Portuguese food is Mediterranean cuisine at its best, and like the people, it’s warm, vibrant, spicy, and a little mysterious. It’s also balanced, as the people’s diet is filled with fruits, vegetables, fresh seafood, meat, and plenty of sweets. At the center of every meal are two indispensable items — bread and wine — although most Portuguese would probably argue pork should be included too.
If you want to understand the food, look to the traditional, regional dishes that are still made the way they have been for centuries. These classics are a window into Portugal’s ancient past and reflect the diverse foodstuffs of six hundred years of Roman rule, five hundred years of rule by the Moors, the reach and power of the Roman Catholic Church, and the influence of the Age of Exploration in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
For centuries, Portugal stood alone at the edge of the Iberian Peninsula, isolated from the rest of Europe by the crushing power of Spain and the obstacle of the Pyrenees Mountains. This isolation ingrained a deep sense of “other,” fed an insatiable desire to explore the unknown, and indelibly shaped Portugal’s destiny. In response, Portugal turned its gaze outward to the vast open seas and wondered what lay beyond the waves.
Long before other Europeans braved treacherous seas, Prince Henry the Navigator’s quest for rare spices, material wealth, and new lands fueled the Age of Exploration. Under his command, Portuguese navigators, explorers, and traders climbed into wooden sailing ships and explored the limits of the horizon. Their travels took them to exotic places like Japan, Goa, Macau, Africa, and South America. After each trip, new and exciting foods were introduced to willing Portuguese cooks. Each new spice, herb, pepper, fruit, or other foodstuff enriched and expanded the nation’s larder and gave Portugal’s cuisine distinct flavors not found anywhere else on the continent.
Modern chefs may think they invented fusion cuisine, but Portuguese cooks were doing fusion hundreds of years before it was cool. With time, they became experts at creatively combining local products and cooking traditions with an amazing array of exotic spices, ingredients, and cooking techniques, and this culinary evolution helped create a cuisine that is distinctly Portuguese. For the sake of geographic expediency, some food writers and chefs lump Portuguese and Spanish food together, but this is a mistake. While the two cuisines share many of the same ingredients, they are quite different. Portuguese food is tied to the land and sea in equal measure. The cuisine’s dishes have heat, spice, and depths of flavor never found in Spanish food.
While Portugal’s maritime explorations and trading helped the kingdom accumulate immense wealth and access to rare spices, those benefits did not trickle down, so most ordinary people in Portugal eked out a living from the land and sea and relied on simple rustic food that was sustaining, but also wonderfully flavorful. We encourage you to taste and explore Portugal’s food. Read on for how to better navigate this exceptional cuisine with our list of 10 things they eat in Portugal.
Bacalhau is more than just an iconic symbol of a nation whose fortunes were made plying the seas — it is the single most important dish in Portugal. Made from dried, salted cod fished in the cold waters off the coast of Norway, it’s said there are enough recipes for bacalhau that you could cook one every day of the year and never make the same dish twice. As with other foods, bacalhau was carried on ships to other ports, and the recipe made its way into other cuisines in Galicia in northwest Spain, as well as former Portuguese colonies in Mozambique, Cape Verde, Angola, Macau, Brazil, and Goa. Each region and outpost now has its own specialties, but three well-known examples are bacalhau à Gomes de Sã from Porto, which is salted cod, potatoes, onions, black olives, and hard-boiled eggs; Bacalhau com natas, which is salt cod cooked with cream and onion; and Bacalhau à bras from Estremadura, which is salt cod, potato, onion, and scrambled eggs.
It is believed the Moors of North Africa introduced the cataplana to Portugal in hopes of recreating the tagines they left behind. Like the tagines of North Africa, cataplana is both the name of a regional dish and the pot in which the food is cooked. Despite its simple appearance, the cataplana revolutionized cooking by eliminating the heat and labor involved in cooking over an open flame or in a searing wood oven. Shaped like a round clam shell with a hinged lid, the cataplana was traditionally made of hammered copper but is now often made of non-stick metal. To use a cataplana, the food is placed in the bottom half of the pot, and once the lid is closed it seals in the steam, aromas, and cooking juices during simmering so that intense flavors develop and permeate all the ingredients. The cataplana began in the southern region of Algarve where the Moors held sway until the end of their empire in the thirteenth century, however, over time, this cooking method spread and so did old recipes like Amêijoas na Cataplan. This dish is a classic example of Portuguese inventiveness that combines ham, chouriço sausage, baby clams, tomatoes, onions, and garlic in a liquid elixir that is heady from the moment you raise the lid of the cataplana.
The Portuguese have an insatiable sweet tooth which has been encouraged and blessed by the Church. Bakers in Portugal make over two hundred different types of pastries, and most of them can trace their origins to the time of the arrival of the Moors, who brought sugar cane with them, and whose laissez-faire attitude toward the Catholic Church allowed convents to develop hundreds of sweet treats. By the sixteenth and seventeenth century, convents were employing women and nuns to make sweets to help support their abbeys and charity work, and sold everything from behind cloistered gates. Even today, many of the desserts still have names with religious connotations like toucinho do céu (heaven's lard) or barriga de freiras (nun's belly). Most popular are egg custards, cinnamon laced treats, and desserts made with nuts and citrus. For a uniquely Portuguese experience, head to a pasteleria or confeitaria to try a pastel de nata, one of the best egg custard tarts you will ever eat.
It could be said that Portugal’s love of pork is so complete they eat every part of the pig except the squeal. Pork can be found in everything from soups, to grilled kebabs, and even dessert. This mad obsession is so prevalent countrywide there are matanças dos porcos, or pig killing festivals, where every part of the pig is used in some dish. What they can’t use is cured and preserved and turned into presuntos, or hams, as in the fine, dry-cured hams from Lamego in the Douro Valley in northern Portugal. When pork is not cured, it’s being served in dishes like leitão assado as roast suckling pig, and as roasted pork with chestnuts in lombo de porco de Monção.
Along with pork, the Portuguese can’t ever seem to eat enough enchidos, or sausages; they make them in a dizzying range of styles in every part of the country. Sausages show up in soups and stews, are grilled over an open flame, cooked in cataplana, or flamed tableside as a snack, and add rich meaty flavors to any dish. They invariably include pork meat, and none are as acclaimed or well-known as chouriço. Some of the popular sausages include linguiça, a seasoned pork sausage with onions, garlic, and pepper; the aforementioned chouriço, a spicy dried pork sausage made with paprika and garlic, smoked sausages like farinheira made from pork, wine, and flour; and morcela, a well-seasoned blood sausage that's best fried or charcoal-grilled. During the Reconquista and the Inquisition, Jews in Portugal — especially in the northeastern region of Trás-os-Montes — came up with recipes that used Kosher meats as a way to keep kosher in a dangerous time of religious war. Their sausages, called alheira, were smoked and most often made with rabbit, veal, chicken, duck, and bread fillers, and were then fried in olive oil, which is Kosher, and served with boiled potatoes and vegetables. Nowadays, these smoked sausages are found everywhere and made with all sorts of ingredients, Kosher and not, and even include ingredients like bacalhau.
Portugal’s dependence on the sea is evident in her cuisine, and certain regions such as Algarve and Estremadura are renowned for the diversity and quality of their catch, which is often sold right from the boat at the large Cascais fish market in Lisboa. The Portuguese cook hundreds of their favorite fish and seafood options in clean, light, tasty ways that include grilling it over charcoal, baking it, pan-frying it, roasting it in an oven, cooking it in a cataplana, or broiling it. Any time you are on the coastline, you can stop in any one of the many quaint seafood cafés that line the harbors, select a freshly caught fish or other kind of seafood from an iced display, and then tell your waiter how you want your meal cooked. The fish is priced based on weight, and some of the most popular offerings include mackerel, sardines, tuna, sea bass, octopus, squid, anchovies, swordfish, sweet Portuguese clams, crabs, oysters, mussels, and lobsters.
Unlike American snacks, snacks in Portugal are delectable and a lot of thought and history is packed into one little bite. These snacks are called petiscos, from the verb petiscar, which means “to eat a little of this and that,” and they are a gourmet treat on their own. All over Portugal, there are little taverns that specialize in petiscos — with some focusing on only one regional specialty, and others offering a range of selections — with the object being to socialize, nibble on tasty treats, and forget the worries of the day. Three popular petiscos are chouriço assado, which means “flaming chouriço,” Bifana, and petiscos caracóis à Portuguesa, which are Portuguese snails. Chouriço assado is simply sliced chouriço set ablaze with aguardiente at table side; bifana is thinly sliced, sautéed pork served on a crisp roll called a papo seco with a bit of mustard; and caracóis à Portuguesa are sweet tiny snails served in an herb and garlic infused broth.
Soups and Stews
There is an old Portuguese proverb that says, "Of soup and love, the first is the best." In Portugal, what doesn’t go into soups is a shorter list than what does, and national soups like caldo verde and feijoada have sustained the Portuguese through feast and famine. Feijoada, which in Portuguese means beans, is a bean stew made with beef or pork, where the beans play musical chairs based on the region. From one region to the next, traditional local beans are used. In the northeast, in Trás-os-Montes, feijoada is made with red kidney beans, tomatoes, carrots, and cabbage, while in the Minho and Douro Litoral near Porto, feijoada is made with white beans, rice, and sometimes chouriço and farinheira sausages. It’s this version of feijoada that was later exported to the former Portuguese colony of Brazil, where it’s now one of their favorite national dishes.
Spices and Condiments
If you want to know why Portuguese food is so different, just look in their spice cabinet: There is something there from every corner of the globe. From North Africa, the Moors introduced the use of cinnamon, cumin, coriander, parsley, nutmeg, mint, and saffron, and showed the Portuguese how to use a mortar and pestle to grind nuts and other ingredients into a fine paste to use in sauces, syrups, and desserts. However, it was the mouth-searing-hot peri-peri Bird’s Eye pepper that really changes the way things are spiced in Portugal. It has been an essential ingredient in Portuguese food since the fourteenth century, and is used in everything from soups like feijoada and caldeirada, to being slathered on beef, pork, chicken, and shellfish. This beloved hot pepper is most often used as a thick condiment, and thanks to Portuguese traders, its cultivation and use spread to Angola, Mozambique, and other parts of the world. Surprisingly, one other big flavor that is used with expertise and finesse is curry, which came by way of Goa. While it is not the predominate flavor in many dishes, savvy cooks use it to add underlying depths of flavor and earthiness to give each dish nuance.
Blessed with a Mediterranean climate, Portugal is a veritable garden where vegetables grow easily and come in every shape and color, including tomatoes (Portugal grows so many tomatoes that it’s the largest exporter of tomato paste in the world), cabbage, eggplant, bell peppers, squash, cucumbers, lettuce… you get the picture. Salads are almost as popular as soups, but the mainstay is still a simple salad made with lettuce and tomato and tossed with vinaigrette containing exceptional Portuguese olive oil and vinegar. Vegetable side dishes are often creative and make use of what’s in season and fresh, as in Ervilhas com Ovos, peas and eggs. This is a fabulous combination of fresh peas cooked with ham that has a just-fried egg added on top right before the plate is served. Some of the most popular pulses and legumes were introduced by the Moors, and dishes like Feijão-Frade em Salada showcase delicious chickpeas cooked with onions, parsley, and ham tossed with vinegar; or Favas à Saloia, which is fava beans prepared with garlic sausage and lean bacon in spring when the new baby vegetables are most tender.