Breaking Bad ‘Habits’ – Portuguese Nun Pastries in Chicago


The Nasty Nata  from Nando’s in Chicago – a Portuguese Nun-invented egg custard tart.

Last night in Chicago, I was looking for a quick, but good meal on the way to see Hamilton.   I found one of the few international fast casual chain that we’ve actually imported.    America has certainly exported our quick service chains overseas.    It’s a chicken joint called Nando’s that features a spicy sauce called Peri Peri used on grilled chicken, and it’s cuisine is African-Portuguese.     The seemingly fusian food comes from a time when Portugal owned the high seas, and had a colonial influence during the 15th and 16th centuries, that spanned, India, Africa, Asia, and South America.

Peri Peri sauce originated in Mozambique.    But the chain originated fairly recently – in 1987, when Portuguese born Fernando Duarte and Robert Brozin bought a South African chicken place called Chickenland that served the grilled chicken with peri peri, in which their now 1000 world locations specialize.

After a wonderfully spicy peri peri chicken leg with spicy brussel sprouts, I had to try one of what they call their “Nasty Nattas,” a small egg custard the size of a silver dollar that they serve warm with cinnamon and sugar.

The pastry is based on a Portuguese pastry known as ‘Pastel de Nata’ that was created by nuns at the Convent of Santa Maria de Belem outside of Lisbon.     In convents and monasteries, egg whites were used to starch clothes, especially nuns’ habits.      So they had a lot of leftover egg yolks that they used to make the pastries to give to visitors and sell to support themselves.    This led to an entire industry, still strong today called, ‘dorcaria conventual,’ pastries made in convents.     There are others – like one called barrigia de freira – or nun’s belly.         The Portuguese wine industry also created a bumper of unused egg yolks.   It was found that using egg whites as a filtering agent for wine was very effective.  So the winemakers also had cheap egg yolks to supply the convents and bakeries.

The particular Pastel de Nata has been made continuously on the same site in Lisbon since 1837 and is a huge hit with locals and tourists alike.   Nearly every corner in Portugal has a bakery that makes its own egg custart tart.

Lots of the pastries have sort of cheeky nun names that point to the reason Nando’s calls theirs the Nasty Natta.   Even though Portugal’s Catholicism was a mix of Muslim, pagan, and devotional beliefs that was perfect for subjugating women –  love ruled Portugal.     It was a culture of contradictions.    Women wore a face veil similar to Muslim women and weren’t allowed to travel in public without escorts.    Women caught conversing on church steps could be imprisoned.   But even married women and nuns found lovers.   So many men fell in love with nuns in Portugal – there was a term invented for nun lovers – “freiraticos.”   These men seemed not to see the irony of subjugating their wives, but falling in love with nuns over whom they had absolutely no control.

A 2006 book called Letters from a Portuguese Nun,  by author Myriam Cyr,  documents one of these love affairs.

I was happy to have a tasty, but naughty, sweet ending to my spicy peri peri chicken whose history spans back to 16th century nuns.


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