Travel does curious things to traditional cuisine. And we’re not just talking about Olive Garden abominations here, but universal favorites. Inspired by distant homelands and adapted for local tastes, the end product often bears no resemblance to what the relatives back in the old country would recognise.
Mexicans don’t eat hard-shell tacos. Most food historians agree that the tikka masala was probably invented in a restaurant in Glasgow, Scotland. Go to Rome, and you can have spaghetti and meatballs, but not at the same time. The pizza in Naples will have, at most, three simple toppings – and the crust will not be stuffed with cheese. And the citizens of China don’t eat Crab Rangoon or General Tso’s chicken, and fortune cookies are not a “thing.”
Sometimes, the change is so complete that the food actually grows deep roots and becomes an integral part of its new home’s culture. Think of creole cooking – that heady blend of Caribbean, African, and European influence – or fish and chips, that staple of the British Isles that began with Jewish travellers from the Iberian peninsula, and took on an Italian twist in Ireland when an emigrant from the Bel Paese by the name of Giuseppe Cervi mistakenly disembarked from a ship in County Cork, thinking he’d already arrived in the USA. He stayed, bought a food cart, and generations of Italians have been running takeaway chip shops across the Emerald Isle ever since.
The city of Porto has migration to thank for one of its treasured dishes, too. Tough times in the middle of the last century forced many Portuguese to emigrate, and by the 1970s, their numbers in France almost equalled the population of their homeland’s capital, Lisbon.
Naturally, along with the money they sent home to their families, certain cultural and culinary exchanges happened along the way – most significantly of all, the adoption of the Croque-monsieur.
Starting with the most French of all sandwiches, the Portuguese created something all of their own, ditching the dainty, restrained nature of the Croque-monsieur to create a rustic heavyweight, the Francesinha.
Translated, the name means “Little Frenchie,” but there’s nothing small about this muscular combo of fresh and smoked sausage with beef steak, all between two chunky slices of bread that’s toasted and then covered with cheese and grilled before being topped with a fried egg and doused with a deliciously meaty secret sauce. Sound a little too much? It is – in the best possible way.
It’s not the kind of thing you’d eat every day, but in the right context, you wouldn’t want anything else. Like the best things in Portugal, it comes without any pretence, and is best enjoyed in the simple, friendly surroundings of a neighborhood bar, with a soccer match on the TV to excite the locals and create some atmosphere.
Everyone’s got their own opinion on where serves the “best” Francesinha, but for our money it’s Porto’s Cafe Santiago. There’ll be a line at the door, but it’s worth the wait, and if you ask nicely, they’ll let you order a cool bottle of the local beer to sip on while you wait. Just make sure you show up with an empty stomach.