The most important tip I can give you on Portugal local food, and the only one that will make you elevate from being a tourist to becoming a real traveler immersed in the local culture, is “Stay away from McDonalds“. When visiting Portugal, there is awesome local food to try. Head to the local eateries too, and go where the locals go. For me, the food, wine and and even the water is part of the travel experience.
What to Eat in Portugal
This is potentially the most varied experience to have in the country and is clearly a favorite local hobby. Portuguese cuisine evolved from hearty peasant food drawn from the land, the seafood of the country’s abundant coast and the cows, pigs and goats raised on the limited grazing land of its interior. From these humble origins, spices brought back to the country during the exploration and colonisation of the East Indies and the Far East helped shape what is regarded as ‘typical’ Portuguese cuisine which, conversely, also helped shape the cuisine in the regions under Portuguese influence, from Cape Verde to Japan. Soup is the essential first course of any Portuguese meal.
The most popular is the Minho specialty, caldo verde, made from kale, potatoes and spiced, smoked sausage. It’s here in the Minho that you can sample the best vinho verde, which rarely is bottled. In many places, especially near the seashore, you can have a delightful and always varied fish soup, sometimes so thick it has to be eaten with the help of a fork. You will see another Portuguese staple bacalhau (salt cod) everywhere. Locals will tell you that there are as many ways to cook this revered dish as there are days in the year, or even more. The most common of Portugal’s delicious fish (peixe) dishes revolve around sole (linguado) and sardines (sardinha) although salmon (salmão) and trout (truta) are also featured heavily, not mentioning the more traditional mackerel (carapau), whiting (pescada), rock bass (robalo), frog fish (tamboril) and a variety of turbot (cherne). These are boiled, fried, grilled or served in a variety of sauces.
There are many varieties of rice-based specialties, such as frog fish rice, octopus rice, duck rice and seafood rice. In most places you will easily find fresh seafood: lobster (lagosta), lavagante, mussel (mexilhão), oysters (ostras), clam (amêijoas), goose barnacle (perceves). Depending on how touristic the area you are in, you’ll see grills, thick with the smoke of charring meat, in front of many restaurants during your stay. Other than traditional sardines, Portuguese grilled chicken — marinated in chilli, garlic and olive oil — is world famous, although people tired of tasteless industrial poultry farm produce might opt for a tasty veal cutlet (costeleta de novilho) instead, or simply grilled pork. In the North, you can find many manners of kid, and in the Alentejo, lamb ensopado and many types of pork meat, including the tastier black pork; the best considered parts of pork being the secretos and the plumas.
In the Alentejo, you are likely to be served pork instead of veal if you ask for the ubiquitous bitoque (small fried beef, fried potatoes, egg). A widely found traditional dish is pork and clam, Carne de Porco à Alentejana, as well as fried, bread-covered cuttlefish slices (tiras de choco frito). Sometimes you can also find wild boar dishes. Definitely a major specialty is Mealhada’s (near Coimbra) suckling pig roast (leitão) with the local sparkling wine and bread. Much like the pastel de nata, you shouldn’t miss it. Vegetarians may have a tough time of it in Portugal, at least in traditional Portuguese restaurants. In most restaurants, vegetables (usually boiled or fried potatoes) are simply a garnish to the main meat dish. Even ‘vegetarian’ salads and dishes may just substitute tuna (which locals don’t seem to regard as a ‘meat’) for ham or sausage.
Usually, a salad is just lettuce and tomato with salt, vinegar and olive oil. However, the Portuguese really like their choose-5-items salad bars, and restaurants serving Indian, Chinese, Mexican, or Italian fare can be found in most cities. At any rate, just mention you’re vegetarian, and something can be found that meets your preference although in the long run you might be unable to thrive on it. In many Portuguese restaurants, if you order a salad it will come sprinkled with salt – if you are watching your salt intake, or just do not like this idea, you can ask for it “sem sal” (without salt) or more radically “sem tempero” (no conditioning).
A few restaurants, particularly in non-tourist areas, do not have a menu; you have to go in and ask and they will list a few items for you to choose from. It is wise to get the price written down when you do this so as to avoid any nasty surprises when the bill comes. However, in this type of restaurants, the price for each one of the options is very similar, varying around from 5 to 10 per person. Most restaurants bring you a selection of snacks at the start of your meal – bread, butter, cheese, olives and other small bites – invariably there is a cover charge on these items, around 5. Do not be afraid to ask how much the cover charge is, and get them to take the items away if it is too much or if you are not planning to eat as much.
It can be quite reasonable, but occasionally you will get ripped off. If you send them away, still, you should check your bill at the end. Better restaurants can bring you more surprising, nicely prepared and delicious small dishes and bites and charge you more than 5 for each of them; you can usually choose those you want or want not, as in these cases the list is longer; and if the price is this high and you make an acceptable expense, opt for not ordering a main course. If you have kitchen facilities, Portuguese grocery stores are surprisingly well-stocked with items such as lentils, veggie burgers, couscous, and inexpensive fruits, vegetables, and cheeses. If you like hard cheese, try “Queijo da Serra”, if you prefer soft cheese,try requeijao. Unfortunately, the success of the “Queijo da Serra” also allowed the proliferation of industrial and taste-devoid varieties, unrelated to the real thing.
On larger shops mostly found in the principal cities, you can also find many unusual items such as exotic fruits or drinks. In some grocery stores and most supermarkets the scales are in the produce section, not at the checkout. If you don’t weigh your produce and go to the checkout, you will probably be told Tem que os pesar or Tem que pesar,”tem que ser pesado” (“You have to weigh them”/it(they) must be weighed). Portugal is famous for its wide variety of amazing pastries, or pastéis(singular: pastel). The best-loved pastry, pastéis de nata (called just natas further north), is a flaky pastry with custard filling topped with powdered sugar (açúcar) and cinnamon (canela). Make sure you try them, in any “pastelaria”.
The best place is still the old Confeitaria dos ‘Pastéis de Belém’ in Belém, although most “pastelarias” make a point of excelling at their “pastéis”. For once, all the guide books are right. You may have to queue for a short time, but it’ll be worth it. Some people like them piping hot and some don’t. Also nice, if dryish, are the bolo de arroz (literally, “rice cake”) and the orange or carrot cakes. From the more egg-oriented North to almond-ruled South, Portuguese pastry and sweet desserts are excellent and often surprising, even after many years. On October/November, roasted chestnuts (castanhas) are sold on the streets of cities from vendors sporting fingerless gloves tending their motorcycle driven stoves: a treat! The Portuguese love madly their thick, black expresso coffee (bica), and miss it sorely when abroad. Specials found in individual regions Sintra: queijadas de Sintra or the travesseiros Mafra: specialty bread, Pão de Mafra Mafra: special cake from the town: “Fradinhos”
What to Drink in Portugal
When traveling in Portugal, the drink of choice is wine. Red wine is the favorite among the locals, but white wine is also popular. Also Portugal along with Spain have a variation of the white wine that is actually green (Vinho Verde). Its a very crisp wine served cold and goes best with many of the fish dishes. Drinking wine during a meal is very common in Portugal, and also after the meal is finished people will tend to drink and talk while letting their food digest. (Don’t let yourself be bullied into drinking if you’re driving, though!) Port wine may be an aperetif or dessert. Alentejo wine may not be worldwide known as Porto, but is quite as good. Portugal as also other defined wine regions (regiões vinhateiras) which make also some of the very best of wines like Madeira, Sado or Douro.
Folks might find it a bit difficult to refrain from drinking, even if there are very good reasons to do so (such as the above mentioned driving). Nowadays the “I have to drive” excuse works ok. The easiest way is to explain that one can’t for health reasons. The Portuguese aren’t as easily insulted as others when it comes to refusing the obvious hospitality of a drink, but a lie such as “I’m allergic” might make clear a situation where one would have to otherwise repeatedly explain a preference in some regions of Portugal; but it won’t work in other regions where obviously made-up excuses will tag you as unreliable (“I don’t want to, thanks” might then work).
Drinking is considered almost socially intimate. Be careful of 1920 and Agua Ardente (burning water), both pack a mighty punch. Portugal is well known as the home of Port wines. The legal drinking age in Portugal is 16 beer and wine and 18 for spirits (Age increased to 18 in 2012). Port Wine A glass of tawny port wine Porto is famous for the eponymous port wine, a fortified wine (20%) made by adding brandy to the wine before fermentation is complete. According to EU laws, port wine can only be named as such if the grapes are grown in the Douro valley, and the wine is brewed in Porto. The end product is strong, sweet, complex in taste and if properly stored will last 40 years or more.
There are many, many grades of port, but the basic varieties are: Vintage, the real deal, kept in the bottle for 5-15 years, can be very expensive for good years. It is, nevertheless, worth it. Late-Bottled Vintage (LBV), simulated vintage kept in barrel longer, ready to drink. Nice if you are on a budget. Tawny, aged for 10-40 years before bottling, which distinguishes itself by a more brownish red color and a slightly smoother bouquet and flavor. As with any wine, the older it gets, the more rounded and refined it will be. Ruby, the youngest and cheapest, with a deep red “ruby” color. White port is a not-so-well-known variety, and it is a shame.
You will find a sweet and a dry varietal, the latter of which mixes well with tonic water and should be served chilled (if drunk alone) or with lots of ice (with tonic), commonly used as an aperitif. Vinho Verde Another good choice is the ubiquitous vinho verde (green wine), which is made mostly in the region to the north of Porto (the Minho.) It’s a light, dry and refreshing wine (approx. 9% -9.5% in volume), made from region specific grapes with relatively low sugar content. Mostly white, and sometimes slightly sparkling. Very nice, and very affordable.
Other local foods, or drinks that you recommend? Please add and comment.