Vien R. Guenther
What to eat when in Portugal
Updated: Jan 7
What is there to eat in Portugal? I say plenty. Before our travel in Portugal, I did some research on what food we can eat while there and wrote it down. As I mentioned before, food is part of the experience when traveling and that is one of our goals every time - a food journey for tasting authentic local dishes in the country we are traveling. Portugal did not disappoint; eating there was one of the best experiences we had. Food was reasonably priced – at least when we were there.
We didn’t know anyone in Portugal - actually, as diverse as our friends are, we don’t know anyone of Portuguese descent at all here in America. So, we had nobody to ask questions or to suggest to us where to eat or what. Concerned about the language barrier? We were, initially, but that was not a problem at all - we met more English speaking people in Portugal than in Spain, believe it or not. Besides, when it comes to dining, all you need is a menu with a picture of each dish. Just point at what looks good and you will have food shortly. You can find restaurants with English translations on their menus as well. If not, just look around at other diners and whatever looks good to you, just point it out to the server and say, “I like what he/she is having”. No need to be shy about it, they know you are not local. We learned the tricks for eating out for three weeks in Portugal.
So, what to eat when in Portugal? I only shared a few here, but what you see might make you drool. I sure did looking back at what we ate there.
When traveling in Europe, breakfast is something I look forward to. They are not stingy about breakfast and there are various selections as well - bread, marmalade, ham, cheese, cold cuts to name a few. What's different in Portugal is they include the popular local specialty, Pastel de Nata.
PASTEL DE NATA (Pasteis de Nata)
They say when in Portugal, you have got to try pastel de nata. We did of course, not only once but many times. We weren’t able to try the one in Belem, though, which is where they originated. The line was unbelievably long for take outs, that's how popular it is.
There are other pastries besides pastel de nata of course. You might get tired of eating it every day. Visiting pastry shops is a delight by itself, they offer all kinds of decadent sweets. Just be careful if you are watching your A1C, these sweet delights are irresistible.
Dining in Portugal starts late, about 8:00 p.m. or even later on weekends. But don’t be discouraged by this if you like eating early like we do. We found restaurants that are open at 6:00 p.m. or so. Some of the times we were the first customers to arrive, but we found that we were not the only ones who like to dine early. So, first thing a server will do as soon as you sit down is put several appetizers on your table, no questions asked. They don't tell you that these are not free, but you can refuse them and they will take them away, or choose what you like. Most dishes are served simply but delicious.
Caution: You might find some of the seafood dishes a little salty for your taste. Some restaurants serve big portions as well. One dish might be enough for two. It’s good to ask before ordering.
LIGHT MEALS, SIDE DISHES & APPETIZERS
Potato is a big thing in Portugal. They serve them as a side dish for anything. Is it how they cook them or how or where they grow them? No matter, their potatoes are the best we ever had anywhere else. These small potatoes are served whole, sometimes with skin on, glistening with olive oil, but tasty and creamy. I’m not much into potatoes but over there I ate them every day.
Caldo Verde, or “green broth” is a popular Portuguese soup, a traditional national favorite usually served on weddings and special occasions. It has kale and potatoes in it with bits of chorizo.
Arroz de Gambas & Arroz de Marisco
Arroz de Gambas is like shrimp risotto. This is a typical seafood dish on the coast of Portugal, made out of shrimp and rice. It doesn't look appetizing on the picture, but it's like comfort food, it warms the belly and tastes good as well. This dish is more simply made as compared to Arroz de Marisco (Seafood Rice) which I had in Evora. With Arroz de Marisco, the combination of seafood varies from region to region. It was delicious, served still boiling from the pot.
Octopus Salad (Salada de Polvo)
Octopus salad is a popular Portuguese appetizer served cold. It was the first time we had it and it was really quite good, light and refreshing. I can actually make a meal out of it. I like this better than the mussels I had for dinner the first day which were a little salty and overcooked.
Salad in Portugal is very simple, and don’t expect a variety of salad dressings to choose from. They only have the basics which are salt, olive oil and vinegar - these you will find on the table. It seems strange at first, but we got used to eating salad there without fancy dressings. The vegetables are fresh and crispy so you don't need much to enhance the flavor.
We had this lunch called Francesinha which originated in Porto. It is a sandwich with three kinds of meat (steak, ham, chorizo). What is so special about this sandwich is, they cover it with melted Edam cheese and drench it with spicy, tomato-based sauce. Rich but good. The fried calamari were good as well, but as you can see, the french fries that came with them overwhelmed them. If you had to choose between the two, you will probably go for the Francesinha.
They say Portugal has some of the best seafood, due to the iodine rich waters. So, we indulged ourselves eating seafood while there – octopus, shellfish and fish. What about the local favorite Bacalhau? We can’t possibly miss trying those dried cod fish covered with salt. It is an iconic ingredient and a common staple in Portugal. They put it in salad, make a gourmet meal out of it and many others. For locals, the possibilities are endless for their beloved salted fish. It is said that there are 365 ways to cook Bacalhau - a different recipe each day.
For those who have no idea what Bacalhau is, it is dried and salted cod. Before it can be eaten, it has to be re-hydrated and desalinated by soaking it in cold water for one to three days, changing the water two to three times a day. The locals prefer this to fresh fish.
Now, I haven’t had octopus served whole and neither had Hermann. I didn’t have any expectations except that it looked really good on the picture so I ordered it. I’m glad I did, it was so tender and delicious. I ate it several times while in Portugal. I don’t know if you have to eat the tentacles only, but I ate the whole thing – Hermann helped of course.
Cataplana is a southern regional dish, specifically in the Algarve. The dish was named after a copper cooking vessel called "Cataplana". It works as a pressure cooker; like a clam, it holds tight so that steam stays inside.
This is one of those delicious meals that we wanted to recapture at home. So, we brought back a similar copper pot to cook it with. It's well worth the price, I use it often.
Fish & Squid
You can’t go wrong with any fish in Portugal. Served simply but so fresh and delicious. Freshly grilled sardines are most especially popular among the locals. They even have a festival for the beloved fish. Although it was not the season when we were there, we were able to have some in Coimbra. They were sweet and fresh. Hermann's grilled squid was equally delicious. Both were served with potatoes of course.
I know not everyone is keen on eating a black dish, but you should try the Black Rice Paella (Paelha De Arroz Negro) if you are not particular about the appearance of food. The squid makes this dish black (just like squid ink pasta). The meal included squid, mussels, prawns and some vegetables.
SOMETHING TRADITIONAL FOR MEAT LOVERS
Pork is part of the Portuguese diet. In fact, pork is king in the region of Alentejo. It has a certain taste, different than what we are used to. In Coimbra, we had Carne de Porco à Alentejana (pork and clams), one of the most traditional and popular pork dishes in Portuguese cuisine. Kid (goat) is also served.
Tripas a Moda da Casa is not for the faint of heart. If you are not local, you have to be a "real foodie" to like this dish. This is a one-pot meal with sausage, white beans, carrots, pork knuckles and tripe. It doesn't look good but it is, at least for me. Cozido, however, has nothing strange about it. Everything in it is recognizable - big chunks of meat, ham, sausages, cabbage, carrots and potatoes.
A LITTLE FANCY MEAL
Staying at a B&B in the wine region has its perks, especially when it is located in a winery. We got lucky to find one that serves dinner. This fillet of steak with potatoes and pan fried helda beans and cherry tomatoes was so delicious that we ate them all.
If you are in Lisbon, you can have a gourmet meal at a very reasonable price at the Mercado da Ribeira, Lisbon's food market. The food there is served by top chefs. I recommend the roasted pig cheeks if you haven't any yet. Óbidos also has delicious gourmet foods such as pork medallions with scalloped potatoes, salmon with cream sauce, fried pork topped with grilled pineapple, veal and mushroom sauce, etc. If you are in Aveiro, there is a restaurant above the fish market with a view of the canal. We had fried sole there.
We found this decadent crepe in Sintra. Who says you can't have dessert for a snack? What else can I say? These desserts speak for themselves.