Behind a discreet entrance on one of Lisbon’s principal avenues, a sophisticated environment with a minimal interior houses a loyal Luanda-Lisboa jetset crowd who is here for the great food – and great music. Poema do Semba, its walls decorated with black-and-white photographs, is an unlikely find in this neighborhood.
Santos is the former stomping ground of the Portuguese nobility; today some of their former palaces have been turned into embassies or luxury hotels. Students and a design-y crowd have taken over as well, thanks to the nearby college.
This exclusive African restaurant was opened in 2014 by the famous Angolan singer Paulo Flores, a semba exemplar who has numerous albums to his name. Semba is one of the most popular musical genres in Angola, and a predecessor to other styles such as kizomba or kuduro – the contemporary rhythms of which are currently boosting the reputation of Lisbon’s dance scene (though in reality, these styles are more characteristic of the suburbs than the capital itself).
Paulo Flores’s idea was to create not only a restaurant where one could savor gourmet African food, but a venue to gather friends and semba enthusiasts for live shows that combine Angolan poetry and music. Semba is a musical tradition whose subjects traverse the day-to-day lives of this community and is put to versatile use: you can hear it at parties as well as funerals. And as the phonetic similarity suggests, semba is, as many scholars believe, the root of samba – brought from the Congo-Angola region by enslaved Bantu people to Brazil.
Even if Poema do Semba is a self-defined “African” restaurant, its menu is less general, offering predominantly Angolan gastronomy courtesy of Jandira, the kitchen’s skilful chef from Luanda. However, several classic Portuguese mains broaden the choices, such as bacalhãu à brás, rice cabidela style (rabbit or poultry cooked in its own blood) or grilled sea bass.
Of course, the restaurant also serves up the typical moamba – the traditional Angolan dish made from hen cooked in palm oil with garlic, jindungo (spicy chili pepper), lemon juice, onions and okra, as well as the popular Angolan mozungué, a fish stew with sweet potatoes, onion, tomatoes and spices, sometimes enriched by bananas and often accompanied by funge, a cassava paste.
We recommend in particular the calulu, another fish stew (sometimes also made with a meat base) combining layers of fresh and dried or smoked fish, cooked in red palm oil with vegetables, sweet potato leaves and okra. Even if, nowadays, calulu is considered traditional food in São Tomé and Príncipe and Angola, it is not clear if this dish was concocted first in Brazil or even in Angola. The existence of the Brazilian dish caruru drove lusophone etymologists mad: calulu seems to be a derivation of the Amerindian word caruru, but also a derivation of the sub-Saharan kalúlu.
In any case, the presence of okra, which originated in Nigeria, is an essential ingredient in both recipes, revealing the likely multiple journeys between Africa and South America. This unresolved story of origins is another legacy of the transcontinental back-and-forth of culinary traditions that took place because of slave trade.
Poema do Semba’s customers are residents of Lisbon or visitors, but many of them originate from several regions of Angola, as well as from other parts in Africa, says manager Alberto Ferreira da Rosa. “Paulo likes very much to receive his friends, but this is also a place where people from different localities meet for dinner. We are open to everybody.” Before or even after dinner, it is worth trying the special cocktails of the house, such as the pineapple caipirinha or the baobab gin and tonic, a savory mix made from a sweet syrup that Jandira prepares using the pulp of the baobab fruit.
Poema da Semba, which takes its name from one of Paulo Flores’s more danceable songs from 2005, is a cultural club with a touch of distinguished cabaret, making it a great place to experience Angolan national music and poetry as well as food. Shows are usually on Thursdays and Sundays.
Editor’s Note: We are regret to report that Poema do Semba is closed.
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