Thinking about great European cuisines, Portugal might not immediately come to mind. But while the French and Italians love raving about their food (and rightly so), the Portuguese rather keep their culinary secrets to themselves. Which is a pity, because this nation of 10 million knows a thing or two about food. Portuguese cooking is simple yet rich in flavours. The best dishes are often found in traditional local restaurants (of which there are plenty, including in the capital Lisbon). So, let me spill some of the beans and share a selection of my favourite Portuguese culinary discoveries: these 16 Portuguese dishes and drinks are just mouthwatering!
Pastel de nata
This one might not be so-secret after all. Anyone visiting Portugal will sooner rather than later try one of these delicious sweet pastries. Filled with custard and often dusted with cinnamon powder, pasteis (singular: pastel) de nata are usually eaten as a quick snack with a coffee. They can be found in any bakery and café across the country. Although the most famous pasteis de nata can be found in Belém, Lisbon, I’d much rather have mine at Manteigeria. This tiny pastry factory in central Lisbon makes the best pastel de nata in town. What’s more, you can watch them being made live whilst having yours with a shot of coffee at the counter. An experience you can’t miss!
With nearly 1,800 kilometers of coastline along the Atlantic Ocean, it may come as no surprise that Portugal is a country of seafood lovers. The nation’s all-time favourite seafood is bacalhau, or salt-dried cod. Interestingly, though (and I only found out as I was writing this), most cod in Portugal is actually caught in the much colder waters around Norway, Iceland and Canada.
Although there are various theories of how cod ended up in Portugal, it’s been a thing for centuries and the Portuguese LOVE it. Bacalhau is dried and salted to increase its shelf life and is then being used for a wide range of dishes. There are countless ways to prepare the fish – it can be baked (á lagareiro), grilled (grelhado), shredded (á brás) or used in fish cakes or croquettes. Apparently, there are 365 recipes for bacalhau, so you could spend a year in Portugal having cod every single day… Great bacalhau can be had in many restaurants in Portugal. If in Lisbon, go and check out Zapata, a local family-run restaurant that does wonderful (sea)food dishes, including bacalhau. Another, very popular seafood spot among locals and visitors alike is Cervejeria Ramiro – but reserve ahead or be prepared to queue!
Very similar in size and shape to a pastel de nata, this is another Portuguese favourite. A queijada is a sweet pastry made of fresh cheese, eggs, milk and sugar. Although places such as the Azores, Madeira and Évora each have their own great take on queijada, the original and most famous version can be found in Sintra, just outside of Lisbon.
Cataplana is the most typical dish from the Algarve, Portugal’s southernmost region. It’s a stew cooked and served in a copper pot in the shape of a massive clam, or cataplana (what’s in a name). A cataplana can be prepared with a wide range of ingredients. Usually this includes fish or seafood with potatoes and tomatoes, but there are also meat-based versions. If you’re in the Algarve, cataplana has to be on the menu.
Galão & Pingado
Like most of southern Europe, the Portuguese are addicted to coffee. And like most of southern Europe, they have their own coffee terminology. So, in Portugal you don’t get a caffè latte or a café au lait, but a galão (coffee with milk). And asking for an espresso macchiato will often raise eyebrows. Instead, if you’re longing for a caffeine shot with a dash of milk, order a pingado and people know immediately what you mean.
Starving, but no time (or money) for an extensive lunch? Let a bifana come to the rescue. This pork steak sandwich originally comes from Porto but can nowadays be found across the country. The meat is usually seasoned with garlic and spices before being sliced and put into a sandwich. However, every city, bar or restaurant has a slightly different take on it. There’s even a bit of a cult going on around bifana, with people trying to figure out which place has the best version. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the findings remain inconclusive as of yet…
Hailing from northern Portugal, port wine is a crowd pleaser. This intense, usually sweet wine is exclusively produced in the Douro region. It’s a fortified wine, with brandy being added during the fermentation process, and therefore has a relatively high alcohol percentage. It’s perfect after a meal, with a slice of Portuguese cheese (see below!) Interestingly, many of the port brands are of English or Scottish origin. This is because the Brits (no surprise) have historically been the biggest port drinkers. Although port wine is now being sold all over the world, most of the port houses in the city of Porto still carry English names, such as Taylor’s, Sandeman and Offley. A trip to Porto is not complete without a wine-tasting experience at one of the famous wine cellars.
Bola de Berlim
I must admit I had never heard of bolas de Berlim before. But after my most recent trip to Portugal I discovered that these deep-fried goodies are a popular snack, especially on the beach. They’re even being sold by beach food vendors. Kind of weird, but kind of good! Bolas (often also called bolinhas) de Berlim are the Portuguese take on Berliner doughnuts. Instead of a jam filling, they are filled with an egg-based cream. If you love a doughnut, you’ll love a Bola. I had the most delicious bola de Berlim at Padaria Central in Lagos.
Cheese and charcuterie
For cheese lovers like me, Europe is heaven. Wherever you go on our continent, there’s an almost never-ending array of cheesy delights. Portugal is no different. A lot of Portuguese cheese is made of sheep’s or goat’s milk. Take queijo de azeitão, for instance. This sheep’’s milk cheese is deliciously creamy and is usually spooned out from the top. Even creamier and stronger in taste is the Serra da Estrela cheese, from the Portuguese Estrela mountains. There are also plenty of semi-hard cheeses, such as queijo de Nisa and queijo do Rabaçal.
In terms of charcuterie, Portugal is quite similar to Spain, with lots of semi-spicy chorizo sausages and cured meats. Bring on that cheese and charcuterie platter…!
Pão de Milho (Broa)
I love a good loaf of bread, so this one was a wonderful discovery for me. Pão de milho, also known as broa, is a Portuguese type of corn bread. This beautifully golden-baked bread with a dark, crunchy crust is full of flavour and texture. It’s mainly sold in bakeries, less so in restaurants. However, if you’re lucky, your restaurant serves pão de milho as part of your table service (couvert). If not, it’s always worth asking if they have it instead of regular bread, because it’s simply yummm!
Queijo de figo
No, this isn’t an actual cheese. Rather, it’s a fig ‘cheese’. Queijo de figo is a local speciality from the Algarve, southern Portugal. This region grows plenty of figs, as well as almonds. Together, these two ingredients form the main basis of a queijo de figo. Dried and grinded, they are mixed with syrup and pressed into a firm cake. Its shape kind of resembles a cheese wheel, hence the name.
Bacalhau may be Portugal’s national dish, sardinhas (sardines) is another big favourite. Just like bacalhau, there are many ways to prepare sardines. Perhaps most of all, the Portuguese love their sardines grilled (sardinhas assadas). This is simple, yet delicious cooking at its best.
Bolo de arroz
Rice is a major ingredient in Portuguese cooking – it’s often served with main (seafood) dishes. But it’s also used in sweet foods. Such as bolo de arroz. This pastry is the Portuguese version of a muffin. Instead of using regular flour, though, one of its main ingredients is rice flour, making it even lighter and fluffier than a normal muffin. It can be found in any bakery in the country and is great with a (morning) coffee.
Feeling peckish and looking for a quick bite? Then rissóis (singular: risol) are your best friend. These deep-fried snacks are one of my favourite Portuguese culinary discoveries. Pastries the size of half a moon, rissóis are often filled with shrimps, minced beef or bacalhau (of course). They’re dipped into breadcrumbs before being deep fried and hence extra crunchy.
Spend a few days in Portugal and you’ll soon realise that the Portuguese love anything made of eggs – including custard, lots of it. Apart from pasteis de nata, another popular sweet dish is caramel flan. It’s a custard-based dessert covered in a thin caramel sauce. It’s a common dessert in many restaurants and although it’s a simple dish, when done well it can be satisfyingly good.
Port wine might get all the glory, but there’s another local drink you should try when in Portugal. And that’s ginjinha, or simply ginja. It’s a liquor made of ginja berries and alcohol. It’s sweet and strong and served as a shot. A perfect way to digest all that amazing Portuguese food. Saúde!