Before we go any further, it’s best to explain the difference between ervas herbs and especiarias 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 fresh (in a pot or small package)
- secas dried
- congeladas frozen
- moídas ground
- inteiras 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 jars, saquetas packets, or sometimes a granel 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 bayleaf comes from a tree called the loureiro bay laurel. Louro is typically used whole and dry, and you can find it in all types of meat marinades andrefogados 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 Cilantro, coriander and salsa 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 grocery stores and mini-mercados 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 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 . 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 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 lavender, and not alecrim.
Carqueja (Genista tridentata)
- tomilho thyme – Cultivated in Portugal and known for its medicinal properties, goes well with meat and fish dishes
- oregãos oregano – An herb strongly associated with Mediterranean cuisine, especially Italian, Portuguese folks like to use it as seasoning in tomato and cucumber salads
- manjericão basil – One of the most popular herbs worldwide, goes well with tomatoes, pastas and many other foods
- cebolinho chives – Not very present in Portuguese recipes but is a great addition to sauces, cheeses, and omelets
- estragão tarragon – Not a popular herb, but one that’s good for making sauces and seasoning white meats
When talking about the Descobrimentos Portugueses 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 salt andpimenta pepper. There are various types of pepper but the two most used in Portugal are pimenta preta black pepper and pimenta branca white pepper. White pepper is a bit spicier than the black variant, which has a more rich and complex taste.
Piri-piri 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 Paprika, also known as pimentão-doce 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 chorizos. It’s also present in the production of certain cheese varieties, giving them a distinct flavour and colour.
Canela 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 anise is often confused with funcho 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 boiled chestnuts.