When you’re in a new place, there are many ways of trying to get acquainted with the local culture. Walking around historical sights, making friends with people who live in the city you’re visiting or, my favorite, sampling the local cuisine.
No matter what your style of travel is, food is something that will inevitably be in everyone’s schedule on a daily basis, and this makes for the greatest intro to a new country one could ever hope for. Cuisine is synonymous with tradition and local taste, thus it is a representation of how cultures mix.
Portuguese people love to eat and to talk about food – I wouldn’t probably be writing this otherwise! Sampling food in Portugal is not only a gastronomic experience per se, it’ll also make it easier for you to have something to talk about with locals. Food and drink are excellent ice-breakers and Portuguese folks are always happy to discuss local cuisine with everyone, specially those coming from abroad and showing curiosity.
For a rather small country, Portugal’s cuisine is quite varied from North to South. Most of our “gastronomic landmarks” can be sampled when visiting the capital, Lisbon, that also has its own recognizable specialties.
Allow me to indulge your appetite…
Lisbon sits by the river and really close to the sea. No wonder seafood is so appreciated around here.
A visit to Portugal would never be complete without sampling at least one preparation involving salted cod fish. Bacalhau is the national food by excellence and some people say there are more than 365 recipes involving this fish – one for each day of the year! You can try Bacalhau con Natas, for example, a smooth concoction of cod fish baked in the oven with potatoes and cream.
Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato is another incredible dish that consists of clams cooked with olive oil, garlic and a variety of herbs. It’s an excellent starter and goes really well with cold beer on a hot summer day.
Octopus is one of the traditional foods Portuguese people eat on Christmas, but also enjoyed during the rest of the year. I’d recommend Polvo à Lagareiro, a dish that involves octopus firstly boiled until soft and right after grilled for extra flavor, served drenched in hot olive oil.
Fish preparations are plentiful all over Portugal. But no fish dish screams Lisbon like “Sardinha Assada”. A down-to-earth yet iconic preparation of charcoal grilled sardines, often served atop corn bread, alongside a marinated bell pepper salad.
Cervejarias, Portuguese for “beer shop” are very often the go-to place to try seafood.This is not necessarily meant as a main meal, and sometimes can be a snack. Several preparations are readily available with the freshest of ingredients including shrimp, oysters, crab or even lobster for those not so much on a budget. It’s not uncommon to finish a seafood feast with a grilled steak sandwich – mixing the best of both sea and land is the Portuguese way!
From the Land
Traditional smoked meats and cheeses are not to be missed when in Portugal. Keep in mind that, very often, samples of those are served while you wait for your order at a restaurant. These appetizers such as bread, butter, olives or pâtés are not free! Even if the waiter doesn’t mention anything, the price for what we call “couvert” will be included in the bill. Ask in advance if you don’t want to have an unpleasant surprise, but do allow yourself to indulge in these savory treats, as they are well worth it!
If you’re after the ultimate Portuguese meat dish, Cozido a Portuguesa might just be it! Combining a variety of meats (pork, chicken, beef and smoked cuts), vegetables, potatoes and beans, this is the kind of food that will definitely keep you warm on a winter Lisbon day. Traditionally, meaty bits such as pork ears and blood sausage are included in Cozido à Portuguesa – don’t let this be a turn off if you’re not used to these type of meat, you’ll be surprised at how good it all tastes together!
For a more recognizable preparation, you can always opt for a Bitoque. A staple all around the country, this is a thin pan fried beef steak seasoned with garlic, served with rice, fries, salad and a fried egg on top. The meat swims in its own juices, and the plate is often garnished with pickles and olives too. So simple, yet it hits the spot just right when you’re hungry!
Portugal is a country with a serious dedication to sweet dishes and pastries. In Lisbon, Pastel de Belem is the pastry of excellence. These delicate custard cakes date back to the 1800s and although the original ones can be purchased hot coming out of the oven in the neighborhood of Belem, they are also available in pastry shops all over the city. You can have them for desert, although they are more commonly eaten for breakfast or as a coffee break snack. But whenever you’re craving something sweet, go for it, as they always taste good!
On the drinking side of things, you might have heard of Portuguese Port Wine before. But in Lisbon, Ginginha (sour cherry liqueur) is one of the most beloved drinks. Served in small shot glasses with cherry at the bottom, it’s meant to be had in one go, while standing at the typical Ginginha shops in downtown Lisbon.
When you plan your next visit to Lisbon, make sure you bring not only an adventurous and curious spirit to explore this happening capital of Portugal, but also a big appetite to embrace all the goodness Portuguese cuisine has to offer.
Happy travels and BOM APETITE!
Zara is a Portuguese girl who quit her job in Dubai 2 years ago to travel around the world with her now husband Ashray, from India. They’re the team behind Backpack ME, a travel site that aims to share tips and ideas with people all over the place, inspiring them to go travel, no matter where they come from!
A&Z are East meets West and Backpack ME is all about a multicultural perspective on travel: http://www.bkpk.me