In his delectable cookbook My Lisbon, Chef Nuno Mendes gets to the heart of the Portuguese diet. “Simplicity sums up the best of Portuguese cooking: taking fantastic produce and letting its own natural flavor be the main player on the plate,” he writes. “Ours is one of the most overlooked cuisine in Europe, and I believe it is time to truly shout about the food of Portugal.”
DINING CUSTOMS Most Portuguese breakfast lightly: milky coffee with toast, fresh bread rolls with preserves, perhaps a pastry—variations on croissants are common, sometimes filled with ham and cheese, an innovation considered scandalous by the French.
Short shots of espresso, known here as bica, are ingested throughout the day, often accompanied by the sweet, sticky pastries on show in all cafes. In Lisbon, custard tarts (pasteis de nata) are the calorie fix of choice.
Lunch is often the main meal of the day, and working people fill restaurants throughout the week to tuck in. Portions in traditional restaurants are large. In all but the poshest places, it’s completely acceptable to share a main course or ask for a half-portion (meia-dose). Aside from their printed menus, most restaurants offer dishes of the day (pratos do dia), which are usually a good bet, with market-fresh products at a bargain price.
Many people will take lanche in the afternoon—a light meal with tea or coffee. Dinner is usually eaten between 8pm and 9pm, although Spanish-style late-night dining is catching on. People drink wine with both lunch and dinner.
In restaurants, waiters often bring a selection of appetizers unbidden—they can range from a few olives or bread with a pot of sardine pâté, to an array of cheeses, sausage, and seafood. Most of the time, you’ll be charged a cover fee for what you eat (so say “no” if you don’t want any of these nibbles).
CUISINE Portuguese cooking is one of Europe’s best gourmet secrets. There’s great regional variation, with a more Mediterranean feel to Algarve cuisine and heartier, meatier options as you go farther north and farther away from the coast.
The Portuguese are among the world’s biggest fish eaters. The coastal waters produce a rich variety of seafood that is served super-fresh in markets and restaurants up and down the country. One of the country’s great treats is enjoying fresh, charcoal-grilled fish—gilt-head bream (dourada) and bass (robalo) are among the most popular species—with a splash of olive oil and lemon juice and a glass of chilled white wine in a beachside restaurant. Fish served this way is usually priced by weight on the menu.
Long considered the most humble of fish, sardines (sardinhas) are grilled in the streets during the summer season, bringing a pungent scent to the old neighborhoods of Lisbon and other cities. They are eaten by the boatload during Lisbon’s Santo Antonio festival in June and are a particular specialty in the fishing ports of the Algarve. They are usually accompanied by roasted bell peppers, green salad, and boiled potatoes drenched in olive oil, and best washed down with cold beer or red wine. Fresh sardines should only be eaten during the summer season, when they are at their fattest. After the weather turns cooler, sardines come from a can.
Another much-cherished fish dish is caldeirada, the Portuguese version of bouillabaisse, a fish stew enriched with tomatoes, bell peppers, and potatoes. Hake (pescada) is eaten “boiled with everything” (cozida com todos), meaning potatoes, carrots, green beans, and a boiled egg. In Madeira and the Algarve, tuna steaks (bifes de atum) are a specialty, pan-fried in olive oil with garlic and onions.
Despite the panoply of fresh local seafood, Portugal’s favorite fish is cod, caught in the waters of Norway or Iceland and preserved by drying and salting. Bacalhau, or salt cod, is as close to the Portuguese soul as soccer or fado music. It dates back to pre-refrigeration times, when salting enabled bacalhau to become a staple on long sea journeys or deep into the interior of the country. They say Portugal has more ways of serving bacalhau than there are days in the year. Popular versions include bacalhau à brás, a Lisbon treat with scrambled eggs, olives, and fries; pastéis de bacalhau, fishcakes often served with black-eyed peas; and bacalhau com broa, crumbled with cornbread.
Shellfish is generally excellent, best enjoyed in specialist restaurants called marisqueiras, which are often bright, busy places where customers slurp cilantro-and-garlic-steamed clams (amêijoas à bulhão pato) from their shells, smash crab claws with mallets to get at the flesh within, or pry shrimp in spicy sauce from their shells with fingers sticky. There’s a tradition of finishing off a seafood feast with a steak sandwich, or prego. A classic shellfish main course is arroz de marisco, a pot of rice and seafood in broth flavored with garlic, cilantro, tomato, and just a touch of piri-piri—a fiery chili sauce of African origin that’s a favorite condiment in Portugal.
Piri-piri is also used to spice up spit-roasted chicken, one of Portugal’s most successful culinary exports, served in specialty restaurants known as churrasqueiras.
Portuguese pork is among some of the world’s best. Black pigs roam semi-wild in the plains of the Alentejo region, feasting on the acorns that fall from the region’s cork forests. The porco preto meat they produce is fabulous. The region’s signature dish, carne de porco à Alentejana, combines red-pepper-marinated pork with clams. The black pigs also produce superlative hams (presunto) and an array of sausages, including paprika-spiced chouriço, cumin-flavored blood puddings (morcela), and soft, smoky farinheiras. All of these porky pleasures are combined in cozido à portuguesa, an artery-stopping one-pot that’s become the national dish. It can include hunks of beef, pigs’ ears, chicken, cabbage, turnips, chick peas, carrots, potatoes, squash, and beans, as well as an array of spiced sausages.
Lamb (borrego) is another Alentejo specialty, served grilled, fried, or in hearty stews. Goat is more common in the center and north; a succulent meat, it usually comes in the form of roasted young kid (cabrito assado), although around Coimbra older goats or sheep are slow-stewed in red wine to make chanfana. Beef is good in the north; the posta Mirandesa is a succulent steak served in Trás-os-Montes, but the Atlantic island of Madeira also boasts a beefy signature dish in the shape of espetada, cubes of garlic-rubbed meat skewered on a laurel branch and roasted over hot coals.
The Portuguese have a weakness for offal. Tripe stewed with beans (tripas à moda do Porto) is Porto’s favorite dish. Lisbon prefers liver sautéed in white wine (iscas). Pig’s feet, stomachs, ears, and snouts will all find their way into hearty stews.
Soups are a common way of starting a meal. The most popular, especially in the north, is caldo verde, a green broth made from cabbage, sausage, potatoes, and olive oil. Typically southern, açorda alentejana is made from simmered bread, poached eggs, cilantro, and a ton of garlic. Sopa da pedra is a meal in itself from the Ribatejo region, combining meat, beans, sausage, and just about every conceivable ingredient except the stone (pedra) from which it gets its name.
Portuguese cheeses deserve to be better known internationally. The best is queijo da serra: Made from sheep’s milk in the high central mountains, it is rich and creamy, fabulous on freshly baked rye bread. Similar but more delicate is queijo de Azeitão from the hills south of Lisbon. Queijo de São Jorge is a hard cow’s milk cheese made in big wheels in the Azores. Soft, unaged white cheeses called queijo fresco are often served as an appetizer.
Fruit ripened in Portugal’s sunny climate is fabulous. Bananas and passion fruit from Madeira, pineapple from the Azores, cherries from the central mountains, juicy Rocha pears from the far west, and honey-sweet figs from the Algarve are just some of the treats. If your tooth is still sweeter, traditional Portuguese desserts promise calorific overload. Many are based on old convent recipes using eggs, almonds, and the cinnamon that explorers of the 15th century went to such great lengths to bring from the East.
Portugal’s ties with its former colonies have spiced up the local cuisine: Brazilian shrimp moquecas, curries from Goa, or Angolan chicken muamba are all imported additions to Lisbon menus.
A Coffee Survival Guide
From Brazil to East Timor, many of Portugal’s former colonies happened to produce wonderful coffee (café), so coffee culture runs deep. The Portuguese imbibe inordinate amounts of the stuff in an array of styles. Here’s what to order:
Bica: Thimble-size shots of strong black espresso. Portugal’s default option; if you ask for café, this is what you get.
Café cheio: As above, but slightly less strong, a full espresso cup. Café pingado: A bica with a drop of milk.
Garoto: Espresso cup of half-coffee, half-milk.
Café duplo: A double espresso.
Abatanado: Large black coffee.
Galão: Weak milky coffee like a caffe latte, served in a tall glass.
Meia de leite: Big cup of half-milk, half-espresso, like a café au lait or flat white.
Café com cheirinho: Shot of black coffee topped up with aguadente (firewater).
Recently, a new generation of younger chefs has been building on the country’s traditional cuisine to forge modern adaptations of cherished additions and win international accolades. Leading the pack is José Avillez, whose Belcanto restaurant became Lisbon’s first with two Michelin stars.
WINE For years, international interest in Portuguese wine (vinho) was largely limited to cheap-and-cheerful rosé and the complex Porto and Madeira fortified wines. In recent decades, however, the world has woken up to the full range of terrific tipples made under Portugal’s unique blend of Atlantic and Mediterranean conditions.
Strong yet sophisticated reds produced from the beautiful terraced hillsides along the Douro or the rolling, sun-soaked Alentejo plains have drawn admiration from critics and drinkers around the world. Great wines are also produced in the valleys of the Dão, the coastal Bairrada region, and the flatlands flanking the Tejo River east of Lisbon. Tangy whites made from arinto grapes or sweet Moscatel dessert wines are made on the edge of Lisbon’s suburbs. Fresh white wines known as vinho verdes from the verdant hills of the northwest make an excellent partner for seafood. Even the Algarve, whose wines were once mocked as good only for unsuspecting tourists, is now producing quality reds and whites.
Port remains the most alluring of Portugal’s wines. It was invented in the age of sailing ships, when exporters added brandy to Douro wines to prevent them from spoiling during the long sea journey to England. Quality controls exist since at least the 17th century. Drier white ports are traditionally sipped as an aperitif before meals, the sweet red tawny and ruby ports are served with dessert or cheese, and rare vintage wines from selected years are saved for special occasions. Wines produced on the volcanic island of Madeira are similarly fortified and aged and also range from drier aperitifs to sweet dessert wines.
BEER & OTHER DRINKS The beer (cerveja) market in Portugal has long been a duel between Lisbon’s Sagres and Porto’s Super Bock, both refreshing lagers, best served chilled. Lately, there’s been a craft beer revolution with breweries such as Sovina, Letra, and Dois Corvos edging onto the scene with some tasty thirst-quenchers.
The wine industry has a long distillery tradition resulting in fiery liquors like bagaço and bagaceira, which are clear, powerful, and similar to Italian grappa, or barrel-aged aguardente velha, at its best a wonderfully warming after-dinner tipple that can rival French cognac.
Many regions have their own special drinks: Poncha is a potent mix of local rum and lemon from Madeira; ginja is a sweet cherry liqueur knocked back in hole-in-the-wall Lisbon bars; the Algarve has a firewater made from a forest fruit called medronho; Licor Beirão is an herby liqueur from the Beiras.
Mineral water is commonly drunk, bottled from springs around the country. Waiters will inevitably ask if you want it com gas (sparkling) or sem gas (still), fresca (cold) or natural (room temperature). The Compal range of fruit drinks can make a healthier alternative to international soda brands.
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