Portuguese Fish Cakes & A Rookie Mistake

It was laundry day. Some days, you’ve just got to get the essentials done. I easily found the nearest laundromat in Portimao, loaded the machine, inserted the right coins, and pressed start. Success. I had one hour eleven minutes until I would once again own clean underwear.

I left the laundromat in search of lunch at the main marketplace, and to my dismay found it was closed from 2pm to 5pm. Alas. It was only 1:17pm but I was hardly surprised.

I walked back down the street, spotted a Mercadoria and tried the door. To my fright, I toppled a huge tower of stacked trolley baskets that had been barricading the door, and sent them crashing to the ground. I apologised profusely to the empty shop until a lady came and confirmed that a) the shop was shut b) I can’t speak any Portuguese, and c) I had done no damage.

I soon found a good-looking blackboard with a few options on it. After communicating poorly with the tanned, toothy, old man inside to order Menu 1 (€3,50), I was guided to a seat and asked “beber?”. We settled on ‘manga’ iced tea. ‘Sopa?’ ‘Si’. I was soon slurping some thick, tasty vegetable soup.

A weathered women ate alone nearby and when her soup was cleared, she was brought a bocadillo. Together we watched the Portuguese news on the television, and I saw Donald Trump from a foreign perspective with subtitles. When my soup was cleared, I was unsure what to expect, but I still had a napkin-wrapped knife and fork in front of me. Mr Toothy crept into my peripheral vision carrying a plate… yes! When it was placed in front of me, I did a huge smile and said ‘gracias’. Oops. I meant ‘obrigada’.

On the plate was a pile of plain white rice, some green salad, a handful of chips (chips! I hadn’t had chips in months!) and… battered fish. I was stoked and starting devouring. I soon realised that inside the battered fish was actually more batter, in a cake-like fishy consistency, mixed with herbs and peas. Amazing! I savoured each bite, but hungrily wanted to eat this forever. When my plate was clean as new, I reached for my phone and opened Google translate and wrote: “Thank you. I am from New Zealand and I don’t know any Portuguese. The meal was lovely. Thank you for having me”. He read it out slowly in Portuguese and smiled, “obrigado, obrigado. Nova Zelândia?”

I followed him to the counter to pay; he fetched a woman from out back and they had a discussion. I had an inkling this was the moment where they would decide a new price based on the information I had just provided in trying to be friendly. “Siet euros” he said. I handed him a 10 and he handed me 3. He ripped me off. I didn’t argue. They were some brilliant ‘bolhinos de bacalhau’ –  classic Portuguese fishcakes, I later learned. And my laundry was almost done when I got back to the laundromat. Today was a good day.

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