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A Lisbon chef’s life was changed by war as a child. Her story became her restaurant.

The story of Batata Doce began more than five decades ago in Angola, during the Portuguese Colonial War in Africa. In 1965, Portuguese soldiers fighting southeast of Luanda saw a woman running away from them across a swamp, holding a small child by the hand and carrying another on her back. Suddenly, the child on the woman’s back slipped off. Terrified of the men, the woman continued to run as far as she could, leaving the child that fell behind.

Isabel Jacinto pauses for a moment at her restaurant. (Tiago Maya for The Washington Post) (FTWP)

The soldiers decided to take the child in and nicknamed her Batata Doce, or “sweet potato.” They cared for her and loved her, for she brought innocence to their lives interrupted by war. When an Angolan fighter of the MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola) was captured, he recognized the child as his niece. He explained that the girl’s father was a soldier who died in combat. When the Portuguese soldiers left Angola, the uncle gave his permission for the girl to go along with them, believing she would have a better life away from the war.

In 2019, “Batata Doce” is more than a child’s nickname. It’s a popular restaurant in Lisbon helmed by chef Isabel Jacinto — the very woman who was brought to Portugal by the soldiers for a new life.

Batata Doce, which feels like a Parisian bistro bar and on the surface looks nothing like an African restaurant, has a full house every night. It’s popular among Portuguese people, tourists and the diplomatic staff who work near the place, in Lisbon’s diplomatic quarter of Estrela. Since Jacinto’s story became famous in Portugal, the restaurant has also become popular among the African community. Jacinto is especially excited when she talks about their reviews.

Two French embassy employees have lunch at the Batata Doce. (Tiago Maya for The Washington Post)

“Many Angolans that come here say this is the best Angolan restaurant they have ever tried,” she says.

But Jacinto was not always privy to the African cooking that makes up one half of the Portuguese-African fusion her restaurant is known for now. Jacinto’s friends always considered her a good cook of Portuguese cuisine, but they couldn’t look past the fact that their Angolan-born friend didn’t know how to make a single African dish.

Years ago, they decided to teach her how to make muamba chicken, an Angolan stew, and moqueca, a fish stew from the Bahia state of Brazil born among enslaved Africans. Jacinto used to feel somewhat distant from those flavors, but eventually, she added the recipes to her repertoire. She started a catering company that showcased her new signature style, and then eventually grew the business into the restaurant named after her extraordinary story.

Jacinto says she only began thinking about her past and her roots after becoming a mother. She knew she had been born in Angola and had been separated from her family in remarkable circumstances. But Jacinto saw it as an anecdote ⁠ — a very distant tale⁠ — because she grew up happy in Portugal and felt Portuguese.

“I always saw Portugal as home. The family in which I was raised made no difference between me and their three biological children,” she says. “They only told me I had been found in the bushes, and I didn’t make much out of it — I thought it was a funny story.”

Jacinto keeps the photos of her with the family of the commander Manoel Junqueira. (Tiago Maya for The Washington Post)

Jacinto married a Portuguese man and had two children. It wasn’t until her own children began to show a curiosity in their Angolan heritage that her own interest was piqued. Her daughter admired the tight, united culture of Angolan families she’d studied, and it struck a chord with Jacinto.

“I used to tell my daughter I missed the warmth of having a family of my own,” she says.

But then in 2016, a connection to that very family emerged. Roberto Paulo, the son-in-law of one of Jacinto’s sisters, set out on a mission to find her in Portugal. He was told to search the name “Batata Doce” by Jacinto’s uncle, who knew the name was associated with Isabel from his time under Portuguese arrest. As fate would have it, a search on Facebook led Paulo to Jacinto’s restaurant. The two had lunch that day.

Jacinto greets an old friend. (Tiago Maya for The Washington Post)

A little more than a year after that encounter, Jacinto went to Angola along with a team of reporters. For a week, Jacinto met her sisters and learned that an aunt — not her mother, as she’d previously believed — had dropped her accidentally.

“When I looked into her eyes, I saw how much she suffered for 50 years, being accused of losing me,” the chef says.

She says she has no resentment. But she’s upset with herself she only stayed in her birth country for a week.

“Many things remain a mystery to me,” she says, still intrigued.

Part of her restlessness also comes from the emotional hurricane the trip unleashed.

“I landed in Angola and could tell immediately I belonged there. I could feel it in my blood, how happy I had been there, which was something I didn’t anticipate,” Jacinto says, acknowledging she has even considered moving to Angola, having later decided she at least wants her ashes to rest there after she dies.

Jacinto chooses ingredients at her local market Mercado da Ribeira. (Tiago Maya for The Washington Post)

But along with the emotions the trip released, it also brought Jacinto new culinary inspiration.

“I cooked with my family in Angola, and they’re much better cooks than I am. I returned home with 15 extra pounds of food in my suitcase,” says Jacinto, who believes she now feels closer to the African food she already used to cook.

Read more:

A local’s guide to Liston, Portugal

A Lisbon restaurant’s No. 1 dish reflects its owner’s extraordinary life

The ‘king of carbonara’ shows us how he makes his signature dish

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