Moorish Heritage in the Cuisines of Spain and Portugal

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Entrada Index

Iberian Peninsula.

Moorish Heritage in the Cuisines of Spain and Portugal

SHORT VERSION OF – VERSION DE MODIFICADA DE: TERESA DE CASTRO>>, Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, New York, USA. Scribner and Sons. 2003, Vol 2, pp. 227-22. (La Peninsula Iberica: Vision General) Teresa de Castro c 2009 – 2016

The Iberian Peninsula, in south-western Europe, is occupied by Spain and Portugal.  it is separated from the main continent by the Pyrennees and surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the northwest and west and the Mediterranean to the south and east.

The characteristics of the Iberian cuisine cannot be understood without the culinary influence of Romans, Arabs, Jews and Christians, and the dietary exchange that followed the colonisation of America and the  colonialism of Africa and the Far East. Still, Rome never conquered the Basque Country and the Arabic heritage never reached the north-western fringe of the Peninsula.  Moorish influence is particularly important in areas in which Moors and/or Moriscos remained longer, that is, in the southern and eastern regions ( Alentejo, Algarve, Andalusia, Aragon, Extremadura, Murcia and Valencia0 especially in rural areas.

Moorish cuisine was shaped by the combination of Andalusian, Persian Maghribian ingredients, and had a selection of basic foodstuff, condiments and cooking processes.  Experacion Garcia in La Alimentacion, Lucie  Bolens in La cuisine andalouse, and Manuela Marin in Cuisine D’ Orient have described this cuisine. The expulsion of Mariscos from the Peninsula in the 17th century was the end of the Moorish culinary system in Iberian lands. However some elements of this system are still visible  in the Peninsula.

The foodways influenced indirectly Christian’s cuisine as a result of the contact that Muslims and Christians had during long periods of time in frontier’s lands in peaceful periods, mostly before the 15th century.

Christians’ cuisine absorbed Moorish influence, firstly, through the effect that Moors’ foodway had on Christian upper classes during the Caliphate and Ta’ifa’s periods (10th-12th c), when al-Andalus (Iberian Muslim Kingdom/s) was a cultural model to imitate.  This was the golden age of al-Andalus, and for the Christian World, “Moorish style”, meant luxury and exoticism.

A second way of penetration was through the contact that Moors and Christians had during long peaceful periods of time in frontier’s lands, especially in the south.

A third way was the result of years of interaction between Moorish and Christian communities in those cities where, after the Christian conquest, Mudejares (Muslims who did not convert to Christianity) had been set in ghettos inside or outside of urban walls.

The final via was through the neighborhood that Moriscos (Muslims who converted to Christianity), had with Christians in the Kingdom of Granada, the last Muslim territory to be conquered (1492).

After the failure of the Morisco’ rebellion in Alpujarras region (1568-1570) the Moriscos were expelled from Andalusia and relocated around the Kingdom of Castile, spreading even more their influence.  Nevertheless, the resistance of the Moriscos to integrate themselves – despite the pressure of the Inquisition produced a Christian’s disgust and hostility with regard to Morisco foodways.  Although this anger could not stop the culinary exchange, the action of Christian culture and foodways on Moors’ cuisine led to the disappearance, substitution,  addition, modification or different combination of ingredients and culinary practices once Moorish. The outcome was a cuisine that contained some Moorish components but was different because it had different flavours, smells, colors, and textures.

Moorish Culinary Contribution

Expiracion Garcia in La Alimentacion, Lucie Bolens in La cuisine andalouse, and Manuela Marin in Cuisine  d’Orient have described Al-Andalus cuisine.  However, contemporary Iberian cuisine has only a few elements of this Al-Andalus cuisine. In the Iberian Peninsula, these culinary features are marked by the prevalence or use of certain ingredients, dishes, methods of cooking, or ways of eating that was once typical of Al-Andalus but devoid of any religious meaning. These features having a Moorish heritage are:

  • Communal sharing from the same dish.  Examples of such shared dishes are paella, migas (fried bread crumbs or semolina), and gachas and papas (porridge).  This practice of sharing is no longer as prevalent as it once was.
  • Predominance of  yellow, green and white colors.  Yellow is common in most rice dishes, in fish stews with rice or noodles, and in some chickpea stews.  White is typical of some sweet rice pudding (arroz con leche and arroz con doce), some porridges, and some soups such ajo blanco (white garlic soup), the original gazpacho, gazpachuelo (a fish and egg soup), and various almond soups.  Green is the dominant color of some Portuguese dishes prepared with coriander, although the sopa verde (green soup) cannot be included in this category.
  • Use of saffron, cumin, coriander.  Coriander is rarely found in traditional Spanish cuisine but is very popular in Portugal, especially in dishes from Alentejo; some food writers relate this use to African influences.  Saffron is used both to color and to flavor rice dishes, legume stews, and meat casseroles.  Cumin season some legume stews sausages, and dishes of meat and fish.
  • Spiced stews made from chickpeas, lentils, and from fresh or dried broad beans.  Examples of such legume and bean stews include potaje de garbanzos, poteje de lentjas, fava rica, fava con coentro.  The consumption of broad beans, however, has diminished during the last sixty years.  Bulgur, or cracked wheat, is still included in some dishes from the Alpujarras region in Andalusia.
  • Savory or sweet porridges, made from different flours.  These, porridges, such as gachas and papas, were also the basis of Roman cuisine.
  • Dishes made with bread crumbs or slices of bread.  Breadcrumbs or torn up slices of bread are used for thickening and giving texture to many varieties of gazpacho and other kinds of soups (acorda, sopa de ajo, ensopados, and sopas secas).  Breadcrumbs are also the main ingredient in migas, a traditional popular dishe.  There are some factors that relate the recipe for migas, in its Andalusian version, to the recipe for couscous.  The first element is the way in which migas are cooked.  A sort of steam cooking is produced through sauteeing and continuous stirring of the ingredients such as fresh fruit, fried vegetables, fried or roasted fish or sausages, and even sweets.  Finally, migas, like couscous are eaten from the pan in which they were prepared.  The pan is placed on the table, and the whole family eats from it.
  • Spiced fritters and desserts.  Various doughnut-like  fritters (bunuelos. boladinhos, roscos. filhos, pestinos), and desserts (alcorza, alfenique, alaju, nougat, and marzipan) are made by combining honey or sugar, egg yolk, cinnamon, and sometimes ground almonds.
  • Other popular food dishes.  Flatbreads, either baked (pao estentidos) or fried ( pao de serta, sorta), stuffed eggs, stuffed eggplants, vermicelli stew, spiced meatballs, shish kebabs, (pinchos morunos, espetada), and quince paste are current Iberian foods also mentioned in Arab cookbooks.


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