If you follow me on social media (which you should, *wink wink* – here’s my Insta and Facebook), you may have seen my article flying around on Virgin Australia planes this month in the Voyeur inflight magazine. It’s about how Porto’s food scene is evolving, while simultaneously staying the same. Let me explain.
Essentially, the city’s menu is getting a shake up as a growing number of tourists and an increasingly well-travelled pool of locals ping pong supply and demand. But centuries’ worth of tradition doesn’t evaporate overnight, meaning the new kids on the block are slotting between tried and true examples of regional cuisine (for now, anyway).
When considering the food scene in Porto, it may raise the question, what exactly is northern Portuguese cuisine? So I thought I’d drill it down a bit more since everyone loves reading about food, right? (surely not just me?)
I’ve also decided to focus on the north in this post as I think it provides some of the most obvious examples of regionally defined gastronomy. Lisbon, as the capital, is an unsurprisingly diverse hub that pulls mixed influence from regional and international spokes, and the major hotspots in the Algarve are quite cosmopolitan given the area’s high concentration of expats. That said, I’d welcome comments below to highlight foods you think resonate with the various areas of Portugal. (Choco frito in Setúbal, just outside Lisbon, springs to mind. Is there really a better place to order a mound of fried cuttlefish?)
This post is also in part a tribute to the late Anthony Bourdain, who held northern Portuguese cuisine in high regard and filmed one of his first TV shows in Porto. In Bourdain style, I won’t focus on tourist-guide gloss, but will get to the gritty core, because that’s the best peek into a country’s soul. Some might get stomach flips reading the list below, but I’d encourage you to take your Portuguese experience up a notch and give these things a go. On a world scale, the gross spectrum is relative after all.
Everything except the squeal
Northern Portugal is typically a working class area and hence built its gastronomy on waste not-want not, keep-you-powered-all-day sustenance. This includes tripe stew called tripas à moda do Porto, which bestowed the people of Porto the proud nickname tripeiros. (There are even tripe brotherhoods in these parts. Tripe is serious game.) Offal also sneaks its way into many other dishes, as below.
Moela means gizzard … but what exactly is a gizzard? Well, perhaps best not to ask, but it’s part of a chicken’s digestive system. The Portuguese love to stew up a pot of slightly rubbery moelas and eat them with hunks of bread as a snack or petisco. Similar to tripas à moda do Porto, the sauce is a saving grace if matter overcomes your mind. Simply soak your bread in the delicious liquid then gloat about your courageous order.
Here’s another popular snack – fried pigs’ intestines stuffed with cornmeal, cumin and pepper. I’ve given enfarinhadas a shot a few times and can’t say I’ve come around to them, despite their appetising crispy appearance (which roped me in the first time). Maybe it’s because my friend once drew parallel to a baby's finger and I can’t quite stamp out the image.
Feijoada à Transmontana
Trás-os-Montes is a region in the top right corner of Portugal and is considered the original purveyor of feijoada. Feijoada is essentially a bean stew, and the types of beans and supporting ingredients vary slightly between regions across the country.
The transmontana style uses red beans, sausage, cabbage and other things that follow track to the above (i.e. don’t ask). It’s good comfort food on a chilly day.
A big gooey octopus lends itself particularly well to Portuguese cuisine. You’ll see supersized tentacles charred on a grill, sliced in salad and roasted to perfection (polvo assado). This staple is common across coastal regions of Portugal, but it’s pretty much my favourite thing so I thought it warranted a mention. In particular there’s a little fishing village in northern Portugal I wanted to highlight called Angeiras (20 kilometres north of Porto). This is where many of Porto’s chefs go to buy tentacle tangles for their kitchens. The village is tiny and cute and is a working example of Portugal’s lifelong ties to the sea.
[Insider tip: I’ve asked many a Portuguese mãe (mother) their secret to tender and juicy polvo. Freezing before cooking is the critical step.]
I’ve mentioned the Francesinha many times in my writing (shown here in the header image), because when it comes to signature food, this is about as Porto as it gets. Cautious eaters will be pleased to know all ingredients are relatively mainstream, but rather, the way they’re put together is a little outlandish. We’re talking stacks of sausage, ham, steak and chouriço layered between white bread wrapped in a cheese blanket, topped with an egg, then drowned in beer and tomato sauce. Side it with fries, chase it with beer, and you’re good to go. For numerous hours.
Pastéis de Chaves
There’s nothing untoward about these parcels of yum either, they’re just good old-fashioned flaky pastries filled with minced meat. Pastéis de Chaves are a protected food product in Portugal, meaning only producers in the northern city of Chaves can apply the name. (This is much like the Portuguese having dibs on the term port wine or port. Everyone outside Portugal makes ‘fortified’ wine.)
If you’re keen and have a car you can drive the 1.5 hours from Porto to Chaves and eat from the source, or you can buy the pastries in Porto at A Loja dos Pastéis de Chaves. This crowd plays to the rules by making their products in Chaves then driving them to Porto. They also experiment with different fillings, so you can buy a chocolate-filled pastry for dessert.
Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá
Bacalhau (dried codfish) is prolific across Portugal, but this particular variant was devised by one of Porto’s resident fisherman. He used to live in the house now occupied by Guest House Douro. When walking along Ribeira, look up and you’ll see a tiny plaque in his honour.
The Gomes de Sá dish is made with potato, onion, eggs and olives.
Righto, let’s be done with it, sarrabulho is thick goop made with pigs’ blood. This is a particular classic in the northern Minho region and you might see it as arroz de sarrabulho (made with rice) and papas de sarrabulho (more like a chunky, meaty soup). This one won't win any beauty awards, but if you close your eyes, it’s actually not bad.
Right about now you might be thinking to scratch northern Portugal off your holiday list. But fear not, there’s food to cater for all levels of gastronomic adventure. (My Voyeur article will reassure you there’s pork sandwiches, ham hocks and super fresh fish in the mix, among other things.)
Let’s also not forget northern Portugal gifted the world with port and is the guardian of refreshing green wine (vinho verde). On a technicality I realise you don’t eat wine, but you should get these potions down your hatch at some point on your trip (if not every day).
There are also a number of Michelin star restaurants in Portugal's northern reaches that add finesse to the region’s traditional cuisine. In 2018, this includes The Yeatman, Pedro Lemos, Casa de Chá da Boa Nova, Antiqvvm and Largo do Paço.
And wherever you go in Portugal there’s always pastéis de nata. You can never eat too many of those.
Browse my articles page for more food ideas and things to do in Porto.
The Portugal Wire is the blog of Australian travel writer, copywriter and photographer Emily McAuliffe.
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Food to try in Porto: northern Portuguese cuisine explained