“Have you had a Portuguese tart yet?” asked a girl in my dorm room the first time I visited Portugal. I admitted I hadn’t and she looked at me with utter disappointment, despite the fact I’d only been in the country for 30 minutes. That afternoon, two more people asked the same question – obviously these things were a talking point. Needless to say, I hotfooted down to a local café to try one. Little did I know it would start a self-indulgent habit of pastel de nata consumption after I decided to plant myself in the land of the custard tart (or ‘cream pastry’, if you want to get technical on the translation) less than a year later.
I recently wrote about the pastel de nata in a story for Good Food Australia, along with 10 other things to eat and drink in Portugal including Francesinha (a mega artery-clogging sandwich), Queijo Serra da Estrela (sheep milk cheese), Vinho do Porto (port), vinho verde (green wine), Cozido das Furnas (volcano-cooked stew), ovos moles (egg and sugar sweets), ginja (cherry liqueur), caldeirada do peixe (fish stew) and bacalhau (dried codfish).
Given this recent article, I thought I’d take the opportunity to elaborate further on Portugal’s food with a blog post on the subject. So here’s a rundown of some other food and drink to try in Portugal. I've also added a few points about Portuguese food culture at the end.
I already touched on bacalhau in the above-linked story, but feel it’s such a critical food item in Portugal it needs another mention, because, quite frankly, you won’t escape it. When you walk into a Portuguese supermarket and catch a whiff of these giant slabs of dried codfish, usually emitting their pungent odour down the back somewhere, you’ll understand what I mean.
Outside the supermarket you’ll find bacalhau widespread on restaurant and café menus, because by golly the Portuguese love this stuff. Of interest however, is that even though Portugal has such a vast coastline and more fish varieties than you can poke a stick at, codfish is no longer fished in Portuguese waters. Most supplies come from Norway and in 2015 Portugal accounted for around 70% of Norway’s salted fish export sales.
There are literally hundreds of ways of preparing bacalhau in Portugal so don’t leave the country without trying some iteration (don’t worry, it doesn’t pong once it’s been rehydrated and cooked). If you want a safe bet, go for bacalhau com nata, which is essentially codfish drowned in a rich cream sauce. Healthy, no; delicious, yes.
The Portuguese love their soup and it’s common to see a soup option or two on most menus. Caldo verde is particularly popular and is made with shreds of a green leafy vegetable similar to kale, and typically includes a piece of chouriço (chorizo) for added flavour.
Tripas à moda do Porto
Remember how I mentioned in my last post Interesting facts about Porto that the people of Porto are known as tripeiros? Well, one of the city's famous dishes is tripas à moda do Porto, which is a tripe and white bean stew. The tripe might seem a bit unpalatable for some, but the sauce is particularly tasty. So even if you can't handle all the innards, you can still enjoy your rice dunked in the sauce.
Port wine and the Port Tonic
No surprises here – when in Portugal it's almost a crime not to try the country’s famous port wine, which is another item listed in my Good Food article that deserves another mention.
White port is sometimes served as a pre-dinner aperitif and a warming tawny typically finishes off a meal. In Porto, the Porto Tonico is a typical summer cocktail, which is a simple recipe using white port and tonic water.
(You can find port everywhere, but my Lonely Planet article The 10 coolest bars to drink at in Porto can help you find some funky bars.)
These are small crumbed pockets of ground beef, shreds of suckling pork meat, chicken or seafood that you’ll see in most café cabinets (different shapes represent different fillings). They’re typically served cold and are cheap, snack-sized and highly addictive. Also try the oval-shaped codfish balls, bolinhos de bacalhau.
The bifana is a simple sandwich filled with pork marinated in garlic and spices. If you find a good one it will have a super fresh bread roll, enough sauce to ensure it doesn’t taste try and tender meat.
This is one of those foods best not to think about too hard, as leitão is the meat of a cute little piglet (suckling pig). If you can get past that image, the meat is sweet and soft and goes well in rissóis (see above) and sandwiches.
Grilled sardines are a key element of Portuguese food culture, although they’re most popular around festival time, particularly during the mid-year saints’ celebrations (I mention these festivities in my story 10 top things to see and do in Portugal). Numerous other varieties of grilled fish are also common, including sea bream, sea bass and salmon. The fish are usually served whole, sided with rice or potatoes and salad or vegetables. Often you’ll see some kind of grilled fish as an option on set lunch menus as a prato do dia (plate of the day). Look for the word grelhado, meaning grilled.
This is a type of cornbread and sometimes you’ll find it in your bread basket before a meal (unless you turn the basket away you have to pay for this by the way … see ‘A few points about Portuguese food culture’ below). Density levels vary, but generally speaking, if you left a loaf of broa out to go stale then threw it at someone, you’d probably kill them.
Morçela is a dark blood sausage you might see on meat platters along with chouriço. Don’t let the blood put you off, it’s actually really good.
The croissants you find in Portugal are distinctly different to their French counterparts. Instead of being light and crispy, they are dense and sweet, and tear rather than flake. The croissants are bright yellow and sometimes have a sugary filling, sticky glaze and/or chocolate sprinkles.
Arroz de Pato
While I'd say pork and seafood are the most commonly consumed proteins in Portugal, this rice recipe is made with duck and comes baked with a scattering of chouriço.
Bolhão Pato clams
This dish is named after a 19th century Portuguese poet and consists of clams swimming in a soupy sauce of oil, lemon, garlic and coriander, best mopped up with a chunk of bread. It’s so rich you may feel slightly ill afterwards, but it’s worth it.
I mentioned percebes, sometimes called gooseneck barnacles, in my article about Nazaré for The Australian newspaper. Fishermen risk life and limb to pluck this plump, salty delicacy from rocks, which explains why they can attract a hefty price tag. You’ll find percebes in a number of countries but Portugal tends to be one of the cheapest places to buy them.
The Portuguese don’t consume a lot of spicy food, despite their prominent role in the global spice trade (shipped all the spices off apparently). One exception is piri piri, which can have a serious heat kick and is tied to Portugal’s links with Africa. Piri piri is usually served with chicken (frango) and is essentially a kind of chilli oil. Even if you don’t see it on the menu, you can always ask for the sauce when you eat out.
It’s said the Jews created Alheira sausage during the inquisition to fool people into thinking they ate pork (and thus hopefully avoid expulsion or death). The sausage is typically made from shredded game meat, garlic and bread and has an intense flavour. You’ll see it hanging in delis and can find it in many tapas (or petisco) restaurants.
While petiscos aren’t a single food item as such, they’re worth mentioning here as you’ll see them offered in many Portuguese restaurants. There are technical differences if you get into the nitty gritty, but put simply, a petisco is the Portuguese version of a tapa … but tapas are found over the fence – and remember we’re in Portugal, not Spain. (Scrub up on the difference between the two countries by reading my post Portugal and Spain: same same but different?).
Given their petite serving size, petiscos are perfect to share as a main meal and are a good option if you’re like me and want to try everything on the menu.
Over to you
Obviously this isn’t a complete list of all the traditional food and drink you can find in Portugal, so I’d love for you to add your additions below. Likewise, please leave a comment if you have any favourite places to try traditional Portuguese food.
A few points about Portuguese food culture
You eat it, you pay for it
This is one Portuguese custom that trips up most first-time travellers to the country. The rule is 'if you eat it, you pay for it'. So that lovely bread basket with a side of olives (and sometimes chouriço, paté, butter, tremoços (small yellow beans) and cheese) is unfortunately not being presented with compliments – it’s all getting whacked on your bill. Personally I’m not a fan of this custom, but it’s just how it’s done. This isn’t a tourist rort as locals get the same treatment (and often happily accept the extras). Note however that you’re well within your rights to decline these items as soon as they hit the table with a polite ‘no, thank you’ and they’ll be taken away without fuss.
Tap water is not commonly served in Portugal even though the water is perfectly safe to drink. Unless you specify ‘água da torneira’ (tap water), expect you’ll be paying for your water.
Tipping in Portugal isn't obligatory and there’s no hard and fast rule about how much to tip and under what circumstances. If you receive good service, throw in an extra 5-10% if you wish and feel free to clear out some loose coins when paying for smaller purchases.
On the subject of service, the Portuguese could never be accused of being pushy. Don’t expect wait staff to fawn over you and do expect to do some hand waving when you want the bill, or anything else for that matter.
Eating times in Portugal tend to err on the later side, especially during summer, but are not as extreme as neighbouring Spain, where you can be hard-strapped finding a restaurant open before 8.30pm. Breakfast in Portugal is pretty much a non-event, particularly if you want to eat out (although the brunch concept is starting to catch on), lunch is eaten anywhere from noon until around 2.30pm, then dinner is usually around 8 or 9pm.
Menus of the day
The menu of the day (menu do dia) provides excellent bang for buck in Portugal, particularly at lunchtime. Inclusions vary, but generally you’ll get bread, a main dish, coffee and a drink (including beer or wine) from as little as €5. The menu do dia will be advertised on a board out the front of most traditional restaurants and cafés, or will be scribbled on paper in the window.
(If you want some ideas about which places you should check out on your next trip to Portugal, The Crazy Tourist has a post that outlines the 15 best places to visit in Portugal.)
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The Portugal Wire is the blog of Australian travel writer and photographer Emily McAuliffe.
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Portugal and Spain: same same but different?
Interesting facts about Porto
Traditional Portuguese food: what to eat and drink in Portugal
Who are they? Famous names on the streets of Portugal
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Lonely Planet Instagram takeover: sharing some of my favourite hidden spots in Portugal