How to Clean a Fish

And Other Adventures in Portugal

By Esmeralda Cabral
Categories: Literature & Language Studies, Auto/biography & Memoir, Health, Social Work & Psychology, Psychology, Social Sciences, Food & Cooking
Series: Wayfarer
Publisher: University of Alberta Press
Paperback : 9781772126556, 320 pages, May 2023
Ebook (EPUB) : 9781772126884, 304 pages, July 2023
Ebook (PDF) : 9781772126891, 304 pages, June 2023
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The following accessibility features are present:
  • Single logical reading order.
  • Contains a table of contents that provides direct access to all chapters of the text via links.
  • Short alternative textual descriptions.
  • A page list enables users to coordinate their reading with a statically paginated version.


“We sat around the large outdoor table for our last big meal. The patio was filled with flowers growing along the wall and spilling out onto the street. The side and back yards were terraced and shaded by an almost impenetrable roof of grape vines. The fragrance of the flowers mixed with the garlic from the kitchen. I breathed in deeply and prepared myself for the delicious food and for another round of simultaneous translation.”

Table of contents


A Word about Saudade




A Harrowing Ride

How Did We Get Here?

Passport Woes and Flight Plans

Around Town

The First Big Storm

Portuguese Hospitality

A Rainy Day in Lisbon

Planning to Run

Winter Market Days

Ashes to Ashes


A Phone Call from Canada



The Lisbon Mini-Marathon

Tracking The Passport

Lost in Alfama

Fado Concert

25th of April

Reflections on Duality

Our Guests

Matt’s Arrival

A Weekend in Aldeia


World Cup Friendly

Border Services 1

Spring Market Days



A Dog’s Life

Border Services 2

Summer Market Days

An Inheritance of Loss

Fado Bar

Sardine Season

Adeus Costa da Caparica

A Vacation in the North

Good-bye Lisbon

Back in Vancouver



Further Reading




How to Clean a Fish describes an extended family stay in Portugal, full of food, adventure, and the search for home. Offered the opportunity to live in Costa da Caparica for an extended period, Esmeralda Cabral jumped at the chance to return to the country of her birth. Together with her Canadian-born husband, children, and Portuguese Water Dog, Maggie, Cabral makes new and nostalgic discoveries—a labyrinth of cobblestone alleys and beautiful painted tiles, a delicious bica and pastel de nata, a classic fado concert, the gentle ribbing of local fishmongers, a damaging high tide—translating words and emotions for her family along the way. Packed with local cuisine and customs, tales of language barriers and bureaucracy, and threaded with that irresistible need to connect with the culture of our birth, How to Clean a Fish is for readers curious about life in Portugal and for anyone who has moved from one place to another and is seeking their own version of home.


  • Short-listed, Sunshine Coast Writers and Editors Society Book Awards / Nonfiction 2023


“Esmeralda enthusiastically embraces the opportunity to live with her family in a beautiful fishing village near Lisbon. Sharing genuine conversation with folks she meets, exploring her love of fish, and constantly translating and interpreting for her husband and children, Esmeralda’s journey is rooted in an awareness of history and culture, and in the dilemma of belonging.” Maria Manuela Vaz Marujo, Professor Emerita, University of Toronto

"These pages are as delicious as the Portuguese food the author so enthusiastically writes about. Any English speaker interested in Portugal will gladly savor Esmeralda Cabral's genuine narratives as a tasty introduction to Portuguese culture's joys, appeals, intricacies, and mysteries. She is well-versed with food, fado, the language, and even soccer, but she has to negotiate how to feel somewhat at home in the complex web of subtle Portuguese ways.” Onésimo Teotónio Almeida, Brown University

"With the keen eye of a traveller, Esmeralda Cabral serves up close depictions of daily life in Costa da Caparica, including market days, pastéis de nata, and Portuguese hospitality. Told with warmth and layered with Cabral’s nuanced reflections on home, belonging, and family, How to Clean a Fish is an enticing memoir that will connect with readers." Meaghan Hackinen, author of South Away: The Pacific Coast on Two Wheels

“Our easy-going and approachable narrator gives us a charming and entertaining book that is part travelogue, part memoir. Readers will find themselves cheering Esmeralda—and her family—on.” Scott Edward Anderson, author of Falling Up and Azorean Suite

"...there’s fado and saudade, the sad songs and the Portuguese nostalgia, the yearning for home and not knowing where that is, the sacredness of the fish you cook and eat, the tension of being the hyphen in Portuguese-Canadian." Sheldon Goldfarb, British Columbia Review of Books, August 1, 2023

#3 on Calgary Non-fiction Bestsellers list for November 23, 2023

“...a ‘family’ travel book…” Millicent Borges Accardi, Portuguese American Journal, May 23, 2023 [Full interview at]

“How to Clean a Fish is [...] a narrative about returning to one’s birth country and culture, and ultimately, about exploring one’s identity and grappling with a sense of belonging.” Jennifer Verma,, June 12, 2023 [Full article at ]

"On closing the book, I felt privileged to spend this time with Cabral and her family.... 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." Trish Talks Books, July 17, 2023 [Full post at]

"At times heartbreaking with loss and longing for loved ones, at other times hilarious with mishaps along the way, How to Clean a Fish is a great read." Emanuel Melo, June 5, 2023 (Full post at

"It’s a great read. Informative. Interesting. Insightful." Nicola Ross, Blog post, July 11, 2023

"How To Clean a Fish is an engaging and beautifully written account of an extended visit to Costa da Caparica, a municipality across the Tagus estuary from Lisbon, on Portugal’s west coast, during which the author navigates the pleasures and difficulties of living temporarily in the country of her birth. The narrative moves skilfully back and forth in time, its layers of far past, recent past, present, and possible future building momentum, summoning the evocative quality of saudade as Esmeralda Cabral remembers her family’s complicated history in Portugal and weaves the lives of her husband and children into that history. Even the family dog, Maggie, a Portuguese water dog, has a place in this history as she adjusts to the rhythms of a sojourn in an unfamiliar place.

Areas of Excellence: The writing is very crisp, the details telling and precise, and the sense of place so admirably delineated that the reader is walking to the beach, recognizing the neighbourhood dogs, carrying warm bread home from the bakery, eating fresh pastel de nata with a tiny cup of coffee, riding the ferry from Costa da Caparica to Lisbon for an afternoon of shopping or a night of dinner and fado, realizing, as the book is closed, that something unexpected has happened. We’ve accompanied Cabral, the best of guides on a trip to Portugal, complete with meals of Carne de Porco à Alentejana and glasses of summery vinho verde; and we never even left home. Cabral is a warm narrator, generous in her observations, self-deprecating. I was lucky to spend some weeks in Portugal a few years ago and as I read this book, I recalled, with my own sweet moments of saudade, hearing fado in a tiny bar in Alfama, buying strawberries, runny cheese, and ham from the black pigs of the Alentejo to make a simple supper, and waking in a room in a little flat above a cobbled plaza where a few chickens pecked and a woman hung her sheets on lines strung between buildings over a narrow lane. Sometimes the best books make you remember or yearn; How to Clean a Fish did both.

How To Clean a Fish is a very attractive book, demonstrating the skill of a professional designer in its cover and page design, its organization of front and back matter, and judicious choice of fonts for titles and text. It’s a book that draws the reader in, with its inviting cover, reminiscent of Portuguese tiles and mosaics, and provides a simple map to give us a sense of where Costa da Caparica is in relation to Lisbon, mainland Portugal, and the author’s birthplace on the Azores. Brief chapters set within larger sections named for the seasons of the extended visit help to orient us to the shifts in weather and so on.

Production Value: The cover is bright and cheerful with a folk art feel to it. Extremely pleasant to the eye."

Jury Comments, SCWES Book Awards for BC Authors

“Canadian-born husband, children and Portuguese water dog, Maggie…connect with the culture, seeking to make their own version of home.” CBC, May 8, 2023 [Full review at]

"This book offers a leisurely investigation into how to be relaxed and enjoy an extended stay in Portugal.... Cabral has the knack of inviting us along on her jaunts. We are right by her shoulder as she learns, explains, remembers." Ron Robinson, Winnipeg Free Press, July 8, 2023 [Full review at]

“…many new Canadians feel a disconnect between who they are, where they once lived and life in this new land. This back-and-forth between place, identity and the feeling of saudade—a Portuguese term encapsulating sentiments of longing and nostalgia—forms the heart of Esmeralda Cabral’s memoir How to Clean a Fish.” Elizabeth Chorney-Booth, Alberta Views, December 2023

"This charming book...reads like a series of handwritten postcards, which are always more poignant than self-indulgent Instagram posts." Literary Review of Canada, October 2023