Top 10 foods you must try on a visit to Portugal
If you are visiting Portugal the cuisine may be something of a culinary surprise, but there are certain foods that you just have to try. Many are traditional dishes and served in most restaurants and cafes, although the ingredients, recipes and tastes vary depending on where you eat. For example a dish served in a top class Lisbon or Porto restaurant may be quite different to a dish served in rural Portugal, even though the name is the same.
Here are our top 10 favourite foods
Pastel de Nata (A Portuguese dessert)
The Pastel de Nata (also known as Pasteis de Nata) is a Portuguese egg custard tart, reportedly invented by monks in Belem close to Lisbon.
The egg whites were used for other foods, which meant there were many yolks left over, so as not to waste them, the Pastel de Nata was born.
Now you can buy these tarts any where in Portugal and each version is ever so slightly different. This means that you do have to eat one where ever you visit!
Our favourite way is with a coffee at any of the little cafes (most will have an offer of a Pastel de Nata and a coffee for a special price).
The price will vary depending on where you are, for example if you are in rural Portugal at a small local café, you can pay as little as 1 Euro, if you are in a city the price may be more.
However, if you want to taste ‘the best Pastel de Nata’, take a trip to Belem if you are in Lisbon and visit Pastéis de Belém, a light and airy bakery/cafe . This restaurant is famed for its Pastel de Nata and you can see the bakers making them through a large glass window. They have their own secret recipe and taste unlike others you find across Portugal.
They also make the perfect gift for friends and family at home as you can buy them at the airport in gift boxes. In my opinion however, nothing beats a fresh traditional homemade version you order in the small cafes.
Pastéis de Belém, Lisbon - Photo credit: PassportPlease.net
Feijoado (A very traditional Portuguese main course)
Feijoado is a traditional pork stew. Made with pork and usually white beans (the Brazilian version uses black beans). Traditionally it is served with cabbage and other seasonal vegetables, but some modern versions have vegetables added.
This dish has been around for many centuries and when first invented, meat was not in abundance so the original recipes involved the bits of pork that would normally go to waste, such as trotters, ears and other pork trimmings. Nowadays, this dish has often been tweaked to include chorizo which appeals to a wider and more varied audience however, in the more rural areas you are more likely to find the original recipe. (You do need to have quite a strong stomach to look at it!).
Migas (A typical Portuguese dish)
Migas is a traditional Portuguese dish that is often served as a side dish with meat or fish. You can also buy it at almost all churrasqueiras (grilled chicken shops, see below). The recipe changes depending on where you buy it, but again this gives you the opportunity to eat it more than once.
The main ingredient is bread crumbs, originally this would have been any left over or stale bread to prevent waste. The other staple ingredients are olive oil and garlic and a green leafy vegetable like spinach or kale. This is a green side dish which goes with almost anything and is really tasty.
Some variations include pepper, tomato, kale, cabbage, cooked beans and more recently meat has been added to make it more of a meal rather than just a side dish.
Lombo de Bacalhau and migas
Bacalhau (Cod fish)
This is a difficult food to recommend as Bacalhau is cod, but the amount of varieties that you can purchase is unbelievable (according to Wikipedia there are over 1000 varieties).
You will see the dried and salted Bacalhau in almost all supermarkets and it will be difficult to find a restaurant menu that does not have Bacalhau in some form or other.
Two of our favourite dishes are:
Bacalhau à Brás
This is made from shredded salted cod, onions and tiny fried matchstick sized potatoes, then mixed in scrambled eggs, with some olives as a garnish. It is always better to order this from a Portuguese menu, as if you have an English translated menu, it is advertised as cod, chips and egg (if you order this expecting a regular meal, you will be very surprised!).
Lombo de Bacalhau.
This is usually a piece of cod that has been grilled in olive oil, with garlic, onions and tomatoes and is often served with crisps and salad.
The recipes will be slightly different where ever you order, after all there are over 1000 dishes and every chef will add their own twist.
Churrasqueiras (A style of cooking)
Not actually a food, this is more the style of cooking. You will see churrasqueiras every where, both in cities, rural villages and at coastal resorts.
It is the Portuguese version of fast food.
Behind the counters you will see the large grills (often over open fires/charcoal pits) and the chicken is the most popular. You will see Row after row of chicken being grilled.
The open air markets more often than not have several eating areas where you can sit and eat or take away. The chicken is offered with lemon or hot sauce (piquant or Piri Piri). Some supermarkets also sell rotisserie chicken and other cooked meats which are very popular during the summer months.
There are different ways to have this coating, the chicken can be covered before cooking, or after cooking, but some churrasqueiras will give you sachets of the coating to take away with you. If you are looking for plain chicken, always ask before.
Most of the take away churrasqueiras also serve migas (see above) or rice and often you can also have french fries with it.
You may also see restaurants/cafes called churrasqueiras, this is the sit down version and often there is a very limited menu of just 3 or 4 items, the majority of which come from the grill.
Prices do vary and once again if you move away from the cities or tourist areas many churrasqueira restaurants will serve a 3 course meal of bread and olives, main course and dessert with a half carafe of wine (half litre) followed by coffee, the cheapest we found was 7 euros (2019).
No visit to a coastal area of Portugal is complete without eating sardines. A staple diet of the Portuguese for many centuries, the fish is often cooked over a grill or BBQ (sardinhas assadas) and served with a fresh salad or potatoes.
If you are in the Algarve you can sit at a cafe/restaurant and watch them being BBQ’d in front of you, this makes for a very pleasant Sunday lunch and you will be joined by full families.
There is another way to eat sardines and these are dried, it is a select delicacy and to be honest can be a little tough to eat, especially as the head is still intact!
If you visit Nazaré on the Silver Coast you will see the fishing boats on the beach and the racks where the fish are laid out to dry and then sold by the older women of the town, often wearing traditional clothes.
You may also find squid and other fish there drying in the sun.
If sardines are not for you, you can buy the tinned variety, these are often bought as souvenirs and gifts as the tins are very attractive (you will also notice many ceramic versions in traditional shops or gift shops).
Fish drying the traditional way in Nazaré
Serradura (Portuguese dessert)
Serradura is a typical Portuguese dessert and the name is often translated into sawdust pudding. This very typical dessert can be found in most restaurants, bakeries and cafes. The original recipe is made from cream, condensed milk and crumbled mairie biscuits. However as tastes changed, the need for more flavours became necessary. Now you can get all different versions including Oreo flavour.
There are also different varieties of the Serradura with similar ingredients, such as Baba de Camelo, which is an almond version and includes egg.
The dishes are very sweet, but very nice, so a large portion is not necessary.
Baba de Camelo
Stone soup (traditional Portuguese main meal)
Stone Soup or Sopa de Pedro is a traditional dish, from the Almerim region and is still served across Portugal, but especially in the rural areas. The dish was originally developed to ensure that there was no waste of food, and contains all parts of pig, similar to Feijada, with herbs and beans. The history of this soup is a nice story and relates to poor hungry visitors to a village, where the villagers did not want to share their food.
The visitors set up by a river and just boiled water with a stone in a pan, the intrigued villages came one by one to see what they were cooking, and the visitors explained stone soup, but it just needed a few extra ingredients, as each villager brought an ingredient, the visitor eventually threw the stone away and what was left was a delicious soup that was shared by all.
There are other versions such as nail soup, axe soup and wood soup, the soup is the basic recipe, just a change of name for the different areas based on the story told.
Octopus (Polvo) is very popular in Portugal and can be found in every supermarket fish counter, but in the restaurants octopus comes in many styles.
It can also be a snack, known as petiscos (a Portuguese version of tapas).
A light lunch with salade de polvo (this is not usually a full dish, but more octopus, with chopped tomato, peppers, onions, coriander, garlic and olive oil).
Or a main meal, either grilled, baked or as part of a seafood stew/mariscos (again it is hard to describe this dish as every restaurant will have their own version).
But which ever way you choose to eat it, it is normally delicious, but beware, the octopus may come whole if you order as a main meal.
Francesinha (A Portuguese main meal)
This is not a meal for the light-hearted! Francesinha’s can be found all over Portugal and each restaurant will serve its own version of the sauce (with many recipes kept as closely guarded secrets).
The easiest way to describe it, is, a triple or quadruple toasted sandwich! Made with layers of toast, steak, sausage and ham, this is then covered completely in melted cheese and smothered in a tomato and beer sauce.
There are many variations now and often they will come with a fried egg on top, we have seen a vegetarian version which looked delicious, until we saw the small print and it stated the sauce was meat based (so if you are vegetarian please do check).
This is just a small selection of the food that is available in Portugal and to be honest we could probably have made this list a top 50 foods to eat.
We hope you get to try at least a few of these dishes on your next trip.
If you enjoyed this, then the following articles may also be of interest to you:
Essential food guide for your first holiday in Portugal
A vegan in Tomar
Learn to cook like a local in Lisbon
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