Cabidela: A traditional dish for the adventurous
A while back, on a cool, drizzly Tuesday, I was wandering through an unfamiliar neighborhood looking for lunch, which in my view is one of the best ways to explore an unfamiliar neighborhood. The problem with this pastime in Lisbon is the paradox of choice – when everything looks good, it’s tough to make a decision.
I passed a crowded Indian restaurant and got a sudden craving for samosas and shrimp curry. Numerous cafés offered grilled sardines, and I am always in the mood for grilled sardines. But the winner of the Feed Mike Lunch Sweepstakes was a tiny, unassuming restaurant called “Bel’ Empada.” Empadas, little savory pies the size of a muffin, are one of my favorite things to eat in Portugal, and I figured that a restaurant named for them was probably worth a try, even if that only covered the appetizer part of my meal.
The tiny, dimly lit interior of Bel’ Empada was nearly full, with merry groups of mostly older Lisbonenses eating and drinking with gusto. The empadas did not disappoint, and the rest of the menu looked promising, too: lots of rural specialties like partridge, hare, and regional sausages.
The waiter followed my eyes. “That’s one of the day’s specials, arroz de cabidela,” he told me. I had never heard of it, but whatever it was, I wanted it.
But while the waiter began listing the day’s specials, I found myself riveted by a bowl that was being delivered to a table across the room. It was a steamy stew of rice and meat, but it was black as night. It looked hearty and filling in the best way. The waiter followed my eyes. “That’s one of the day’s specials, arroz de cabidela,” he told me. I had never heard of it, but whatever it was, I wanted it.
The dish, as you may have guessed by the fact that I’m writing about it, was terrific: rich and earthy, but with a vinegary tang, too.
As it turns out, cabidela is one of the oldest recipes in Portuguese cookery. When rabbits, game birds, or chickens were slaughtered, they were hung by their feet for a few days, and the blood was collected in a bucket. The meat would end up in a stew, and the blood (together with the finely chopped internal organs) would be added to thicken the sauce. The purpose of the vinegar was to keep the blood from coagulating; the added layer of flavor was just a fortunate byproduct.
Simply throwing away a rich source of nutrition would have been unthinkable.
The use of an animal’s blood is one of many examples of rural poverty giving rise to ingenious ways to use every available calorie and nutrient. It may make us squeamish today, but historically it was not at all uncommon. The original recipe for coq au vin used the rooster’s blood; nearly every part of Europe made some form of blood sausage; the Chinese used cubes of coagulated blood in soups. Simply throwing away a rich source of nutrition would have been unthinkable.
For the particularly adventurous, I’ve included a recipe below, and it’s actually pretty easy. In Portugal, chickens are typically sold with a packet of blood included, but obviously this will be a challenge in northern Europe or North America. It’s not impossible, though. If you live in a city with a large Chinese or Muslim population, you can likely get blood at a Chinese market or a Halal butcher. Alternatively, you can go directly to the source: I know several people in the U.S. who raise chickens in their yards, and it is becoming more common even in urban areas.
Where to find it
It’s more likely that you’ll want to try cabidela on your next trip to Portugal. It is a specialty of rural northern Portugal, but there are a few restaurants in Lisbon where you can find it:
Adega Tia Matilde
Rua da Benificência 77, between Campo Pequeno (Yellow line) and Praça de Espanha (Blue line): A bastion of traditional cooking that has been in the same family for four generations. Cabidela, listed on the menu as “Arroz de Frango à Tia Matilde,” is a specialty of the house.
Av. João XXI 24, between Areeiro (Green line) and Campo Pequeno (Yellow line): Chef Belmiro makes cabidela occasionally as a special, sometimes with hare or partridge. Call ahead to see if they have it.
Adega das Mercês
Travessa das Mercês 2, in Bairro Alto: A rare beacon of authenticity in a neighborhood mostly given over to tourism. Cabidela on Fridays only.
Recipe: Arroz de Cabidela
1 free-range chicken, cut into 6 or 8 pieces (if you can get an older chicken, do it)
6 tbsp. chicken blood or pork blood
3 tbsp. white wine vinegar
4 oz. pancetta or slab bacon, cut into cubes
1 large onion, diced
1 clove garlic, finely sliced
1 bay leaf
1 small hot pepper (malagueta or thai bird), cut in half lengthwise
1 cup white rice
2 cups wine
Put the blood and vinegar in a small bowl, whisk together, and set aside.
Sweat the onion and garlic in a good glug of olive oil over medium heat until starting to soften, about 5 minutes.
Finely chop the chicken heart, gizzard and kidneys (but not the liver) and add to the pot along with the bacon. Continue to cook until the bacon starts to color a bit, another 5-8 minutes.
Add the chicken pieces and cook a few minutes more (it is not necessary to fully brown the chicken).
Add the bay leaf, hot pepper, and wine. If the chicken is not covered by the wine, add water as necessary (up to 2 cups).
Bring to a boil, then turn heat to low, cover, and simmer until cooked through, about 40-50 minutes.
Remove the chicken pieces and measure the broth. Adjust so that you have 3 cups.
Bring the broth back to a boil, add the rice, lower the heat, cover, and cook until rice is done, about 15 minutes.
Uncover, add the blood, stir once, then return chicken to the pot and cook over medium heat until the chicken is heated and the broth is slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Serve in wide soup bowls, garnished with a few cilantro leaves.