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Beyond Bacalhau: Tasting the Iconic Foods of Portugal

By Kevin Raub

Sep 19, 2019

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Your first bite of pastel de nata is guaranteed to launch a personal Age of Discovery, wherein you eat ALL the treats.

Photo by Diogo Nunes/Unsplash

Your first bite of pastel de nata is guaranteed to launch a personal Age of Discovery, wherein you eat ALL the treats.

Portugal’s delicious culinary hits—from seafood-studded soupy rice to sweet and flaky egg tarts—can be enjoyed at Michelin-starred dining rooms, rustic taverns, and beside charcoal grills on the sidewalk. Bom apetite!

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Portuguese cuisine is in the midst of a moment. After decades of looking toward the more famous cuisines of its European brethren (France, Italy) as the pinnacle of high gastronomy, the little Iberian Nation That Could has finally turned its attention inward in its pursuit of culinary validation. 

The country’s national bounty is heavily influenced by the Age of Discovery—when Portuguese explorers like Vasco de Gama and Pedro Álvares Cabral set sail for the New World at the encouragement of 15th-century Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator—as well as its own 1,115 miles of Atlantic coastline. Portuguese cuisine has grown well beyond the bounds of bacalhau (salted cod and the national dish, which comes from Norway, by the way). 

Led by high-profile two-starred Michelin chefs José Avillez (Belcanto), Henrique Sá Pessoa (Alma), and Ricardo Costa (the Yeatman), the renaissance began in Lisbon and Porto—two of Europe’s most sizzling hot spots since Portugal rebounded from the global recession—and has quickly spread throughout this formerly under-the-radar seafaring nation. Backed by a long list of classic dishes with Mediterranean foundations but peppered with portions of African, Brazilian, and Spice Route pizzazz, a food revolution is what’s for dinner in Europe’s newfound culinary darling.

Pastel de Nata (custard tart)

Even if you know next to nothing about the cuisine of Portugal, you’re likely familiar with the country’s most famous dessert, a tiny and decadent Portuguese egg tart that some might say is the most satisfying wallop of sweet, sweet wow you’ll ever get for €1.40. Known generically around the world as pastel de nata, it’s protected as pastel de Belém at Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, where it is said to have originated in the Lisbon suburbs in 1837. The original recipe is under lockdown, passed on by the monks at the UNESCO-listed Jerónimos Monastery nearby, but the secret is in the textural yin-and-yang between the creamy egg custard filling and the flaky pastry shell. Powdered sugar and/or cinnamon is sprinkled over the top according to taste.

You’ll become a sucker for octopus when you taste Polvo à Lagareiro.

Polvo à Lagareiro (octopus with olive oil and potatoes)

One of the most ubiquitous dishes across the country and one nearly guaranteed to be locally sourced, polvo à Lagareiro is said to have originated in the central Portuguese region known as the Beiras. Its beauty is in its simplicity: A meaty piece of octopus—tentacles and all—is roasted, heavily doused in keystone ingredients of Mediterranean cooking (olive oil and garlic), and served alongside slow-baked potatoes. One of Portugal’s finest examples can be found at Café Lisboa in Lisbon’s tony Chiado district, one of the more casual kitchens belonging to the culinary empire of Michelin-starred chef José Avillez. He nearly single-handedly jump-started Portugal’s gastronomic revival with the success of his fine-dining jewel Belcanto, so it would be remiss not to try his take on this delicious homeland classic.

Porco Preto (Iberian black pork)

Iberian-native black pigs (porco preto) are descendants of pigs originally brought to the peninsula by the Phoenicians, who interbred their swine with wild boars to produce the unique breed that exists today in Portugal and Spain. Their meat is enjoyed numerous ways by the Portuguese, running from charcuterie (presunto ibérico) to grilled secretos (a fattier, pork belly–like cut) to enchidos (pork sausages), but nothing touches the absolutely astonishing, slow-cooked version at Évora’s Taberna Típica Quarta Feira in the interior region of Alentejo—the heart of pork country. This succulent, acorn-fed pork is cooked for hours in its own juices (think carnitas, if you are familiar with the Mexican delicacy) and served all-you-can-eat style in this simple, family-run tavern (clear your schedule—you’re done for the day!).

Arroz de Pato (duck rice)

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Pork aside, duck rice is one of Portugal’s finest meat moments, a perfect marriage of succulent duck, boiled and shredded, then nestled into a bed of Carolino rice (made with duck stock, onions, and garlic), baked a bit, then garnished with spicy chouriço sausage and served alongside orange slices. Like so many of Portugal’s heartier dishes, it hails from Alentejo but was quickly adopted across the country. About 25 miles east of Porto in the small town of Louredo, you can dig into this delicacy inside the 17th-century farmhouse of Teresa Ruão, the chef behind the award-winning Cozinha da Terra. It’s like eating at your grandma’s house.

Eating freshly grilled sardines is a delicious rite of passage for those interested in Portuguese cuisine.

Sardinhas Assadas (grilled sardines)

The Portuguese summer may bring sun and blue skies, but good weather is never a guarantee. You can, however, count on the irresistible scent of grilling sardines, which fills the air among traditional neighborhoods throughout Lisbon (and elsewhere) during the summer festive season. Kicking off with the June celebrations of one of Portugal’s most beloved saints, Santo António, freshly grilled sardines are readily available from June to October, when they are at their plumpest and tastiest (outside of that period, they are likely to have been frozen). As usual with the best foods, the preparation is simple: Coarsely salted sardines slapped on grills over hot coals, then eaten with a piece of broa (corn bread) or, in restaurants, served alongside traditional sides of bell pepper salad and boiled potatoes (though they’re always best eaten in the street beside a neighborhood grill). In Lisbon, head to O Pitéu in Graça, a gastronomic reference point for traditional Portuguese cuisine for over 30 years.

Bacalhau (salted cod)

Both the downfall and triumph of Portuguese cuisine, you will not find bacalhau (salted cod) in Portugal—bacalhau will find you. Harkening back to a prerefrigeration technique of preserving fish in salt, bacalhau carried on in Portugal despite modern advancements. Today, it mostly comes from Norway: Around 25,000 tons of bacalhau are imported annually. Depending on the preparation (some say there is a recipe for every day of the year), bacalhau can be very good or very fishy (the trick is in extensive soaking in water to remove the salt). Either way, you ain’t getting out of the country without eating it. Bacalhau can be baked as a filet or in casseroles; grilled; swimming in rice; or shredded with scrambled eggs, onions, and fried potatoes (bacalhau à Brás, the most ubiquitous prep and our favorite). Truth be told, every Portuguese restaurant in the country does it and does it well, but Solar Do Bacalhau in Coimbra is considered one of the best bacalhau specialty restaurants in Portugal.

Snack Attack in Lisbon: A 48-Hour Food Tour Through This Burgeoning Culinary Capital

Francesinha (“Little Frenchie”)

On the ridiculousness scale, Portugal's “Little Frenchie” ranks entirely too high for something that is meant to be consumed by humans: A heart-stopping stack of wet cured ham, linguiça sausage, steak or roast beef, and melted cheese (sometimes a fried egg as well) on thick bread drowned in a hot tomato and beer sauce (and served with french fries, of course). It is the pride of Porto, at once both a hangover cure and a ticket to the emergency room, a one-and-done culinary caravan of everything that is terrible and phenomenal about a regional food specialty. Obviously, it’s fantastic. Its name hints at its history: Portuguese emigrants to France, not to be outdone by that nation’s iconic croque monsieur, evidently boasted, “Segura a minha cerveja! (“Hold my beer!”) to their French friends and concocted Francesinha. Competition and opinion among Porto residents is expectedly fierce, but Lado B is often touted as the best version for novices. The trendy café is always packed, so prepare to hurry up and wait for your plated coronary.

A dish of soupy rice, swimming with chunks of fresh seafood, is a favorite of locals.

Arroz de Marisco (seafood rice)

Portuguese rice preparations are some of the best ways to indulge in the country’s fish and seafood bounty—think a slightly soupier version of risotto, loaded down with varied ocean goodness such as tamboril (monkfish), bacalhau, and any number of crustaceans plucked fresh from the Atlantic. At Marisquera Mar à Vista (no website; R. de Santo António 16) in the lovely beach town of Ericeira about 30 miles northwest of Lisbon, life-changing lavagante (European lobster) is sold by weight and then immediately whipped into seafood rices or massadas (pasta instead of rice) on the spot, according to your palate’s desire. This, of course, is enjoyed after you dig into an appetizer of santola or sapateira crabs fresh from the shell. Seafood lovers unite!

Açorda (bread soaked in broth)

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All cuisines worth a damn have a traditional recipe for stale bread, but Portuguese cuisine takes this simple idea and elevates it into a gourmet experience. Açorda is nothing more than rock-hard bread, rehydrated via one of several methods (such as a simple Alentejan style with hot water, garlic, olive oil, and cilantro, or something richer with various broths and stocks), and then pumped up with seafood. It’s a mushy mess so it’s not for everyone, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t love the extraordinary lobster version at gourmet seafood joint Solar dos Presuntos in Lisbon. It’s a sort of shellfish porridge, if you will. Drizzle your serving in the restaurant’s housemade hot sauce (piri piri) to complete this next-level day-old bread experience.

Portuguese cheese, or queijo, spread on local bread elevates any meal.

Queijo (cheese)

Portuguese cheeses aren’t as widely known as other European cheeses and Portugal is all the better for it: This little dairy nirvana offers endless varieties to discover. Be sure to try buttery Serra de Estrela, a sheep’s milk cheese produced in (and named after) Portugal’s highest mountain range; creamy Azeitão, an unpasteurized sheep’s milk cheese from the foothills of the Arrábida Mountains south of Lisbon; and São Jorge from the Azores, a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese with a spicy kick. But for a true connoisseur’s introduction to artisanal Portuguese cheese, you won’t want to miss the pay-by-weight cheese cart that begins your meal at Casinha Velha in Leiria (93 miles due north from Lisbon): This cow, sheep, and goat cheese caravan will leave you in a queijo coma before you even think about ordering a main course. 

Prego (steak sandwich)

Leave it to the Portuguese to gorge on some of the freshest, most succulent shellfish and seafood paired with copious amounts of excellent cheap wine, and then finish it all off . . . with a steak sandwich! But that’s how it goes at Lisbon’s most heralded seafooder, Cervejaria Ramiro, and others places like it, where one of the country’s simplest culinary icons—a thin strip of garlic-marinated beef served on a papa seco bread roll, often with crappy industrialized mustard—is traditionally eaten at the end of the meal. Despite making little gastronomic sense to anyone, it somehow works. (Prego means “nail” in Portuguese, named for the way garlic pieces are pounded into the steak before cooking.)

Leitão Assado (suckling pig)

There are few Portuguese events that rival a traditional spit-roasted, whole hog affair cooked to perfection (tender and juicy on the inside, crunchy on the outside) in Mealhada. The town, 14 miles north of Coimbra in central Portugal, is the country’s undisputed suckling pig capital. Here in the Bairrada region, the swine is divine, though as un-vegetarian-friendly as it gets.

At four to six weeks old, the piglets are butchered, rubbed down with garlic, pig fat, coarse salt, and pepper, and then roasted for hours in eucalyptus wood–burning ovens. Mealhada’s suckling pig specialty restaurantsPedro dos Leitões, Nelson dos Leitões, Rei dos Leitões, O Castiço, Meta dos Leitões, Pic Nic dos Leitões—you get the idea, nearly outnumber its population (4,500). If you cannot make it to Mealhada, Michelin-starred chef Henrique Sa Pessoa’s gourmet version at Alma in Lisbon is also perfect.

Cataplana de Marisco (seafood stew)

Another of Portugal’s seafood revelations, this stew is named after the vessel in which it’s cooked and served. A cataplana is a clam-shaped copper cooking pot that predates the modern pressure cooker (it’s a distant relative of the Moroccan tagine) and allows for slow steam-cooking ingredients in their own juices. It can be loaded with anything—fish, shrimp, and other crustaceans—but is usually a mix of all, cooked with white wine, spices and herbs (chopped cilantro), and a few veggies (tomatoes, onions, bell peppers). Originally hailing from the Algarve, it is this coastal region in which you should try it. Head to Noélia & Jerónimo (no website; Av. Ria Formosa 2) in Cabanas de Tavira, 25 miles northeast of Faro. Forget about turning up without a reservation—this destination seafood spot is the culinary reference for pretty much any seafood dish in Portugal’s arsenal.

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>>Next: Plan the first leg of your trip with AFAR's Travel Guide to Lisbon

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