In Portugal, culture is inextricably linked to food. You’ll hear locals in the street discussing what they are having for lunch, people travel far and wide to eat local specialties, and dinner parties are a formidable affair. Trust me, my Portuguese heritage and regular visits are responsible for my stash of stretchy pants kept especially for my holidays there (worth it!).
Deciphering menus overseas can sometimes be daunting, and like anywhere, you’ll want to make sure you truly get a taste of the real Portugal while you are visiting. Admittedly there are some things you may see on the menu that don’t sound all that appealing (salted cod fish anyone?) and dishes along with their translations aren’t always overly descriptive – frango assado is simply roast chicken, but it isn’t just roast chicken (trust me, try it!).
Depending on where you visit, you’ll find different specialties and it is always worth going for the local recommendations. In the north you’ll tend to find heavier stews and more meat-rich dishes, and portions are usually enough for two to share. In the south you’ll find more seafood and much of it is seasonal, like the sardines that you’ll definitely want to add to your list if you are there in the summertime. For me, there are some foods that I just can’t leave Portugal without getting my fill of. Here are some favourites that you should try while you’re touring around Portugal.
These bite sized creamy sweet treats can be found in almost every pastry shop or café in Portugal. Who knew a creamy inside cradled by crispy pastry with a little charring on top could bring so much joy? Don’t avoid the ‘burnt’ looking ones – they are the best! Named Pasteis de Nata throughout the country, they originated as the Pasteis de Belém in a little pastry shop in namesake Belém. Established in 1837, this is one of the top places to try these traditional treats while you are exploring around Lisbon. Can’t make it to Belém? Try a pastel from the Manteigueira in Lisbon and you won’t be disappointed.
Bacalhau is salted cod fish and it is a little bit like a religion in Portugal. You can’t say you’ve tried Portuguese cuisine without giving it a go, so do yourself a favour and try it in one of its many forms. Some local favourites include Bacalhau à brás (a delicious mixture of fish, onion, egg, thinly cut and fried potato, topped with olives and parsley), Bacalhau com natas (cooked with onion, potatoes and cream), or for a snack, you can’t go past Pasteis de Bacalhau (heavenly deep fried balls of mashed potato, cod, egg, parsley and onion).
Ok so perhaps a pork sandwich is not what you had in mind when you were dreaming of your gastronomic journey around Portugal, but that’s probably because you have never tried a Bifana. Think a crispy bread roll, lined with thin slices of pork that have been marinated and sit bubbling away for hours in a mix of white wine, garlic, olive oil and paprika, topped with tangy mustard that drips out the sides in a torrent of delicious juices. Yep – you’ll need to have more than one of these during your trip.
A lot of Portuguese food is humble and delicious, and this dish is the perfect example of that. Give a Portuguese some fresh seafood and some olive oil and you’re in for a treat. This way of cooking octopus leaves it tender and absolutely drool-worthy, with plenty of olive oil and garlic. You’ll usually find it accompanied by potatoes and, with such simply delicious flavours, that’s all you’ll need. You might also spot other seafood or meats followed by ‘à Lagareiro’ on a menu, all equally doused in olive oil and all equally delicious.
This one is always top of my list, and perfect for when I can’t decide between ordering a meat or a seafood dish. It is made up of bite-sized chunks of pork marinated in paprika, garlic, and white wine (among other things, depending on where you’re dining), mixed with clams and potatoes and topped with coriander and often lemon (ask for a slice of lemon if it doesn’t come with it – such a great addition!). You’ll have plenty of delicious sauce hiding in the clam shells and at the bottom of your dish, so hold onto some crispy bread until the end to mop up all the goodness.