Portuguese food doesn’t have the same high profile as other European cuisines, with menus usually relying on a traditional repertoire of grilled fish and meat, hearty stews and casseroles, and the ubiquitous salted cod (bacalhau), nearly all served with the same trio of accompaniments – rice, potatoes and salad.
There are, of course, blindingly good exceptions to the norm in every town – crispy suckling pig from the local grill house, sardines straight from the boat and slapped on the barbecue, a slow-cooked ragout of wild boar in a country tavern – and these are the kind of simple, earthy dishes that Portugal excels in. Most restaurants are also extremely good value, while Portuguese wine (and not just the famous port) enjoys a growing worldwide reputation – if you’re not yet familiar with them, you’ll soon come to relish a refreshing glass of vinho verde on a hot day, or a gutsy Alentejo red with your grilled meat.
There’s far more choice, style and invention in Lisbon, Porto, the Algarve and in wine regions such as the Douro, where international dishes are widely available and some enterprising chefs are adding a contemporary twist to traditional Portuguese cuisine. But out in the regions, and particularly in rural areas, simple, traditional menus still dominate. It’s surprising, since the Portuguese originally introduced many spices and ingredients to a global market, but other than the odd Chinese or Indian restaurant, pizza place or Brazilian grill house most towns tend to feature resolutely local restaurants. Fast-food joints are widespread, though they are found more often in shopping malls than town centres.
Restaurants in Portugal
The quickest way to get trampled to death is to come between the Portuguese and their lunch.
A Small Death in Lisbon, Robert Wilson
Portuguese restaurants (restaurantes) run the gamut, from rustic village eatery to designer hot spot (check out some of the best Michelin start restaurants in Portugal), while meals are also served in a tasca (a tavern) and, less commonly these days, a casa de pasto (a cheap local dining room). A cervejaria is literally a “beer house”, usually more informal than a restaurant and typically serving up steaks and seafood. A marisqueira is also a seafood place, while a churrasqueira specializes in char-grilled meat.
At lunch, most places offer a prato do dia (dish of the day), which is often cheaper than choosing from the menu. Many places also offer a more formal ementa turística – not a “tourist menu” as such, but a three-course set meal of the day, which may include soup, a drink or dessert: the lot can cost as little as €10–12. Prices, in any case, are rarely off-putting, and for €15–30 a head you could eat well in most restaurants in Portugal, provided you don’t choose lobster or quaff the vintage port.
The default size for servings is huge. Indeed, you can usually have a substantial meal by ordering a cheaper meia dose (half-portion), or uma dose (a portion) between two. Meals are often listed in two sizes on the menu and it’s perfectly acceptable to choose a smaller portion. Lunch is usually served noon to 3pm, dinner from 7.30pm onwards; don’t count on being able to eat much after 10pm outside cities and tourist resorts.
Once seated in a Portuguese restaurant, you will be bought a plate of appetizers, which may just be bread and portions of butter and sardine spread, but sometimes includes cheese, chouriço, prawns or other titbits. None of it is free and you will be charged for everything that you eat – if you don’t want it, just say não quero isto (“I don’t want this”), and make sure you check the bill afterwards. Beware, too, the near-ubiquitous serenade of the traditional Portuguese television, even in upmarket or otherwise romantic or fancy restaurants. A request to turn it down or (heaven forbid) off is likely to be met with bemusement.
Typical Portuguese cuisine
Most Portuguese are convinced that theirs is the finest cuisine in the world. You may beg to differ – though you’re in for a long argument if you voice a contrary opinion – but, at its best, Portuguese food marries locally sourced ingredients (especially fish, seafood, pork and game) with a straightforward preparation that lets the flavours shine through.
There is regional variation, though not as much as you’d think – in fact, many ostensibly regional dishes turn up on menus across the country. In most day-to-day restaurants fancy sauces and fresh vegetables are rare, and the predominant dressing for grills and roasts is olive oil, garlic and lemon, though coriander, cumin and paprika are commonly used in cooking.
Breakfast, snacks and sandwiches
At breakfast, any café, pastelaria (pastry shop) or confeitaria (confectioners) can provide a croissant or brioche, some toast (uma torrada; a doorstep with butter), a simple sandwich (a tosta mista is grilled ham and cheese) or some sort of cake or pastry. A padaria is a bakery, and any place advertising pão quente (hot bread) will also usually have a café attached.
Classic Portuguese snacks include folhadas (meat- or cheese-stuffed pasties), croquetes (deep-fried meat patties), pastéis or bolinhos de bacalhau (salt-cod fishcakes), iscas de bacalhau (battered cod fishcakes with egg), chamuças (samosas), bifanas (a grilled or fried pork sandwich), and prego no pão (steak sandwich).
If you see a sign saying petiscos, you can sample Portugal’s version of tapas. The range, however, is rarely extensive, and apart from olives, tremoços (pickled lupin seeds), a small round of cheese or some small fried fish these dishes tend towards the challenging – stewed snails or octopus salad, for example, or the unspeakable, and ubiquitous orelhas de porco (crunchy pig’s ears).
Fish and seafood
In any resort or river port you can get fabulous seafood, from prawns to barnacles, while fish on offer usually includes bream (dourada), sea bass (robalo), hake (pescada), mackerel (carapau), salmon (salmão, often farmed) and trout (truta). The most typical Portuguese fish dish is bacalhau (dried, salted cod), which is virtually the national dish with reputedly 365 different ways of preparing it – served with a boiled egg and black olives, made into a pie, char-grilled or cooked in a traditional copper cataplana, the list is endless. The best for first-timers to try are bacalhau á bras (fried with egg, onions and potatoes) and bacalhau com natas (baked in cream).
Grilled sardines provide one of the country’s most appetizing smells, and you should definitely try a fish or seafood cataplana (stew), named after the wok-like lidded copper vessel in which it’s cooked. Also typical of the seaside is arroz de marisco, mixed seafood in a soupy rice; massa de peixe/marisco is a similar dish but with noodles – cataplanas, arroz and massa dishes are usually served for a minimum of two people. Other specialities include a caldeirada de peixe, basically a fish stew, and açorda (a bread stew traditionally made from stale bread mixed with herbs, garlic, eggs and whatever farmers found to hand), often served with prawns. Migas and xarém are regional variations of açorda.
Meat and game
Grilled beef, chicken and pork are the mainstays of most menus – pork is especially loved in Portugal, whether it’s steaks, chops, ribs, belly or leg. Particularly sought-after is the porco preto, from the black Alentejan pigs, fed on acorns to give it a sweet flavour. Presunto is Portugal’s equivalent of Parma ham – a smoked leg of pork preserved in sea salt and cured for months or years. The grill or barbecue (no churrasco) sees a lot of action, and grilled chicken (almost a second national dish) is usually enlivened by the addition of peppery piri-piri sauce. Also ubiquitous are porco à alentejana (pork cooked with clams), which originated, as its name suggests, in the Alentejo, and rojões (chunks of roast pork, served with black pudding) from the north. Leitão (spit-roast suckling pig) is at the centre of many a communal feast, particularly in the interior; cabrito (roast kid) is ubiquitous in mountain areas; while another festive inland speciality is chanfana (goat stew). Duck (pato) is usually served shredded and mixed with rice (arroz de pato); rabbit is served in rural areas (a caçadora, hunter’s style, as a stew), and game like wild boar (javali), partridge (perdiz) or quail (cordoniz) is often on menus too.
The Portuguese have long believed that if you eat an animal, you may as well eat all of it, and offal is common. Alheiras are sausages made from bread and chicken, with their roots in the Inquisition, when Jews copied the Catholic passion for sausages while avoiding pork – the best come from Mirandela in the north, and are served grilled or steamed. You might need to steel yourself for a couple of special dishes: Porto’s tripas (tripe) dishes incorporate beans and spices but the heart of the dish is still recognizably chopped stomach-lining; while cozido à portuguesa is a boiled “meat” stew in which you shouldn’t be surprised to turn up lumps of fat, cartilage or even a pig’s ear. Other traditional dishes use pig’s or chicken’s blood as a base – the words to look for are sarrabulho and cabidela.
There’s a huge range of regional Portuguese cheese, a sizeable quantity of which is still handmade (the label D.O.P. guarantees that it was made in its traditional area). A queijo de cabra or cabreiro is goats’ cheese, sheep is ovelha, cow is vaca, cured is curado. Queijo fresco and requeijão are unpressed curds of sheep’s milk, similar to cottage cheese.
Particularly recommended local cheeses to look out for are Queijo da Serra (or Queijo Serrano) from the Serra da Estrela, which has an almost liquid texture – the traditional method is to cut out a hole on top and scoop up the contents by spoon – and Azeitão, a sheep’s milk cheese from near Lisbon, which crumbles slightly when you cut it and has a pleasantly astringent taste.
Vegetables and salad
Accompanying nearly every dish will be potatoes, either fried or roast in the case of most meat dishes or boiled if you’ve ordered fish. The distinction is less marked in tourist resorts on the Algarve and elsewhere, but trying to get chips to come with your grilled trout or salmon in a rural town simply invites incomprehension – fish comes with boiled potatoes and that’s that. Most dishes are also served with a helping of rice and salad. Other vegetables occasionally make an appearance, like carrots, cabbage or broccoli, usually boiled to within an inch of their lives – a more interesting choice is grelos (turnip tops), often turned into a purée, while winter and early spring is the time for chestnuts (castanhas), which appear in soups and stuffings. Salad is the more common accompaniment to every meal; a salada mista is a simple mixed salad of lettuce, tomatoes and onions.
Desserts, cakes, pastries and fruit
In most restaurants, the dessert menu rarely goes further than fruit salad, ice cream or things like chocolate mousse and rice pudding. Anything described as a doce de casa (house dessert) is invariably a heart-stopping wedge of sugar, cream and egg (our favourite Portuguese recipe begins “Take sixty egg yolks…”).
In cake shops, cafés and tea rooms you can seriously indulge yourself in pastries (pastéis), buns (bolinhos), rolls (tortas), tarts (tartes) and cakes (bolos). There are hundreds of local specialities, starting with the classic Lisbon pastéis de nata (custard tarts) and then continuing in glorious profusion by way of queijadas de Sintra (Sintra “cheesecakes”, not that they contain any cheese), palha de ovos (egg pastries) from Abrantes, bolo de anjo (“angel cake”), mil folhas (millefeuille pastries), bolinhos made with beans (feijão), carrot (cenoura) or pumpkin (chila), bolos de arroz (rice-flour muffins) and suspiros (“sighs” – meringues). From Aveiro, there are incredibly sweet egg-based ovos moles wrapped in wafers, while anything labelled doces conventuais (“convent desserts”) owes its origins to the gastronomic inspiration of nuns past.
Seasonal fruit ranges from spring cherries and strawberries to summer melons, peaches and apricots. The grapes arrive in late summer and autumn, as do most pears, apples, plums and figs, while winter is the time for citrus fruits, pomegranates, and immensely sweet dióspiros (persimmon or date-plums). Available year-round are bananas from Madeira, and sweet and aromatic pineapples from the Azores.
Portugal’s wine regions – notably Alentejo, Bairrada, Dão, the Douro and the historic regions of Estremadura and Ribatejo – have acquired a strong reputation in recent years. Most wines are made in small cooperatives with local grape varieties, many peculiar to Portugal (including some wonderfully named varieties of grape such as Dog strangler and Bastardo).
Portuguese wine lists (ask for the lista de vinhos) don’t just distinguish between tinto (red), branco (white) and rosé, but between verde (“green”, meaning young, acidic and slightly sparkling) and maduro (“mature”, meaning the wines you’re probably accustomed to). You’ll find a decent selection from around the country in even the most basic of restaurants, and often in half-bottles, too.
Some of the best-known maduros are from the Douro region: the reds tend to be expensive, though a good, crisp, reasonably priced white is Planalto. Red wines from the Dão region (a roughly triangular area between Coimbra, Viseu and Guarda, around the River Dão) taste a little like burgundy, and they’re available throughout the country. Quinta de Cabriz from Carregal do Sal (near Viseu) is an excellent mid-range Dão red. The Alentejo is another area with a growing reputation – wines from Reguengos de Monsaraz have the strength and full body typical of that region, notably the Monte Velho reds and Esporão Reserva whites from the Herdade de Esporão vineyard. Among other smaller regions offering interesting wines are Colares near Sintra (rich reds), Bucelas in the Estremadura/Lisboa region (crisp, dry whites) and Alenquer from Ribatejo (refreshing whites).
The light, slightly sparkling vinhos verdes – “green wines”, in age not colour – are produced in quantity in the Minho. They’re drunk young as most don’t improve with age, but are great with meals, especially shellfish. There are red and rosé vinhos verdes, though the whites are the most successful. Casal Garcia and Gato are the two labels you see everywhere; far better are Ponte de Lima and Ponte da Barca. For real quality, try the fuller-strength Alvarinho from Monção and Melgaço, along the River Minho.
Portuguese rosé wines are known abroad mainly through the spectacularly successful export of Mateus Rosé. This is too sweet and aerated for most tastes, but other rosés are definitely worth sampling.
Portugal also produces a range of sparkling wines, known as espumantes naturais. The best of these come from the Bairrada region, north of Coimbra, though Raposeira wines – a little further north from near Lamego – are more commonly available.
Fortified wine, spirits and beer in Portugal
Port (vinho do Porto), the famous fortified wine or vinho generoso (“generous wine”), is produced from grapes grown in the vineyards of the Douro valley and mostly stored in huge wine-lodges at Vila Nova de Gaia, facing Porto across the Rio Douro. You can visit these for tours and free tastings.
Madeira (vinho da Madeira), from the island of the same name, comes in four main varieties: Sercial (a light, dry aperitif), Malvasia (very sweet, heavy dessert wine), Vermelho (a sweeter version of Sercial) and Boal or Malmsey (drier and heavier versions of Malvasia). Also worth trying are the sweet white moscatel dessert wines from Setúbal, which – like port and Madeira – also come as yearly vintages.
Domestic brandy (the best is maciera) and gin are fairly unsophisticated and frighteningly cheap. Be warned that the typical Portuguese measure of spirits involves the waiter or bartender pouring from the bottle until you beg them to stop. Order by name if you’d like an international brand that you’ve heard of.
Local firewaters – generically known as aguardente – include bagaço (made from distilled grape husks), aguardente de figo (from figs), ginginha (from cherries), and the very strange Licor Beirão (a kind of cognac with herbs). In the Algarve, the best-known firewaters are brandy mel, made from honey and the strawberry tree and which tastes a bit like schnapps, and amêndoa amarga, made from almonds.
Portugal’s main beer (cerveja) brands, found nationwide, are Sagres and Super Bock, and you’ll also see Cristal and Cintra, not that there’s much to distinguish any of them. From the tap, order um imperial (or um fino in the north) if you want a regular glass, and uma caneca for half a litre. For bottled beer, ask for a mini (20cl) or a garrafa (33cl). The standard beer in Portugal is a typical European-style lager (around five percent strength), but the main brands also offer a preta (black) beer – a kind of slightly fizzy lager-stout – as well as wheat, fruit-flavoured and non-alcoholic versions, none particularly successful. There’s also a growing trend for craft beers, such as the Porto-based Sovina and Letra from Braga, which can be interesting; see cervejaartesanal portuguesa.pt for a full list.
Coffee, tea and soft drinks
The Portuguese take their coffee very seriously, and you can order it in a variety of ways. A simple coffee (uma bica or um café) is small, black and strong, like an espresso; um carioca is also small and black, but weaker; uma chinesa is large, black and strong. Ordering um garoto in Lisbon and the south, or um pingo in the north will get you an espresso-sized coffee with milk; while um galão is large and milky but weak, like a latte, and is often served in a glass. If you prefer your coffee reasonably strong and not too milky, ask for um meia de leite.
Tea (chá) is usually served black; com leite is with milk, and to be sure of getting tea with a slice of lemon (as opposed to a lemon-tea drink) ask for um chá preto com limão. Herbal teas are known as infusões, the most common being camomile (camomila), mint (menta) and lemon verbena (lúcia-lima).
Fresh orange juice (sumo de laranja) – rather surprisingly for an orange-producing country – can be awkward to find; adding the word natural or fresca should get you the real thing. If there is a juicer available, ask for it da maquina to get it freshly squeezed. Mineral water (água mineral) – of which the best-known national brands are Vimeiro, Pisões, Pedras Salgados and Vidago – comes either still (sem gás) or carbonated (com gás).
Vegetarian food in Portugal
Portuguese cuisine is tough on strict vegetarians and you’ll be eating a lot of omelettes, chips, salads and pizzas. Nearly everywhere does a basic vegetable soup, though beware of the caldo verde – a kale, onion and potato broth – which usually comes with chouriço in. Portuguese fruit is a particular joy, especially in the Algarve, Estremadura and Beira Baixa, and any market should turn up some excellent local produce. You may even find officially certified biológico – organic – produce, though it has yet to make much of an impact on mainstream food-buying habits.
In Lisbon, Porto and some parts of the Algarve, there is a reasonable selection of vegetarian restaurants, even macrobiotic ones, together with Chinese, Italian and Indian establishments where you should be able to eat well. Also, most towns have health-food shops (or supermarkets with health-food sections) where you can find cereal bars, gluten-free biscuits, dried fruit and the like.