After exhaustive research on the ground and in the hammock I have discovered nearly nothing to explain why Portuguese chicken is the best in the world. But it is. You just have to take my word for it. Portuguese chicken, bought from the supermarket, or the neighbours, or eaten in a restaurant, it is invariably juicy and flavoursome. But why?
I was hoping to discover that Portuguese chooks are not reared in cages or fed hormornes or antibiotics. Alas it would seem that actually nor are australian meat-chickens kept in cages and the hormorne thing is just a myth. The widespread use of antibiotics appears to be under control in the english-speaking-web-friendly world at least, (it’s not discussed in portuguese) if only in the sense that the antibiotics (used to control disease in the animals and linked to the rise of antibiotic resistent infection among humans) in poultry production are limited and controlled by legislation and overseen by industry bodies. There was a specific outbreak of antibiotic contamination in Portugal earlier this year, but it was rapidly stomped upon by conscientious EU-fearing government ministers.
Nor are the local fowl a special and unique breed, as I was anticipating.
When the world-wide-web fails me, I turn to empirical study. Let me say that the Portuguese birds do not look very impressive. Compared with your standard production line woolworths frozen inghams style jobbie they look rather puny. Apparently the average life expectancy for aussie-henny-penny is six weeks. But my favourite lecherous butcher tells me that here, felipe-frango might get as little as three weeks to make his mark on the world. So maybe that’s it. They are the suckling pigs of the chicken industry.
Tia Maria (she’s my neighbour and the fonte of all wisdom) has one word to say on the subject and it is “tempero” (seasoning). I don’t dispute the idea that the Portuguese are world leaders in chicken culinaria, but this theory leaves out the one significant control factor in the research. Me. I am the control. I’ve bought the raw product and cooked chook for myself, my way, in various locales across the globe from Titicaca to Toulouse and my Portuguese bbq chicken is by far the best I’ve ever made.
But: one remaining variable: Piri-Piri. Ingredient unique to Portugal.
So, either my cooking has overtaken my tastebuds’ expectations or Piri-Piri has magical powers. Or Portugal has the best chicken in the world. If you are working on your own theories then I would love to hear them.
My Portuguese BBQ Chicken.
I cook this over hot coals under the gargantuan chimney in my kitchen. I get favouritelecherousbutcher to butterfly the bird or halve it, or maybe quarter, whatever. I wash it, throw some salt at it and give it a few stabs with a small knife especially in the thickest flesh. The quantities of everything are, as usual, completely arbitrary, although for a whole chicken I aim for about a cup of marinade because I like to throw it around.
Lots of garlic
zest and juice of a big lemon
piri piri – either a few shakes of the fierce Calvé sauce one, or a lot of dried stuff.
Whip this together and spoon it over the pieces after they’ve had an initial colouring on the grill. I use the “juices run clear” test for doneness, although the Portuguese chook pieces shrink slightly when they are done. Anyway I’m usually too hungry to wait for more than 45 minutes and too paranoid to cook it for less. Whatever, it’s fantastic every time.
Saudades for Yen’s. (Vietnamese-Portuguese Chicken Salad).
In Sydney, I lived above a vietnamese restaurant called Yen’s. The food was so good, inexpensive and fresh that I’d eat there about four times a week. Many friends became addicted to it too, to the point where Yen’s became not just a place to eat, but a part of my life. I named my cat Mao, for example, because it’s Vietnamese for cat (way before I knew it sounds like bad in Portuguese).
The problem is that in central portugal it is impossible to get the right ingredients. So this is a recipe of careful substitution, and I think it’s a success because eating this helps to calm the beast when I get savage cravings, or saudades, for Yen’s.
Cooked chicken leftovers, ripped into shreds
a pile of shredded cabbage – Couve Lombarda in Portugal
a small finely sliced onion
two handfuls mint
small handful of toasted peanuts
vermicelli rice noodles, if you can find them, soaked in boiling water
Nuoc Cham (a vietnamese sauce, based on fish sauce and chilli)
Shake the ingredients in a jar and adjust according to your taste. Pour it over the salad just before eating.
equal quantities brown/yellow sugar (dissolved in equal parts hot water), fish sauce, white/rice wine vinegar.
2 small seeded chillies and 2 cloves garlic, juice of half a lime/lemon
dash of vegetable oil.
If you can’t get the fish sauce, I have used a mix of one part white or apple vinegar, 1 part oyster sauce, a dash of soy and a dash of water.