Food in Portugal
It is possibly the most diverse experience one can have in the country and is clearly a favourite pastime of the locals.
Portuguese cuisine has evolved from a hearty peasant diet of the countryside, with seafood from the country’s abundant coastline and cows, pigs and goats raised on the limited pastureland inland. From these humble origins, the spices brought into the country during the exploration and colonisation of the East Indies and the Far East helped shape what is considered “typical” Portuguese cuisine, which conversely has also shaped the cuisine of regions under Portuguese influence, from Cape Verde to Japan.
Soup is the first essential dish of any Portuguese meal. The most popular is the Minho speciality, caldo verde, made with kale, potatoes and spicy smoked sausage. Here in Minho you can enjoy the best Vinho Verde, which is rarely bottled. In many places, especially near the coast, you can enjoy a delicious fish soup, always varied, sometimes so thick that you have to eat it with a fork.
You will see a different Portuguese bacalhau (salt cod) everywhere you go. Locals will tell you that there are as many ways to cook this revered dish as there are days in the year, if not more.
The most common fish dishes in Portugal (peixe) are sole (linguado) and sardine (sardinha), but salmon (salmão) and trout (truta) are also very common, not to mention mackerel (carapau), whiting (pescada), sea bass (robalo), angler fish (tamboril) and a variety of turbot (cherne). They are served boiled, fried, grilled or in various sauces.
There are many different rice specialities, such as angler fish rice, octopus rice, duck rice and seafood rice.
In most places you can easily find fresh seafood: lobster (lagosta), lavagante, mussels (mexilhão), oysters (ostras), clams (amêijoas), barnacles (perço).
Depending on the level of tourism in the area you are in, you will see grills outside many restaurants during your stay, with the smoke of charred meat emanating from them. Besides the traditional sardines, Portuguese grilled chicken – marinated in chilli, garlic and olive oil – is world famous. However, if you are tired of the tasteless industrial products of the poultry farms, you can opt instead for a tasty veal escalope (costeleta de novilho) or simply grilled pork.
In the north, there are many types of kid, and in the Alentejo, lamb ensopado and many types of pork, including black pork, which is tastier; the most prized parts of the pig are the secretos and plumas. In the Alentejo, if you ask for the ubiquitous bitoque (small roasted beef, fried potatoes, egg), they will probably serve you pork instead of veal. A popular traditional dish is pork with clams, carne de porco in Alentejana, and slices of fried and breaded squid (tiras de choco frito). Sometimes there are also wild boar dishes.
One of the main specialities of Mealhada (near Coimbra) is undoubtedly the roast suckling pig (leitão) with local sparkling wine and bread. Just like the pastel de nata, you shouldn’t miss it.
Vegetarians can have a hard time in Portugal, at least in traditional Portuguese restaurants. In most restaurants, vegetables (usually boiled or fried potatoes) are just a side dish to the main meat dish. Even salads and “vegetarian” dishes may replace ham or sausage with tuna (which the Portuguese don’t seem to consider “meat”). Generally, a salad is just lettuce and tomato with salt, vinegar and olive oil. However, the Portuguese are very fond of their salad bars, and most cities have restaurants that serve Indian, Chinese, Mexican or Italian dishes. Be sure to mention that you are vegetarian and you will be able to find something that suits your preferences, although you may not thrive in the long run.
When you order a salad in many Portuguese restaurants, it will be sprinkled with salt. If you are watching your salt intake, or if you just don’t like the idea, you can ask for “sem sal” (without salt) or more radically “sem tempero” (without seasoning).
Some restaurants, especially in non-touristy areas, do not have a menu; you have to go in and ask and they will give you a list of some items to choose from. It is a good idea to have the price written down at the time of asking to avoid unpleasant surprises when the bill arrives. However, in this type of restaurant, the price for each of the options is very similar and varies between 5 and 10 euros per person.
Most restaurants will bring you a selection of snacks at the beginning of your meal – bread, butter, cheese, olives and other small bites – they always charge extra for these, around 5 euros. Don’t be afraid to ask how much they charge and ask them to take these things away if it’s too much or if you don’t plan to eat that much. This can be quite reasonable, but sometimes you can get ripped off. If you send them back anyway, make sure you check your bill at the end. The best restaurants can offer you more surprising, well-prepared and delicious snacks and charge more than 5 euros each for them; usually you can choose what you want and what you don’t, because in these cases the list is longer; and if the price is so high and you make an acceptable expense, decide not to order a main course.
If you have a kitchen, Portuguese grocery shops are surprisingly well stocked with lentils, vegetarian hamburgers, couscous and cheap fruit, vegetables and cheese. If you like hard cheese, try the “Queijo da Serra”, if you prefer soft cheese, try the Requeijão. Unfortunately, the success of “Queijo da Serra” has also allowed the spread of industrial and tasteless varieties that have no relation to reality. In the big shops, mostly located in the main cities, you will also find many unusual items, such as exotic fruits or drinks.
In some grocery shops and most supermarkets, the scales are in the produce aisle and not at the checkout. If you do not weigh your products and do not go to the checkout, you will probably be told Tem que os pesar or Tem que pesar, “tem que ser pesado” (“you have to weigh them”/you have to weigh them).
Portugal is famous for its great variety of amazing pastries, or pastéis (singular: pastel). The most popular pastry, pastéis de nata (called just natas further north), is a puff pastry filled with a custard cream and sprinkled with icing sugar (açúcar) and cinnamon (canela). Don’t forget to try them in any “pastelaria”. The best place is still the old Confeitaria dos Pastéis in Belém, although most “pastelarias” make a point of topping their “pastéis”. For once, all the guides are right. You may have to wait in line for a short while, but it will be worth it. Some people like them, some don’t.
The bolo de arroz (literally: “rice cake”) and the orange or carrot cakes are also pleasant, even if they are dry.
From the north, which is more egg-oriented, to the south, which is more almond-oriented, Portuguese pastries and sweet desserts are excellent and often surprising, even after many years.
In October/November, roasted chestnuts (castanhas) are sold on the streets of the towns by vendors wearing fingerless gloves to maintain their motorbike ovens: a delight!
The Portuguese love their thick, black espresso coffee (bica, in Lisbon) and regret it very much when they are abroad.
Special features of the individual regions
- Aveiro: Special cake of the city: “Ovos Moles
- Port wine: “Francesinha”, a special sandwich; “Tripas”, pork tripe.
- Sintra: Queijadas de Sintra or the Transvestites
- Mafra: special bread, Pão de Mafra; special cake of the city: “Fradinhos”.
Drinks in Portugal
When travelling in Portugal, the drink of choice is wine. Red wine is the locals’ favourite, but white wine is also popular. Portugal and Spain also have a variety of white wine that is actually green wine (Vinho Verde). It is a very crisp wine that is served cold and goes well with fish dishes. Drinking wine during a meal is very common in Portugal, and once the meal is over, people tend to drink and talk while they digest their food.
Port wine can be an aperitif or a dessert. The wine from the Alentejo may not be as well known worldwide as port, but it is just as good. Portugal also has other defined wine regions (regiões vinhateiras) that also produce some of the best wines, such as Madeira, Sado or Douro.
It can be difficult for people to abstain from drinking, even if they have very good reasons for doing so (like the behaviour mentioned above). Today, the excuse “I have to drive” works well. The easiest way is to explain that you can’t do it for health reasons. Portuguese are not as easily offended as others when it comes to refusing the obvious hospitality of a drink, but a lie like “I’m allergic” might illustrate a situation where a preference has to be explained over and over again in certain regions of Portugal; however, it won’t work in other regions, as obviously made-up excuses will mark you as unreliable (“I don’t want to, thank you” might work then). Alcohol consumption is almost considered socially intimate.
Beware of 1920 and aguardente (burning water), both have a strong effect.
The legal drinking age in Portugal is 16. For nightlife, Lisbon, Porto and Albufeira in the Algarve are the best choices as they have great entertainment options.
Port is famous for the eponymous port wine, an alcohol fortified wine (20%) obtained by adding brandy to the wine before the fermentation is completed. According to European legislation, port wine can only be called such if the grapes are grown in the Douro Valley and the wine is brewed into port. The final product is strong, sweet and complex in flavour and can last 40 years or more if properly stored.
There are many different qualities of port, but the basic varieties are:
- The vintage, the real bargain, aged 5 to 15 years in the bottle, can be very expensive in good years. Nevertheless, it is worth it.
- Late-Bottled Vintage (LBV), simulated vintage, aged longer in cask, ready to drink. Nice if you have a budget.
- Tawny, matured 10 to 40 years before bottling, characterised by a browner red colour and a slightly sweeter bouquet and aroma. As with any wine, the older it gets, the rounder and finer it becomes.
- Ruby, the youngest and cheapest, with a deep red “ruby” colour.
- White port is a little-known variety, and that’s a shame. There is a sweet and a dry version. The latter mixes well with tonic water and should be served chilled (if drunk alone) or with plenty of ice (with tonic), usually as an aperitif.
- Another good choice is the ubiquitous vinho verde (green wine), produced mainly in the region north of Porto (the Minho). It is a light, dry and refreshing wine (about 9 to 9.5 per cent by volume) made from grapes specific to the region and has a relatively low sugar content. It is mainly white and sometimes slightly sparkling. Very good, and very affordable.