Portugal may have introduced hot chiles to Asia, tea to England, and tempura to Japan, but the country’s cuisine still remains a mystery to most food lovers outside of its borders. Only custard tarts — the ubiquitous pastéis de nata — have broken into the larger food-obsessed culture.
The roots of Portuguese food lie in both native peasant cookery and the ingredients obtained through trade routes established many centuries ago. Bread, rice, spices, pastries, sausages, and seafood — especially cod — remain the staples of many Portuguese meals.
Bread and Rice
Wheat bread has been a standard of the Portuguese table since the eighth century, though you’ll find a lot of cornbread, acorn bread, and carob bread in Lisbon, too. Try bakery Padaria Gleba for cornbread, and the Herdade do Freixo do Meio organic shop in Mercado da Ribeira for an acorn loaf. Portugal is also Europe’s largest consumer of rice. The short-grain carolino is the best for runny rice stews like arroz de tomate (tomato rice) and arroz doce (rice pudding with milk, eggs, and cinnamon).
At a time when honey was still the dominant sweetener in Europe, Portugal’s sugar rush started early, with expensive sugar arriving from the Portuguese island of Madeira in the 15th century, and later, from Brazil. Convent cakes and desserts — including the pastéis de nata, or egg tart — were developed by nuns with skill and patience, and certainly wouldn’t be the same without sugar.
For an introduction to this important part of Portuguese culture, there’s nothing like visiting a traditional pastelaria. Try the old-school shop Versailles, which has been baking pastries since 1922 on Avenida da República. Browse the long counter and order some miniatures and a regular-sized cake with a bica (an espresso). On the more modern front, Landeau in Chiado is a café specializing only in chocolate cake, having created a truly wonderful recipe, with three different layers and textures.
Salt cod has been part of Portuguese culture since the Vikings came to trade cod for salt. This convenient relationship was a powerful asset for Portuguese navigators — ships armed with supplies of salt cod could travel further with a source of protein that didn’t spoil. Since then, the Portuguese have fished — or rather, overfished — this national staple and today the country is the world’s largest consumer of cod.
Portuguese cooking honors this tradition in hundreds of recipes: grilled, baked, stewed, as part of rice dishes, and deep fried as fritters or cakes. Look for freshly baked, crispy cakes at Martinho da Arcada, one of the oldest restaurants in Lisbon.
Portugal’s love for fish doesn’t stop with cod — Portugal is one of the top countries in the world when it comes to seafood consumption. Nothing makes a Portuguese person happier than a barbecue full of grilled fish, especially during the popular June festivals dedicated to Santo António and São João that turn Lisbon and Porto into sardine central, filled with smoke, loud music, sangria, beer, caipirinhas, and pork sandwiches known as bifanas. Once a poor man’s food, sardines are now so in demand that they’ve become expensive and harder to procure. Overfishing in the past didn’t help, nor does climate change, which is pushing the fish to colder waters in the northern European sea.
Sausage is a Lisbon favorite. The locals love chouriço, a sausage that’s similar to Spain’s chorizo but with less fat, but you’ll also find plenty of morcela (blood sausage), farinheira (sausage made with flour and red pepper paste), and alheira (a sausage made with bread and chicken or game).
For a first-time visitor, the best introduction to Lisbon’s sausage scene might be a butcher shop in the Mercado da Ribeira or Manteigaria Silva, a ham and cheese shop that’s been open since 1890. When dining out, don’t be afraid to try feijoada à transmontana (bean stew with cabbage and sausages), cozido à Portuguesa (boiled vegetables, sausages, and cuts of meat), or favas com chouriço (fava bean stew). They aren’t pretty, but they are beyond delicious.
Spice shops once lined Lisbon’s streets thanks to Portugal’s dominance of early global trade routes. Navigators brought back tea and sweet oranges from China; spices like nutmeg, pepper, cloves, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, and star anise from Goa, Sri Lanka, and Malacca; and piri piri chiles from Brazil. Those shops are long gone, but you’ll still find spices in Martim Moniz or traditional grocery stores like Pérola do Arsenal, a pearl on a street lined with tacky souvenir shops.
Wine, Cheese, and Olive Oil
Portugal also has a centuries-long history of producing olive oil, wine, and cheese. The region’s most famous wine is port, made with indigenous grapes like Touriga Nacional in North Portugal’s Douro Valley — a UNESCO heritage site since 2001. Another high-quality fortified wine is Madeira, named for the island off Portugal where it’s produced. These days, the dry, crisp Vinho Verde, produced in northwest Portugal with grapes like alvarinho and loureiro, is also getting some international recognition. Unfortunately, that attention hasn’t come yet for amazing cheeses like Azeitão and Serra, gooey, soft sheep’s milk cheeses — found in most grocery stores — that are made with an ancient method of coagulating milk with the thistle flower.
How to Eat Portuguese Food
Portuguese cuisine takes all of these beloved ingredients and combines them into perfectly simple dishes. Some neighborhood tascas — small, affordable restaurants — might serve migas de couve (cornbread, cabbage, and chouriço) with grilled pork or arroz de grelos (rice with turnip tops) or with jaquinzinhos fritos (deep-fried small horse mackerel). There’s nothing simpler than the garlicky steak sandwich or the amêijoas à Bulhão Pato (clams with garlic, olive oil, and cilantro) or a plate of caracóis (snails boiled with garlic and oregano) in the summer.
Portuguese families are so serious about food that they’re willing to drive more than a hundred miles to the restaurant they love most, whether it’s for suckling pig in Bairrada or wild sea bass in salt on the Alentejo coast or grilled sardines in Setúbal. There’s also a strong chance that food is responsible for many of Lisbon’s weekend traffic jams — after all, restaurants, markets, and pastelarias are driving Lisbon forward.
It's time for the world to catch on to Portuguese cuisine, too — preferably with a refreshing Vinho Verde or a tiny glass of port or Madeira wine. Saúde!
Célia Pedroso is a Portuguese journalist and the Lisbon bureau chief of Culinary Backstreets. She is the co-author of the book Eat Portugal - The Essential Guide to Portuguese Food. Find her on Instagram at @celiapedroso.
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