A Sociedade in Lisbon

(It’s been a little hectic since I returned from Europe with other trips since then, so I just finished writing about my first-ever European event which was incredibly special to me. Better late than never…)

I have an inexplicable love affair with Lisbon. Maybe I was Portuguese in a past life. I have spent a lot of time sampling my fair share of pasteis de nata, trying to surf baby waves, and exploring some of the countryside; and I imagine going back every year if at all possible. Now, thanks to my photography guru Sanda Vuckovic Pagaimo (of Little Upside Down Cake), I was able to have my first European event in my very favourite city.

Sanda very thoughtfully introduced me to the team at A Sociedade in Lisbon, a beautiful creative gastronomic studio that curates a progressive program of food-related events. After speaking to Miguel Andrade of A Sociedade, a prolific food writer, researcher and photographer in his own right, we decided that I would lead one of their Open Kitchen events, where I would share my experience with Korean temple food.

I recalled Sanda telling me a year before that living in Lisbon she had no familiarity with Korean cuisine at all, and she is someone who loves food and has travelled extensively. So I was looking forward to sharing what I consider a particularly singular aspect of Korean cuisine with people who may know nothing or little about Korean food or culture.

Concerned I wouldn't be able to find any Korean ingredients in Lisbon, I arrived in Portugal with a bag heaving with Korean goodies such as a rice syrup that was made at Jeong Kwan’s temple for Buddha’s Birthday, chilli paste made in the traditional manner, a sack of perilla seeds, organic burdock tea and god knows what else. All I know is that bag barely squeaked by my baggage allowance.

Despite hauling an entire Korean pantry to Lisbon, I also wanted to check if there was anything available there in terms of Korean groceries, because what was the point of sharing temple food recipes that could never be replicated by the attendees? Luckily, my friend Maria Costas Santos (of Cabeça da Cabra guesthouse in Alentejo; more here) has a boyfriend, Duarte Silva, who is a fount of culinary knowledge when it comes to Lisbon and Alentejo. He pointed me in the direction of the adjoining neighbourhoods of Intendente and Mouraria, which house a Chinese (and South Asian and African) immigrant community and a plethora of Chinese grocers.

My first free day in Lisbon, I wandered around Intendente and Mouraria and was pleased to see the grocers carried some Korean goods like chilli paste (gochujang) and soybean paste (doenjang) as well as fresh Asian veg and basically every Chinese condiment and ingredient you would need in Portugal. Supermercado Chen (the larger one) would certainly be a weekly stop for me if I lived in Lisbon (not that I think/dream about that at all...).

Intendente / Mouraria obviously is the cool place to live these days. With its diverse community, there is a unique vibrance you don’t see in the more touristy areas of Lisbon. Also A Vida Portuguesa, the gorgeous one-stop shop for all retro and artisanal Portuguese goods, has their flagship there, which is more expansive and beautiful than even their outlet in Chiado. If I were not on a Marie Kondo-diet, I would have snapped up all of their vintage-inspired notebooks and Bordallo Pinheiro cabbage bowls.

Maria and Duarte live in Intendente, which if you know them is proof enough of its hipness. While I was wandering around the neighbourhood, to my amazement, I actually ran into Maria. She and Duarte had come to Lisbon from Alentejo for the weekend to surprise me at my workshop! My heart almost exploded. It would not be the first time my heart felt so full during these couple days.

The day of the workshop, my friend Kate Barnett (talented illustrator and new Lisbon transplant) picked me up in São Bento at A Casa C'alma, the boutique guesthouse where I was staying. A Casa C'alma was Sanda’s suggestion, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in staying in a lovely apartment, Air BnB-style, with a delicious breakfast spread and gracious host, Rafael, in a chic, unspoiled, leafy neighbourhood dotted with Lisbon favourites such as Copenhagen Coffee LabGelateria Nannarella, canned sardine purveyor Loja das Conservas and a perfect fishmonger, A Peixaria Centenaria. I.e. I would recommend it to anyone and everyone I know. If I lived in Lisbon, I would dream of living in São Bento (again, not that I ever fantasise about packing up everything and moving here...).

 Breakfast at A Casa C'alma

Breakfast at A Casa C'alma

 Copenhagen Coffee Lab

Copenhagen Coffee Lab

A Sociedade is a stone's throw from São Bento, and bless Kate for helping me lug my wares up a very steep hill from A Casa C'alma to the venue. After a warm welcome by the impressive Claudia, founder of A Sociedade, and her colleague Maria, I began setting up for my workshop. I was slightly nervous that no one would sign up for the workshop, so I was delighted to hear that it was oversubscribed, hurrah!

When the crowd had assembled, I was so touched to see how many friends were there to support me. There were Sanda and her thoughtful and engaged teenage daughter, Hana. There was Filipe, the chef for Sanda and Marta’s photography workshops; Ana, my roommate during last year’s photography workshop; Maria and Duarte; and of course Kate, who also helped me chop and cook during the workshop though she dreads the spotlight. Soraia Martin, my roommate for this year’s workshop, came towards the end. I looked out at the crowd when I started the workshop, and I will always remember the feeling of being in a foreign city and seeing so many friendly faces.

The rest of the workshop was pretty much a blur. When I speak in public, I get into a zone and who knows what comes out of my mouth. But I do remember people asked so many questions and were so interested in learning about Korean temple cuisine, many having seen that Chef’s Table episode with Jeong Kwan seunim. There is something special about Korean temple food that resonates across borders. I spoke about the importance of seasonality, locality, fermentation, mindfulness, traditional medicine, not wasting and loved seeing how the people present seemed completely engaged. And then afterwards, amazingly, my Lisbon friends stuck around and helped me wash dishes and pack up.

Once we had put A Sociedade back into order, we all went for dinner on my last night in Lisbon at the tiny Dona Quitéria down the street, which was perhaps the best food I’ve had in Lisbon. I don’t know if it was the perfectly crispy fried green beans or the company, but I couldn’t have asked for a more lovely ending to my Lisbon trip. Sanda asked me, amazed, “How is it you didn’t seem nervous at all?” Why should I feel nervous when I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by my friends... Moito obrigado to A Sociedade for having me, and to all my Lisbon friends who I hope to see very soon!  

xx Mina

PS. If you want to experience Lisbon and all of its foodie delights from an expert, my dear friend Filipe Lucas Frazão is holding a culinary and creative retreat along with Olaiya Land called Lisbon Like a Local. I have had the pleasure of cooking with Filipe these past two years and talking for hours and hours about food.  You can’t have a better guide to all the yummy corners of Lisbon and around.  On the itinerary is a visit to an organic farm, picking sea urchins fresh from the sea, meeting local makers, eating all the deliciousness in Lisbon and then retreating to none other than A Casa Calma. For more info, see here.

 Photo by Maria Marcelino of A Sociedade.

Photo by Maria Marcelino of A Sociedade.

 Photo by Maria Marcelino of A Sociedade.

Photo by Maria Marcelino of A Sociedade.

 Photo by Maria Marcelino of A Sociedade.

Photo by Maria Marcelino of A Sociedade.