I am a daughter-in-law, but before the official title I was just the padeça at the party. The word padeça is used to describe anyone English-speaking who isn’t of Portuguese descent. When Marco and I first started dating, I would hear it often, usually at a wedding. Marco would introduce me to a silver-haired lady clad in Madeiran gold. And her response, almost always, would be: “Padeça?” Marco’s confirmation would be received with a protruding bottom lip and a slant of the head – as if she had just tasted something new for the first time and didn’t quite know what to think.
When you’re foreign you don’t get the jokes, even when they’re translated just for you. You don’t get how the church and poncha can comfortably coexist. And you don’t get how pickled fish on a hot cross bun can possibly be good – until you taste it.
When you’re foreign, the way in is food. And my mother-in-law, Maria Noelia de Sousa, was my in.
In the early years of our relationship, Marco and I would pitch up at his childhood home on a Saturday morning to ride out our hangovers with DStv and his mom’s home cooking. We would find Maria on the treadmill in her pumps and jeans – just passing time while she waited for our arrival. Her bottomless energy was enviable. Once, while she was working her way through a mountain of dirty dishes, I asked her why she didn’t get a dishwasher, she replied that she would then have nothing to do.
Maria’s 5-plate gas hob was the helm of her home. To ease our pain, she would click on the flames and start frying. Eggs slid from her prized Bauer pan onto floury Portuguese rolls and my favourite, milho frito splattered seductively on the corner plate. Sloppy mielie meal being transformed into these crispy, cratered, Aromat-laden fingers reminds you that there is nothing more delicious than deep-fried carbohydrates.
Once breakfast was eaten, and the dishes were washed, Maria would start on dinner. Chopping, defrosting, deboning and slow-cooking. It wasn’t uncommon to find peeled potatoes for that night’s cal verde bopping in a bucket of water from as early as 9am.
While Marco shivered through a haunting from the previous night’s R5 tequilas on the couch, the smells and operatic humming from the kitchen would lure me to a seat at the marble island. At first I would stay seated – watching from a distance, making small talk. Gradually I was given tasks. It was only a matter of time until I was invited to help myself to her stockpile of Galo, the tins of Portuguese olive oil that filled the guest room cupboards.
With every month of Marco and I dating, Maria and I grew closer. She would call ahead of big family gatherings to ask my opinion on the menu she had in mind – usually a Portuguese crowd-pleaser and some dessert prepared in ramekins days in advance to relieve the pressure on the day of. The anxious phone calls were mostly seeking reassurance that it would be enough food and impressive enough for the occasion.
On slow days, I would find myself driving from the city to Tygerberg Hills to join Maria and her neighbour Agueda on their bulk shopping trips. A small notebook, kept in Maria’s handbag, was referred to often. It kept record of who wanted how much of what from her connections. She knew where to get good olives and choriço at a good price. I only ever saw the notebook being used for food-related matters. If she enjoyed a meal at a restaurant, she would ask the waiter to call the cook and jot down the recipe in the book. A few of my dishes even made it onto paper, despite being described as ‘different’, which she intended as a compliment.
Just as I became her daughter-in-law and got the hang of popping tremoços (brined lupin beans) out of their skins into my mouth without choking, Maria sold her home on the hills and moved to the UK to be closer to her grandchildren. Agueda, her neighbour, is in England now too. For the last 6 years, homemade pickled fish at Easter has been replaced with the unsatisfying version by Woolies. Family gatherings are less frequent and not as festive.
When my mother-in-law recently visited, Marco put in his first request: Carne Vinha d’Alhos. It’s pork belly pickled for 3 days in garlic, bay leaves and vinegar. The acidity ‘cooks’ the meat slowly, and on the fourth day the little chunks of fatty pork get fried until crispy, and crammed onto a roll. When Maria’s family heard that there was Carne Vinha d’Alhos brewing, they wanted in. Very few people have the patience or stamina to make it.
On the fourth day, they came to the house and ate. The simple meal, that had safely made it across the seas from Madeira, summoned memories of family picnics, grandparents and their famous dishes. I watched as my husband and his family enjoyed the anecdotes as much as they did the dripping sandwiches. It was eleven years later and I still didn’t understand the jokes or know the people who had departed before I had arrived, but I completely got how little pieces of pork, pickled and fried, had the power to make them this happy.
Carne Vinha d’Alhos
Pork Belly Pickled in Wine and Garlic
Pork belly, cut into bite size chunks (150g per person)
6 cloves of garlic
4 bay leaves
2 bird’s eye chillies
Salt to taste
1 part vinegar to 1 part water (enough to cover the meat)
Sunflower oil for frying
Combine all the ingredients above, except for the oil, in a large container that can be sealed. Ensure the meat is covered in the liquid.
Place the sealed container somewhere in the kitchen, out of the sun. Stir morning and night, every day, for 3 days.
Remove the meat from the liquid and place on paper towel. Heat up oil in a saucepan and shallow-fry the pork pieces until crisp and golden.
Serve on fresh Portuguese rolls.
Very Strong Punch
1 l cane spirit
1 l orange juice
The rind of a lemon
The juice of a lemon
3 T honey
115g tin of granadilla pulp (or fresh granadilla pulp)
Mix all the ingredients together until the honey has dissolved.
Pour the mixture back into the empty orange juice and cane bottles, and chill in the fridge until the festa starts.
Kale, Potato and Choriço Soup
6 – 8 large potatoes, peeled and quartered
3 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1 packet of kale, finely sliced
1 loop of choriço
Boil the potatoes, garlic and onion in a large pot filled with salted water.
When the potatoes are soft, blend the contents of the pot, including the water, using a stick blender.
Add the finely sliced kale to the pot, as well as the whole loop of choriço, unchopped.
Once the kale and choriço are cooked, remove the choriço and slice into rings or chop into bits and add back into the soup.
Terri de Sousa is a freelance conceptual creative and writer.