This is potentially the most varied experience to have in the country and is clearly a favourite local hobby.
Portuguese cuisine evolved from hearty peasant food drawn from the land and abundant seafood found in the country’s lengthy coast with the cows, pigs and goats raised on the limited grazing land of its interior. From these humble origins, spices and condiments brought back to the country during the exploration and colonisation of South America, Africa, the East Indies and the Far East, contributed to the development of what become regarded as ‘typical’ Portuguese cuisine which inherently, also helped shape the cuisine in the regions under Portuguese influence, from Brazil and Cape Verde to Thailand and Japan. Today, traditional Portuguese cuisine is served alongside the latest trendy and fusion cuisine styles. Several establishments have been awarded Michelin stars.
Soup is an essential first course of a Portuguese meal. The most popular is the Minho speciality, caldo verde, made from kale, potatoes and spiced smoked sausage. In places, especially near the coast, you can enjoy delightful and varied fish soups, sometimes so thick it needs to be eaten with the help of a fork. Other popular choices are Sopa de legumes, a vegetable based soup often featured as “Sopa do dia” (Soup of day) in restaurants and Canja de galinha, a rich chicken broth.
You will see another Portuguese staple bacalhau (salt cod) everywhere. Locals will tell you that there are as many ways to cook this revered dish as there are days in the year, or even more.
The most common of Portugal’s delicious fish (peixe) dishes revolve around sole (linguado) and sardines (sardinha) although salmon (salmão) and trout (truta) are also featured heavily, not mentioning the more traditional mackerel (carapau), whiting (pescada), rock bass (robalo), tuna (atum), frog fish (tamboril) and a variety of turbot (cherne). These are boiled, fried, grilled or baked and served in a variety of ways. Of late, there’s a growing trend to serve ensopados de peixe, as the name suggests, an almost soup like fish stew to be eaten with bread as the catalyst to soak up the juices.
A peculiarity of Portuguese cuisine is the love of rice and rice-based dishes and desserts, a fondness perhaps grown from the Portuguese travels to the East. Among the most popular rice dishes are “Arroz à Bulhão Pato”, essentially a juicy rice and clam dish. Another famous rice dish, “Arroz de Cabidela” consisting of a saucy dish made with rice, chicken and its blood. Besides those already mentioned, there are many varieties of rice-based specialities, such as frog fish rice, octopus rice, duck rice and seafood rice.
In most places you will easily find fresh seafood: lobster (lagosta), crab (caranguejo), lavagante, mussels (mexilhões), cockles (vieiras), oysters (ostras), clam (amêijoas), goose barnacles (perceves).
Depending on how touristic the area you are in, you’ll see grills, thick with the smoke of charring meat, in front of many restaurants during your stay. Other than traditional sardines, Portuguese grilled chicken — marinated in chilli, garlic and olive oil — is world famous, although people tired of tasteless industrial poultry farm produce might opt for a tasty veal cutlet (costeleta de novilho) instead, or simply grilled pork.
In the North, there are many ways to cook kid, and in the Alentejo, lamb ensopado and several varieties of pork meat, including the tastier black pork; the most acclaimed portions of the pork being the secretos and the plumas. In the Alentejo, you are likely to be served pork instead of veal if you ask for the ubiquitous bitoque (small fried beef served with fried potato chips and a fried egg). A popular traditional dish is pork and clam, Carne de Porco à Alentejana, as well as fried, bread-covered cuttlefish slices (tiras de choco frito). Sometimes you can also find wild boar dishes.
Definitely a major speciality is Mealhada’s (near Coimbra) suckling pig roast (leitão) served with orange slices, traditional bread and washed down with the local sparkling wine. Much like the pastel de nata, you shouldn’t miss it.
Vegetarians may have a tough time of it in Portugal, at least in traditional Portuguese restaurants. In most restaurants, vegetables (usually boiled or fried potatoes) are simply a garnish to the main meat dish. Even ‘vegetarian’ salads and dishes may just substitute tuna (which locals don’t seem to regard as a ‘meat’) for ham or sausage. Usually, a salad is just lettuce and tomato with salt, vinegar and olive oil. However, the Portuguese really like their choose-5-items salad bars, and restaurants serving Indian, Chinese, Mexican, or Italian fare can be found in most cities. At any rate, just mention you’re vegetarian, and something can be found that meets your preference although in the long run you might be unable to thrive on it. That being said, proper vegetarian tastes are becoming more popular and in bigger cities, organic, vegetarian and vegan options can be found these days in dedicated establishments or places like El Corte Inglês for example.
In many Portuguese restaurants, if you order a salad it will come sprinkled with salt – if you are watching your salt intake, or just do not like this idea, you can ask for it “sem sal” (without salt) or more radically “sem tempero” (no seasoning).
A few restaurants, particularly in non-tourist areas, do not have a menu; you have to go in and ask what’s available for you to choose from. It is wise to get the price written down when you do this so as to avoid any nasty surprises when the bill comes. However, in this type of restaurants, the price for each one of the options is very similar, varying from about €5 to €10 per person.
Most restaurants bring you a selection of snacks at the start of your meal aptly called covert – bread, butter, cheese, olives and other small bites – often there is a cover charge for these items, around €5, but invariably waiters do not inform clients of the charge and one may think it to be a free appetiser. Do not be afraid to ask how much the cost is and get them to take the items away if expensive or if you are not planning to eat as much. However, it can be quite reasonable, but occasionally you can get ripped off. If you send it away, you should still check your bill at the end. Better restaurants can bring you more surprising and nicely prepared delicious starters consisting of small dishes and bites costing more than a few €’s each. You can usually choose those you want and return the ones you don’t want, in these cases the list is longer and if the total price works out high enough, you may opt for not ordering a main course and instead, enjoy a varied meal of several smaller portions.
If you have kitchen facilities, Portuguese grocery stores are surprisingly well-stocked with items such as lentils, veggie burgers, couscous, and inexpensive fruits, vegetables, and cheeses. If you like a ‘softish’ rich goat milk cheese try “Queijo da Serra”, if you prefer spreadable cheese, try “Requeijão”. Unfortunately, the success of the “Queijo da Serra” also led to the proliferation of industrial and taste-devoid imitations of the real thing. In speciality shops mostly found in larger cities, many unusual items such as exotic fruits or drinks can be found.
In some grocery stores and most supermarkets the scales are in the produce section, not at the checkout. If you don’t weigh your produce and 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”/items must be weighed).
Portugal is famous for its wide variety of amazing pastries, or pastéis (singular: pastel). The best-loved pastry are the pastéis de nata (called just natas further north), a flaky pastry cup filled with a “secret recipe” egg yolk rich custard-like filling, best eaten still warm and sprinkled to taste with icing sugar (açúcar) and/or cinnamon (canela), you can try them in any “pastelaria”. A popular place is still the old Confeitaria dos Pastéis de Belém in Belém, Lisbon, although most “pastelarias” make it a point of pride excelling at their “pastéis” – here they’re called pastéis de Belém, elsewhere as pasteis de nata. For once, all the guide books are right, you may have to queue for a short time, but it’ll be worth it. Some people like them piping hot and some don’t.
Also nice, if a bit dry, are the bolo de arroz (literally, “rice cake”) and the orange or carrot cakes.
From the more egg-oriented North to almond-ruled South, Portuguese pastry and sweet desserts are excellent and often surprising, even after many years.
On October/November, roasted chestnuts (castanhas) are sold on the streets of cities from vendors sporting fingerless gloves tending their motorcycle driven stoves: a treat!
Portugal is by and large a coffee society and everywhere you go there’s sidewalk Cafés. Salões de chá (tea rooms) also exist but the Portuguese love their thick black espresso coffee (bica, in Lisbon) and tend to drink it several times daily. People go to the Café to see and be seen, while friends gather to talk and socialize over a café e nata, in cold evenings, some enjoy café e bagaço (espresso chased with a firewater tot). If you have a prolonged stay and speak Portuguese, Cafés are an ideal place to go to and make new friends. Regulars use Cafés as a ponto de encontro (meeting place) to gather and make plans, while families after a meal at home, prefer to go out and enjoy their coffee in public. Revolutions and uprisings where planed and deep political or football discussions continue to be held in coffee shops. Costing €0.50-0.60 in most places, any occasion becomes an excuse to meet at the local favourite esplanada and drink an espresso. Most Portuguese sorely miss the Café lifestyle when abroad.
Specialities found in individual regions:
Portuguese people tend to have a sweet tooth. Among the many national favourites perhaps ” Pudin Flan”, a caramel type pudding and “Arroz Doce” or “Aletria” should be mentioned. Both Arroz Doce (Rice Pudding) or Aletria (fine spaghettini) are made by simmering with milk, sugar, some cinnamon and lemon rind either the rice or fine pasta. Some regions specialise in one or the other while adding something special to make it identify with the area.
- Aveiro: special cake from the town: “Pão de Ló”. Desert: “Ovos Moles”
- Fátima: Pastéis de Fátima, are custard tarts in the shape of heart, dedicated to the so-called Immaculate Heart of Mary
- Porto: “Francesinha”, a special grilled cheese sandwich; “Tripas” or tripe stew and “Papas de Sarrabulho”, ask the locals what it is made from…
- Sintra: queijadas de Sintra or the travesseiros
- Mafra: specialty bread, Pão de Mafra; special cake from the town: “Fradinhos”
- Serra da Estrela: “Queijo da Serra” a soft goat cheese, “Requeijão” a fresh spreadable cheese and “Broa de milho” a tasty round shape corn bread
- Alentejo: “Açorda com coentros”, a delicious stale bread soup and Caracois or broiled snails
- Algarve: the Morgadinhos, the almond cakes of Doce Fino and the Dom Rodrigo
- Madeira: “Bolo de Mel” or honey cake
When travelling in Portugal, the drink of choice is wine. Red wine is the favourite amongst the locals, but white wine is also popular. Northern Portugal has a white wine cultivar variation with a greenish tint known as vinho verde. This wine has a very crisp acidic-sweet flavour and is better served cold, it goes best with seafood or fish dishes and Alvarinho is one of the more famous brands. Drinking wine during a meal or socially is very common in Portugal, after a meal is finished, people will tend to talk and sip wine while the food digests. Port wine (vinho do Porto) can be an apéritif or a dessert. Alentejo wine may not be yet known worldwide like Port, but within Portugal just as famous, Esporão is one of the best brands from the Alentejo region. Portugal has other official demarcated wine regions (regiões vinhateiras) which produce some of the best wines such as, Madeira, Dão, Sado and Douro. The Bairrada region produces some delightful sparkling wines, Raposeira being a well known brand.
Beer (cerveja) is also an option and the production of beer in Portugal can be traced back to Lusitanian times. Apart from some imports, the best known national brands are the lager type Super Bock, Sagres and Coral. On a smaller scale, Tagus is sold in the Greater Lisbon area and Cristal, a Pilsner type beer is available mostly in the Porto region. The only drawbacks are the small bottles and caneca(jug) sizes at tap beer selling establishments, snack-bars and cervejarias. Of late, some craft beer producers have begun to emerge around the country.
Be careful of spirits such as 1920 and Aguardente (burning water), both pack a mighty punch. Macieira brandy offers a more palatable kick for those who prefer a slower acting effect.
People might find it a bit difficult to refrain from drinking, even if there are very good reasons to do so. Nowadays the “I have to drive” excuse works OK. The easiest way is to explain that one can’t for health reasons. The Portuguese aren’t as easily insulted as others when it comes to refusing the obvious hospitality of a drink, but a lie such as “I’m allergic” might make clear a situation where one would have to otherwise repeatedly explain a preference in some regions of Portugal; but it won’t work in other regions where obviously made-up excuses will tag you as unreliable (“I don’t want to, thanks” might then work). Drinking is considered almost socially intimate.
The legal drinking age in Portugal is 16. For nightlife Lisbon, Porto and Albufeira, Algarve are the best choices as they have major places of entertainment.
Porto is famous for the eponymous port wine, a fortified wine (20%) made by adding brandy to the wine before fermentation is complete. According to EU laws, port wine can only be named as such if the grapes are grown in the Douro valley, and the wine is brewed in Porto. The end product is strong, sweet, complex in taste and if properly stored will last 40 years or more.
There are many, many grades of port, but the basic varieties are:
- Vintage, the real deal, kept in the bottle for 5-15 years, can be very expensive for good years. It is, nevertheless, worth it.
- Late-Bottled Vintage (LBV), simulated vintage kept in barrel longer, ready to drink. Nice if you are on a budget.
- Tawny, aged for 10-40 years before bottling, which distinguishes itself by a more brownish red color and a slightly smoother bouquet and flavor. As with any wine, the older it gets, the more rounded and refined it will be.
- Ruby, the youngest and cheapest, with a deep red “ruby” colour.
- White port is a not-so-well-known variety, and it is a shame. You will find a sweet and a dry varietal, the latter of which mixes well with tonic water and should be served chilled (if drunk alone) or with lots of ice (with tonic), commonly used as an aperitif.
- Another good choice is the ubiquitous vinho verde (green wine), which is made mostly in the region to the north of Porto (the Minho.) It’s a light, dry and refreshing wine (9-9.5% in volume), made from region specific grapes with relatively low sugar content. Mostly white, and sometimes slightly sparkling. Very nice, and very affordable.
- The Setúbal Peninsula, is home to some of the best national cultivars but the Moscatel sweet wines are World class. Information on the variety and brands available can be sourced from the national or local wine producer lists.
- From north to south and east to west, Portugal seems to have a liqueur maker in every corner of the country. Licor Beirão enjoys some prominence but by asking around wherever you go, you will find good quality liqueurs made from local fruits, herbs and/or nuts, some secret ingredients and a good splashing of aguardente (firewater).
- In Lisbon and further south, make sure to sample Ginjinha, or simply Ginja, a liqueur made by infusing ginja berries (Prunus creases austera, the Morello cherry) in aguardente with sugar and other ingredients. Ginjinha can be served in a shot form with a piece of the fruit in the bottom of the cup, sometimes on a cup made of chocolate. It’s very popular, and a typical drink in Lisbon, Alcobaça and Óbidos.
- In Coimbra, for example, a certain gentleman produces over 90 varieties of liqueurs including one named Licor da Merda (shit liqueur!). However, it is widely believed, the name has more of a humorous effect than offensive substance.