According to some writings there is an Indian origin to the canja, a typical Portuguese chicken broth, which may have been transmitted through Garcia de Orta Colóquios’.1 “…The rice broth or canje…” as he refers to it, would have been a broth learned from his most important servant and cook Antonia. Naturally, the success of it is due to its simplicity and to the fact that it has been understood as a fundamental element to recover one’s health. There is a traditional proverb in Portugal “No harm ever came from caution and chicken broth”.

Its origin may be found in an Indian rice broth, peze, seasoned with some herbs. Eventually the chicken was added to it, a recipe still common in Goa. This same plain chicken broth has evolved to variations such as St. Francis Xavier soup, of some consistency and spiced. I still remember the experience, unforgettable, of having that soup to eat in the Hotel Mandovi at Panjim, still a local pillar of Portuguese gastronomy. Several other peze variations can be found in other Indian regions, mostly in connection with vegetarian communities.

According to a different version the chicken broth’s origin would belong to Malabar, also in India, where a soup named kanji can be found. There kanji means nothing else than water with rice. This name and its transformation would more likely fit the current Portuguese name.

Basically, the canja is a seasoned thin rice broth in which chicken, its traditional ingredient, remains on the local recipe. These ingredients, rice first and then chicken, end up being cooked simultaneously. Frequently mint leaves are added for finishing. More recently small pasta is used instead of rice, but it is still much of a watery soup.

I still remember when, living in Trás os Montes2, the canja was added with shredded chicken breast, the chicken giblets and different sized egg-yolks of yet undeveloped eggs, which kids would relish on.  I’ve also found this broth with egg strands in it.

Its intake has always been associated with well balanced feeding and health regenerating. Sick people as well as women in labor were treated through the goodness of chicken broth. But they were not alone. Pedro II, the Emperor of Brazil, wouldn’t give up taking his daily chicken broth, which could happen during a theatre break. J.A. Dias Lopes, a distinguished researcher and famous head of GULA3 magazine, relying in this tradition took it to publish a book named ‘A Canja do Imperador / The Emperor’s Chicken Broth’. According to R. Magalhães Júnior writings4, Lopes says, the Emperor on theatre nights, would enjoy tasting “a hot chicken broth between the second and the third act. The show would only re-start when word had been put out that His Majesty had finished his light supper”.  

Interesting registries are kept at the Ajuda Palace, in which kitchen one would always find chicken broth freshly cooked for Queen Maria Pia. As Her Majesty believed that this was essential for keeping one’s health, she took it daily.
But not only Queen Maria Pia liked soup. “A tureen with chicken broth was daily presented at the royal table. Along with it came a dish with boiled chicken and white rice garnished with ham and bacon… every Braganza enjoyed a chicken broth…”.

It is in Brazil however that we find a more consistent canja. There one finds a substantial soup, almost a complete soup, i.e. capable of replacing a meal. Not a light thin broth but a dense soup which includes several vegetables, with carrots and sometimes even potatoes.

Having been recently in Brazil, in Fortaleza, I arrived at the hotel after a somewhat late and heavy lunch. This was dinner time so I gained the hotel’s restaurant and asked for a light soup and a piece of fruit. The chef suggested I took a canja. Momentarily oblivious of being in Brazil I accepted it. Soon after I was presented with this canja that looked like a stone soup5, or a Brazil one. It was almost one of those traditional chowders served in pagodes6 or during rehearsals in Rio de Janeiro samba schools’.

Anxious and already regretful I proceeded to taste the canja. Unable to resist it I promptly took a second spoon… slowly, enjoying it, I took it all. I became a customer of that broth, not only for the soup itself but also for the gentleness of the restaurant’s brigade. From then on they would always ask me for the sort of texture I would wish for the canja or which vegetables would I like to see included in it! Talk about surprises. That’s a sure way to conquer clients.

Not meaning to bring publicity upon it, although it surely deserves it, the Hotel Luzeiros in Fortaleza is an oasis of tranquillity and pleasant atmosphere. The discreet restaurant at entry level is a small chapel of Portuguese cooking. Apart from the Portuguese influenced cooking, what surprise you most is hospitality and the quick response from its entire staff. I confess to being a suspect. For years now this hotel has been my home in Fortaleza. Maybe just because of that… and surely for the advantages of staying by the sea-front. If you decide to go to Fortaleza try the Hotel Luzeiros.

The confection of this chicken broth became widespread and evolved to a basic technique for light soups. In Portugal variations of chicken broth are found cooked with fish, codfish, wedge shells or any other shellfish, game and other meat. Apart from all the previously mentioned ingredients, the canja is enriched with other vegetables and seasoning herbs. Let’s accept it: the canja is a fusion dish.

In Portuguese the term canja even became slang for easiness, which corresponds to its culinary preparation. One often hears that a chore is canja when it is easy to accomplish or obtain. To be of canja – an easy business to catch, to do…!


1 In 1563 Garcia de Orta (Castelo de Vide ca. 1500- Goa ca. 1568), published in Goa his work Colóquios dos Simples e Drogas e Cousas Medicinais da Índia (“Dialogues on the simples, drugs and medicinal substances of India"). Having once been the king’s physician he eventually moved to India. There he studied oriental medicine and the therapeutical use of plants and drug substances which he described in his pioneering treatise. (T. N.) (back to the main text)

2 For a long time Trás-os-Montes remained a harsh and remote region to the northern interior of Portugal. Of high mountain landscapes and rough climate it was generally accepted that it had a poor and sturdy gastronomy, if any. Only more recently has it been discovered and valued. (T. N.) (back to the main text)

3 GULA, i.e. Gluttony, is the name of a well known food magazine, published in Brazil and, on and off, in Portugal. (T. N.) (back to the main text)

4 R. Magalhães Júnior, Artur Azevedo e sua Época. São Paulo, Saraiva, 1953. (back to the main text)

5 With some variations, the Stone Soup is a well known moralizing European folktale, in which an industrious man, very hungry but with no means, starts with an empty pan and a stone hoping to get a meal. Asking for insignificant food contributions here and there, to add to its ‘magic’ stone, he ends up with the most rich and delicious soup. (back to the main text)

6 Pagode was an historical name, given to slave parties that took place in slave quarters. The 70’s were coming to an end when, in the populated Rio de Janeiro suburbs, parties were throwed in backyards with music and lyrics inspired by people lifes’. Those parties took pagodes to a different level, implying from then on lots of food, drinks and samba. (back to the main text)