The Azores also had a history of rampant illiteracy—although this has, of course, changed in modern times. For this reason many family recipes got lost. They simply were not written down. Although some got passed from generation to generation, many did not. During the big wave of immigration out of the Azores in the early part of the 1900s, written recipes and records of cuisine did not leave with the inhabitants.
As chef and author David Leite notes, these were not a people who went to restaurants. The island’s residents were hard-working farmers and fishermen. Many families struggled with extreme poverty and over-crowding. When they left the islands and moved to other countries, such as the United States, opening restaurants and cafes is not something that occurred to most of them. Why would people come to eat their food when they usually made their own at home? This is another reason that the cuisine is so little known.
What Distinguishes Azorean Cuisine From Portuguese Cuisine
So, what is Azorean cuisine, and what distinguishes it from mainland Portuguese cooking? Again, the answer is not simple, particularly since cuisine changes depending on which Azorean island, or even which part of any given island you visit.
As a general rule, Azorean cuisine tends to be much more country rustic than mainland Portugal’s (this is not a hard and fast rule, but is generally true). The foods are rich with the flavors of the main ingredients, rather than created with sophisticated blends of flavors.
A good example of this, as David Leite also points out in an article about Azorean cooking, is the Kale Soup. The hearty version I grew up with is full of big chunks of kale, potatoes and linguiça, whereas the Caldo Verde made on the mainland is creamy and smooth, with thin strips of kale and maybe one or two slices of linguiça in each bowl.
- Dairy products: The Azores are famous for their rich dairy products. Cows tend to be used for milk, rather than as meat (pork is the main meat used in cooking). At breakfast you are likely to be served a small glass jar filled with local yogurt, breads spread with rich butter, and a coffee with lots of steamed whole milk. The cheeses are also very good on the islands and the Queijo da Ilha from the island of Såo Jorge can be found in a few top quality cheese stores around the world.
- Cozida is a unique type of food that comes from the island of Såo Miguel (the biggest island). This is a sort of one-pot meal that is actually cooked by digging a hole in the ground near the famous caldeiras (hot geysers) of Furnas (which, not surprisingly, means “furnace” in Portuguese).
- Alcatra is another popular Azorean dish that hails from the island of Terçeira. This pot roast style of dish can be made from pork, beef, or another animal and is slow baked with tomatoes, onions, garlic, and a bit of clove.
- Seafood: The Azores are islands, so it is no surprise that seafood figures heavily in the cuisine. As in the mainland, bacalhau (cod) and other fish figures heavily in the mix, but there is a heavier use of polvo (octopus), lamprey and limpets.
- Ananas, or pineapples, are grown on the island of Såo Miguel and are exported heavily to mainland Portugal. It is frequently seen on the menu of Azorean restaurants for dessert and is the rare exception to the richly sweet dishes that characterize most of the Azorean repertoire of desserts.
- Massa Sovada, or Portuguese sweet bread, originated in the Azores and is a ubiquitous part of Christmas and Easter for both Azoreans and mainland Portuguese. For Easter it is often baked with hard-boiled eggs in the center of the loaf. Malasadas are round balls of dough that are deep fried and rolled in granulated sugar, almost like a donut, that are supposed to have originated in the island of Såo Miguel.
This gives you a taste of the hearty and rich flavors of Azorean cooking. The visitor is unlikely to go hungry on these islands. Whether you are eating in a restaurant or in someone’s home, the portions will be large and the food filling, and you will be encouraged to have seconds or thirds. It may not be easy to find this food anywhere else in the world, but if you are lucky enough to have it, you will be satisfied!