Review: How To Clean A Fish by Esmeralda Cabral

My Quick Take: Count me in as a captivated literary co-traveller as I hitched a ride with Cabral on her exploration of Portugal.

My great thanks to Zg Reads/Zg Stories and the University of Alberta Press for a gifted copy of the book for review. 


In How To Clean A Fish: And Other Adventures in Portugal, Esmeralda Cabral has penned a wonderful memoir of her months in Portugal with her husband Eric and children Georgia and Matt a few years ago. Eric had the opportunity for an academic sabbatical there, and they jumped at the chance to live in a small fishing village on the Portuguese coast near Lisbon. This fascinating book was both an engaging travelogue and an exploration of belonging as she wrestles with what it means to be both Portuguese and Canadian.

Cabral is a Vancouver BC-based writer with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of King’s College in Nova Scotia. However, she hasn’t always counted her primary occupation as writing, as she was in the Agricultural and Environmental Studies fields for years before leaving that and pursuing writing. That’s a major life change, and we readers are the luckier for it. Born in the Azores, Portugal, she immigrated to Canada at age seven with her family, first living in Edmonton, then eventually making her home in Vancouver.

She begins the book with a discussion of saudade, a Portuguese term that is hard to capture in English. “It is nostalgia and longing, ‘missing you,’ and yearning, but it’s also much more. It’s a deep feeling within your soul of love and loss combined, of trying to capture what may never be again.” Cabral feels a sense of saudade deeply as she longs for Portugal while simultaneously embracing her Canadian identity.

She has divided her book into three sections: Winter, Spring and Summer. I loved seeing how her immersion into Portuguese culture and her self-discovery evolved with the changing seasons.


The family arrives in winter to the Portuguese coastal town of Costa da Caparica to settle into their rental home and begin adjusting to a new way of being in Portugal. The cultural dissonance hits them hard sometimes; it was interesting to see how Cabral and her husband dealt with it differently. She describes the abundant generosity of the Portuguese people, which seems effusive when compared to our more reserved lives here. The helping culture, the sharing of resources, the informal arrangements and spontaneous plans…perhaps a bit chaotic at times, but also beautiful.

Winter began her exploration of what home means: Portugal or Canada? How has immigration shaped her own life and that of the generations to either side of her: her parents and children? She begins to see herself as a link between them, perhaps a bridge for her children’s experience of their Portuguese heritage.

And the food! She introduces us to a hearty soup full of potatoes and greens called caldo verde, and the famous Portuguese custard tarts: pasteis de nata. But fish takes centre stage here. I loved the descriptions of the local food market, and totally identified with her feeling of intimidation of the fierce female fishmongers! Cooking fish from a Canadian supermarket is one thing, but a whole fish with its innards that need to be removed? That’s a challenge. One day she summons the courage to buy a whole grouper. The fishmonger guts it, cleans it, and tells her how to cook it at home, without a recipe. And who knew? It turns out simple and delicious.


If spring is the time of new things–leaves greening, flowers budding and shoots poking up their heads from the warm soil–so too are things beginning to take root for the author. There were some wonderful details here! Out for dinner, she’s served octopus and feels reluctant to eat this intelligent sea creature. I can relate, as I’m now rethinking my love of this cephalopod on the dinner table. Cabral also opines on how she is beginning to see her mother’s ways in herself as she and her children grow older. Do we all tend towards more conservative in our views as we age? I suspect in some ways, but not (hopefully!) in others.

Her mother had always told her one skill she should possess is the ability to clean a fish. Finally, Cabral buys a stickleback from those wonderful fishmongers, and gets a lesson on how to de-gut it herself. Perhaps, she muses, she could live in Portugal forever.


Sardines are a staple of summer eating in Portugal, and I loved the scene of the local fishers and families catching sardines in nets off the beach and selling them fresh. It’s masterful writing, because I could see and hear the scene in my mind, and acutely felt Cabral’s discomfort with witnessing the writhing, suffocating fish on the beach, all the while anticipating a sardine cookout.

Cabral writes a slow goodbye to Portugal as she travels to other parts of the country, enveloped by the kindness of new Portuguese friends and the haunting beauty of the countryside. As she does, she muses on the meanings of home.  Her Portuguese experience taught her that Vancouver is home, with her house, her family and her friends. But Portugal can also be home in a way. Perhaps we don’t have to be one thing or the other. Our identities can take on multiple forms and we can feel at home in more than one place, embracing the multiplicity that makes us feel whole.
“I am the daughter of Portuguese parents, I am the mother of Canadian children. I am the link between the two places and the two cultures, and so I am both Portuguese and Canadian. In some ways, it seems so simple–’it’s whatever you feel that you are.’”
On closing the book, I felt privileged to spend this time with Cabral and her family. Her writing is well-paced and a pleasure to read. She made even the mundane a fun escapade. Reading about the passport crises; the joys and headaches of houseguests; her own wonderful dog Maggie, as well as the neighbourhood stray dogs; and a trip to Lisbon to listen to fado was transporting. Cabral was generous with herself on the page, not only giving us a glimpse of her personality with her anxieties, need for planning (or sometimes taking a leap of faith and winging it!) and her worries about her kids; but also showing us her adventurous nature, adaptability and capacity for self-reflection.

In How to Clean A Fish, Cabral gives us a travelogue, a taste of adventure, and a good dose of self-discovery, along with the occasional bit of chaos. She shows us that sometimes it’s best to lean into the opportunity of the unexpected, because that’s often where our best life is lived, and where we can find ourselves. Returning to the feeling of saudade at the end of the book, she writes:
“I had just finished unpacking in Vancouver, but I was already making plans to return to Portugal. And that is the essence of my saudade–one of many leavings, but also, always, of returnings.”

Of course, this book sparked ideas! Here’s my list of things I was inspired to do by reading about Cabral’s adventures in Portugal:
  • Listen to fado, a traditional Portuguese music. Fado is intimately tied to the concept of saudade. Cabral lists Carlos do Carmo,  Amalia Rodrigues and Mariza as favourites.
    • Mariza is one of Cabral’s favourites, and then I had a spontaneous conversation with a fellow Vancouverite who mentioned she’d also immigrated to Canada from Portugal as a child, and she recommended Mariza as well. With two recommendations, I wasn’t going to pass up what the universe was telling me. I spent a morning listening to this beautiful music. Mariza has a throaty, earthy voice that resonates with emotion. I thought that all fado would necessarily be sad and soulful–and there was plenty of that, like her song Chuva–but there were also some very upbeat numbers with an amazing guitar accompaniment…and even a bit of rap (Minha Tera)! I suppose this is why she is considered a member of the New Fado movement. As a side note: I would love to see Fado: The Saddest Music in the World, a play that has been performed in Vancouver at least twice. I hope it returns. 
  • Try pasteis de nata, Portuguese custard tarts.
    • There are several locations to pick up these tarts in Vancouver. Apparently some places sell them frozen, imported from Portugal, but I opted for freshly baked tarts from Just Another cafe in Vancouver. The pastry was flaky, the custard rich and soft, and the combination magic. Alan and I are now fans!

Pasteis de nata from Just Another cafe

  • Make at least one of the delicious-looking recipes that she provides at the end of the book
    • It’s not that I’m scared to cook shellfish, but I never have. I’m going to work on my motivation and courage to cook Cabral’s Clams In Garlic Sauce. In the meantime, I decided on Portuguese Kale Soup (caldo verde), which is mentioned many times in the book. Her recipe, handed down from her mother, is simple, hearty and tastes great. I used kale from my own garden and seasoned the soup with enough salt to make it satisfying. Instead of the recommended sausage, I used my homemade vegan sausage, which worked perfectly. After sitting in the fridge for a couple of days, I reheated it and added some white fish I’d pan fried with salt and pepper and it was even better. I probably wasn't supposed to add fish, but it was amazing. This soup could work as a base for lots of delicious add-ins!

Caldo verde
  • Travel to Portugal.

    • Okay, I’m going to have to wait for this one. But actually we had been thinking about a trip to Portugal even before I read this, so now it has to happen! There's a neat map at the beginning of the book that gave me a good visual of the area where they stayed which also inspired me to explore the area (I do love a good book-map, and this one is drawn by Cabral's son Matt Hall). Cabral mentions a visit to Lisbon’s Livraria Bertrand, the oldest independent bookstore in the world, and that’s a must-see destination for me. It even has an English language section. The books, “are laid out on shelves and in glass display cases, in a series of rooms with hardwood floors and dark-panelled walls. There are comfortable couches and chairs strategically placed around the store…It would be easy to spend a few hours in this place, especially on a rainy day…the atmosphere was quiet and peaceful.” Heaven!