It all started with an egg (did it really?), from which a chick was born that grew and became a chicken. As an adult it grew some more and became a hen that people learnt to cook for their benefit and pleasure. The discussion continues. What came first, the chicken or the egg? If it was the egg, then who hatched it? And if it was the chicken, then how did it appear?

Some authors still believe that the winged dinosaur Archaeopteryx gave rise to today’s chicken. I don’t know if that is true, but I do know that chickens and hens have been used since time immemorial. Darwin maintained that the domestic chicken as we know it today derived from the red jungle fowl found in India and Indochina. More recent studies have attributed its origins to other species in Southern Asia, knowing that the chicken was already domesticated in the Neolithic Period. Records from China also refer to the domesticated chicken as early as the 14th century BC. In Roman times, chickens were bred and raised by the different households, and can be found in 15 recipes in the Apicius cookbook, making it the bird with the greatest variety of different dishes. On the Iberian Peninsula, and closer to us in time, we can find forty-nine chicken recipes in the 13th century work by Ibn Razin al-Tugibi, clearly demonstrating the importance of chickens, or hens, in the diet of this region at that time – a region that also encompassed the Maghreb. Somewhat surprising is the letter written by Pero Vaz de Caminha informing King Dom Manuel I of the discovery of Brazil. The boats that set off on the Discoveries had live animals on board, and when they arrived at their supposed destinations, the animals were unloaded. The Native Indians were surprised when the cages with chickens were unloaded; the chickens were then released and started clucking and running about, which scared the Indians. And thus, chickens and hens arrived to be bred and produced in Brazil – so successfully that its present-day chicken production has turned Brazil into one of the greatest exporters of chickens in the world. Later came the first written record of Portuguese recipes, the recipe notebook of the princess Infanta Dona Maria (16th century), with eight recipes and another for chicken breasts which, once cooked and crushed in a mortar, were used to thicken the famous “Manjar-branco” (blancmange), a delicious and prestigious dessert at the time. The main meat used in this notebook came from chickens and hens. Dom Sebastião also seems to have enjoyed chicken. In his extraordinary journey to the Alentejo and the Algarve in 1573 “the King dined on chicken and capon, of which he partook and greatly praised.” Among Portugal’s fourth dynasty (1640-1910), there were many people who loved chicken, and it is said that Dom João VI often ate chicken thighs. And so, the tradition of eating chicken was established in Portugal and also became a practice that made its way to Brazil. Dom Pedro II of Brazil enjoyed chicken too, and there are several references to this meat, especially in relation to chicken soup. Chicken soup is a good example to illustrate the consumption of this fowl following Garcia da Orta’s return from India, where he recognised its healing powers. Thus, even today, chicken soup is immediately associated with those who are sick or convalescing. Nevertheless, although chicken is a part of our daily diet, we have never given it the attention deserving of an elite, haute-cuisine product. In Portugal, it seems that we are ashamed to use some popular products in grand or more elaborate dishes. And as for banquets, chicken seems to have been all but outlawed. I can clearly remember a trip where I accompanied our Prime Minister on an official visit to Mexico; at the banquet offered by the President of the Republic, the main dish was chicken stuffed with local mushrooms. But let us get back to our overview of Portuguese recipes. In 1680, Domingos Rodrigues, presented fourteen recipes for either chicken or hen, and then another 10 recipes specifically for chicken and nine for hen – of which one is for a broth and another for meatballs. Chicken breast continued to be used to thicken the dough for “Manjar branco” (blancmange) and “Manjar real”; and chicken was also used to make “Olla Podrida” and “Olla Moura” (stews made from pork, beans, chickpeas, and a variety of other meats and vegetables), which are recipes leading up to our present-day “Cozido à Portuguesa” (Portuguese stew). Naturally, these recipes belonged to a food elite and chickens and hens continued to be very important. But even more important was the presence of the next author, who also cooked for the Court. He presented fifty-one recipes for chickens and hens, apart from reserving the chicken breast for the above-mentioned desserts, as well as for various broths and soups. With an increase in the number of recipes, it seems we could conclude that chickens and hens had also increased in value. However, when we get to the 19th century and look at the first professional cookbook, “Arte de Cozinha” (The Art of Cooking) by João da Mata, 1876, we find that there was a significant reduction in these recipes as there are only eighteen recipes for chickens and hens – which were still used to make some broths. Of special interest is the set of recipes presented in the book “Cozinheiro Nacional” (The National Cook), by an anonymous author, but attributed to Paulo Salles, and published between 1874 and 1888. There are seventy-four recipes, clearly illustrating the importance of these farm animals to the Portuguese. The first book of the 20th century, “Tratado Completo de Cozinha e Copa” (The Complete Treaty on Kitchen and Pantry) by Carlos Bento da Maia, 1904, also dealt with home economics. In it you will find twenty-two recipes, one of which mentions that chicken broth is for the ill. Chicken begins to play a more important role in terms of families, and is found less frequently at the tables of the elite. In 1936, in the first ‘inventory’ of Portuguese cuisine, António Maria de Oliveira Bello presents us with 10 chicken recipes, one for hen and one for soup. Chicken also makes its way into “Dobrada à moda do Porto” (a Porto-style tripe dish, with white butterbeans and chouriço), and there’s hen in the “Cozido de Trás-os-Montes” (a type of stew).

And what about chicken and hen dishes today? The most common dish is Barbecued Chicken on the spit or on the grill. Then there’s Chicken or Hen “Cabidela” (a dish with pieces of chicken and chicken blood), with the “Pica no chão” particularities that my friend Fernando Torres is so good at. Still in Minho, chickens or hens are also used in the Braga- or Bouro-style “Sarrabulhos” (rice dishes made with various types of meat and pig’s blood). We also have the “Arroz de Cabidela” (a rice dish made with chicken and chicken blood), which is very common in Minho, Trás-os-Montes and Beira Alta, as well as in the Alentejo. But in terms of rice dishes, we also have the chicken or hen “malandrinhos” (rice dishes that are not dry, but have a lot of sauce/broth). An emblematic recipe is that for “Frango na Púcara” (a Portuguese chicken dish cooked in a terracotta pot) from the centre of Portugal, with towns from Óbidos to Tomar claiming credit for its origins. A curious and traditional recipe from the Coimbra region is “Chicken with suckling pig gravy”; it is a roasted chicken dish with gravy similar to that of the famous “Leitão da Bairrada” (Bairrada Suckling Pig). The recipe that seems the most elitist is “Galinha Cerejada”, which is still made in the Algarve. Here, a hen is boiled in water with “toucinho” (salted pork fat) and chouriço, garlic and lots of parsley. Once it has been cooked, it is evenly braised in a saucepan in an onion and garlic sauté with olive oil, lard and butter. When it is almost done, white wine is poured over it. It is very often served as a party dish. Every region has its own small, but tasty regional recipes such as the “Galinha Azeitonada” from Trás-os-Montes (a hen dish that includes pitted olives, diced carrots and onion), or the “Açorda de Galinha” (a thick bread-based hen casserole) with chickpeas from the Algarve, and many more. Chickens and hens can be boiled, grilled, roasted, stewed or fricasseed, with Molho de Vilão (a sauce with garlic, onions, vinegar, paprika, salt and pepper) or cebolada (an onion-based sauce). But the Alentejo became famous for its renowned “Empadas” (chicken pies).

In the past, hen on the table symbolised a well-stocked kitchen. Hens were used to make more hearty dishes. I still remember that hen was reserved for parties, and chicken for everyday dishes. I don’t know if the large-scale production of aviary chickens, which made this a cheap product, is responsible for making it more popular as it disappears from more elaborate menus. As has recently happened. The only new recipe that has emerged and made a name for itself seems to be chicken or hen stuffed with “farinheira” (a sausage made with pork fat, flour and seasonings).

The “cozidos” (stews) from the north of Portugal are here to stay, as is Porto-style tripe. Even today, I still remember that when my father went to Porto, he would always bring us some roasted chicken from Baltar on the way back. It’s as if I can still taste that particular flavour that set it apart. I must admit that I do not appreciate chicken cut up into small pieces; it always seems that there’s a piece of chicken missing. Eating roast chicken, a weekly practice at Churrasco (which has the best chicken in Lisbon), is akin to the ritual of eating a boiled fish’s head.

Well, we haven’t covered all recipes, and I haven’t written anything about capon and turkey, which I will leave for a later opportunity.

And don’t forget that any recipe will always taste better if accompanied by some fine wine.

© Virgílio Nogueiro Gomes