Before we go any further, it’s best to explain the difference between ervas Play normal audio herbs and especiarias Play normal audio spices. Simply put, herbs are leaves while spices are seeds, bark, roots, and flowers. If you love food like we do, or want to understand the menu at a Portuguese restaurant, we think you’ll enjoy this guide to vocabulary for herbs and spices in Portuguese cooking. Thanks to Relish Portugal magazine for suggesting this great idea!
Depending on the type of herb, you can buy them in many different forms:
- frescas Play normal audio fresh (in a pot or small package)
- secas Play normal audio dried
- congeladas Play normal audio frozen
- moídas Play normal audio ground
- inteiras Play normal audio whole
Fresh herbs often have better flavour, but dried alternatives are more practical for people who don’t cook often. They’re also easier to find at the grocery store, whereas certain fresh herbs can only be found at a farmers’ market. Many Portuguese people like to use their little backyards or gardens to grow fresh herbs.
Spices are always dry and come either whole or ground into a powder. You can buy them in little frascos Play normal audio jars, saquetas Play normal audio packets, or sometimes a granel Play normal audio in bulk – which is the cheaper option.
They may not be in every kitchen, but these herbs are among the most common in Portuguese food.
Louro (Bay leaf)
Probably the most used herb in all of Portuguese cuisine, louro Play normal audio bay(leaf) comes from a tree called the loureiro Play normal audio bay laurel. Louro is typically used whole and dry, and you can find it in all types of meat marinades andrefogados Play normal audio sautées. Adding bay leaf is a good way of cutting the amount of salt in a recipe while giving it a distinct flavour.
Coentros (Cilantro) & Salsa (Parsley)
Coentros Play normal audio Cilantro, coriander and salsa Play slow audio Play normal audio parsley are two similar looking herbs with a different taste and smell. Both have a citric, bitter flavour, with cilantro being much stronger, which may be why some people don’t like it. Salsa mainly appears in northern Portuguese recipes, while coentros is a staple of many southern dishes. Dried or frozen options exist, but they taste better fresh.
Salsa is usually one of the last things to add to a Portuguese dish, since cooking it diminishes the flavour. It’s so popular that, when paying for vegetables or fruits at mercearias Play slow audio Play normal audio grocery stores and mini-mercados Play normal audio mini-markets, it’s not unusual for people to ask for complimentary branches of parsley. Usually, the only fish it is combined with is bacalhau Play slow audio Play normal audio codfish, in several recipes.
Coentros is often a main ingredient in soups and sauces and it pairs nicely with fish and clams. Coentros are also one of the ingredients in the popular dish Açorda à Alentejana Play normal audio . This dish consists mainly of bread and originates in the Alentejo region, but is now present in restaurants and homes all over the country.
When seasoning meat and/or making roasts, a great replacement for louro is alecrim Play normal audio rosemary as it also goes well with potatoes.
One common mistake people make is calling rosemary “rosmaninho” – which is in fact another name for alfazema Play normal audio lavender, and not alecrim.
In the center and north of Portugal, hortelã Play normal audio mint is used instead of coentros as one of the ingredients of Açorda Play normal audio . It’s also a popular garnish forcanja Play slow audio Play normal audio chicken soup.
Carqueja (Genista tridentata)
Carqueja Play normal audio is plant native to the center and north of Portugal. Its dry flowers are used to make Arroz de Carqueja and season game meat, mainly o coelho Play slow audio Play normal audio rabbit.
- tomilho Play normal audio thyme – Cultivated in Portugal and known for its medicinal properties, goes well with meat and fish dishes
- oregãos Play normal audio oregano – An herb strongly associated with Mediterranean cuisine, especially Italian, Portuguese folks like to use it as seasoning in tomato and cucumber salads
- manjericão Play normal audio basil – One of the most popular herbs worldwide, goes well with tomatoes, pastas and many other foods
- cebolinho Play normal audio chives – Not very present in Portuguese recipes but is a great addition to sauces, cheeses, and omelets
- estragão Play normal audio tarragon – Not a popular herb, but one that’s good for making sauces and seasoning white meats
When talking about the Descobrimentos Portugueses Play normal audio Portuguese discoveries, Age of Exploration, one is always bound to mention the spice routes and how valuable they were. While their worth was once on par with gold, today they are relatively cheap and always present in our cupboards.
The most basic pair of seasonings one can use when cooking is sal Play normal audio salt andpimenta Play normal audio pepper. There are various types of pepper but the two most used in Portugal are pimenta preta Play normal audio black pepper and pimenta branca Play normal audio white pepper. White pepper is a bit spicier than the black variant, which has a more rich and complex taste.
Piri-piri Play normal audio is a very hot variant of the chili pepper that’s very common throughout Portuguese-speaking countries, and was originally cultivated in Mozambique. It is a very small pepper that can be cut to add to marinades or used as a condiment. Supermarkets often carry piri-piri infused olive oil or you can make your own, as restaurants and ‘snack-bars’ usually do.
Colorau Play normal audio Paprika, also known as pimentão-doce Play normal audio paprika, literally: sweet-pepper, is a very popular spice in Portugal. It’s a popular addition to meat marinades and roasts, and is traditionally used when making Portuguese chouriças Play normal audio chorizos. It’s also present in the production of certain cheese varieties, giving them a distinct flavour and colour.
Canela Play normal audio Cinnamon is mainly found in Portuguese desserts and other sweet dishes, usually as a topping. Although not necessary, when eating the famous pastéis de nata, many recommend sprinkling cinnamon powder on top first.
Erva-doce (Anise seed)
Erva-doce Play normal audio anise is often confused with funcho Play normal audio fennel as they have a very similar appearance and a sweet, licorice-like taste and aroma. “Sweet-grass” is the literal translation of erva-doce, but the seeds are actually the part of the plant we use. Whole or ground, they’re used in many desserts and Portuguese pastries as well as seasoning for castanhas cozidas Play normal audio boiled chestnuts.