From Atlantic-fresh fish to the wild meats of the mountains, Portuguese food is distinctive and varied with many of the most popular regional dishes having evolved from age-old recipes based on locally-grown ingredients.
Much of the country’s cuisine is spice-based, thanks largely to Vasco da Gama and the other navigators of his time. He and his seafaring countrymen traversed the globe collecting pepper, cloves, curry, nutmeg, cinnamon and a wide range of savoury foods which serve as the base of many dishes found on the country’s restaurant menus today.
A typical meal in Portugal starts with a selection of appetizers such as goat or sheep’s cheese, pâté, olives, cornbread and a richly-flavoured smoked ham called presunto.
Soup (sopa) is a regular feature on Portugal’s restaurant menus, normally made on the premises with fresh ingredients bought at the local market. Vegetable soup (sopa de legumes) is very common and always a good choice, along with the traditional caldo verde – a soup made with potatoes, shredded cabbage and smoked sausage. Most seaside restaurants serve a tasty fish soup (sopa de peixe) often made from fresh pieces of fish left over from the main dishes.
Fish is a mainstay of Portuguese cuisine, particularly sardines (sardinhas) and the ever-present dried codfish known as bacalhau. Other popular fish dishes include hake (pescada), sole (linguado), salmon (salmão), trout (truta) and monkfish (tamboril).
Some of Europe’s tastiest seafood (marisco) can be found in restaurants up and down Portugal, particularly along the coast. Lobster (lagosta) is widely available, while crab (sapateira), clams (ameijoas), mussels (mexilhões) and prawns (gambas) are quite reasonably-priced compared with many other European destinations.
Portuguese meat is both tender and very safe to eat, particularly pork (porco) which for centuries has been an important livestock in the country’s rural economy. In the Bairrada region north of Coimbra, many restaurants specialise in roast sucking pig (leitão assado) and some parts of the pig are used in feijoada, a bean stew made with black pudding (morcela) and pork knuckle.
The north of Portugal is renowned for its caldo verde, a Minho-style cabbage and potato soup, plus a great variety of sweets and desserts made with generous quantities of eggs.
Cozido à portuguesa is a national dish of meats, sausages and vegetables with its origins in the Trás-os-Montes region. Other hearty Portuguese dishes feature in the inland mountainous regions, making much use of partridges, hare, kid and pig, the latter of which is also used for sausages and hams, most notably the exceptional presunto made in Chaves and Lamego.
Other cured meats of northern Portugal include the farinheira sauasage made from pork, wine and flour and morcela, a well-seasoned blood sausage that’s best fried or charcoal-grilled. The highly-spiced chouriço and paio sausages are also very popular.
Various recipes of dried cod and other fish dishes are found in and around Porto, Portugal’s second city, along with tripas à moda do Porto, a strong-flavoured concoction of tripe, ham, beans and rice.
Desserts come in various forms, such as the tasty sopa dourada, a sponge-cake recipe from Viana do Castelo (not a soup!) made with ground almonds and egg yolk. Named after the abbot who invented it, pudim Abade de Priscos is flavoured with lemon, spices and Port wine.
Northern specialities of cake are rich, smooth and sugary, and often flavoured with cinnamon. Toucinho do céu, which loosely translates as ‘bacon from heaven’, is a popular locally-made almond and cinnamon cake.
Besides its immense beauty, the central region of Portugal is one of the most gastronomically varied parts of the country, specialising in local delicacies such as eel stew and all manner of roast meats and shellfish.
Needless to say, the majority of Portugal’s most popular dishes can be found in and around the capital Lisbon, where an abundance of restaurants serve up the very best in regional cuisine, such as tasty fish soups, fresh seafood, sole, boiled hake, crab meat, liver, partridge and beef steaks served in a tangy onion sauce.
Visitors to the ancient university city of Coimbra should try chanfana, a thick casserole of kid or lamb meat stewed in red wine, followed by local cakes known as Santa Claras.
Central Portual’s most famous dish is arguably leitão, roast sucking pig from the village of Mealhada, while fresh trout is a local delicacy in Covilhã, a picturesque town nestling in the Serra da Estrela mountains, a region also known for its rich sheep’s cheese called queijo da serra. The coastal resort of Nazaré is most notable for its hearty fish stew known locally as caldeirada.
Tartlets such as pasteis de nata epitomize the region’s wide variety of cakes, most of which are based on egg yolks, almonds and spices. Baked in the ovens of the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém (indicated on the map below), an old café on Rua de Belém in the historic quarter of Belém in Lisbon, this tasty custard cream-type tart is based on a unique and closely-guarded recipe that originated at the nearby Hieronymite Monastery in Belém, otherwise known as Jerónimos. Nearby, Sintra‘s little cakes called queijadas can be purchased oven-hot from local bakers all over the village.
In southern Portugal, fish and shellfish are the Algarve‘s staple dishes, most notably locally-caught tuna steaks grilled on the many beach-side barbecues.
Stuffed squid (lulas recheadas) is another delicacy in this part of Portugal, prepared with cured meats and rice before being cooked in a tasty onion and tomato sauce.
Providing a feast in the summer when they are at their most succulent, sardinhas assadas (grilled sardines) are more than a mere dish, they represent a strong Portuguese tradition and are a major part of the country’s dining culture.
Similar to its counterpart in neighbouring Spain, a cold summer soup known as gaspacho is based on tomato with garlic, cucumber, sweet peppers and olive oil.
A feature of Mediterranean cooking prevalent along the Algarve is the cataplana, a fish dish steamed in its own juices in a tightly-sealed wok.
The vast plains of the Alentejo are home to açorda, an unusual but very popular bread-based soup made with meat or fish. Pork with clams (porco à Alentejana) is another speciality of this large, fertile region, while smoked pork dipped in dried pimento provides the basis of many recipes.
The Alentejo is also famous for wild boar (javali) which is full of flavour because the animal feeds on acorns. Visitors should also make a point of trying the region’s most common fish dish – sopa de cação – which is a hearty meal (not a soup) based on bread.
Game is a regular feature on many Alentejo restaurant menus between mid-October and the Christmas period, particularly quail, pheasant and red-legged partridge.
Sweetmeats in the south, including the Alentejo, reflect the rich harvest of figs from the Algarve, bolstered by three hundred days of warm sunshine to ensure the availability of plenty of fresh fruit for dessert. Other treats include Alentejan sweets made with Portalegre marzipan and Évora cheese cakes.
Madeira‘s cuisine is typically Mediterranean despite its Atlantic location, with plenty of fish, olive oil and garlic. The seas surrounding the island are extremely productive and full of marine life.
Espada (scabbard fish) is the island’s most traditional dish and despite its terrifying appearance, this long, sharp-toothed, wide-eyed fish provides a tasty meal of white, flaky flesh, often served with sliced banana or a delicious wine and vinegar marinade.
Locally-caught atum (tuna) is usually grilled as a meaty steak served with slices of lemon. Other popular fish dishes on the island include grouper (garopa), red mullet (salmonete) and swordfish (espadarte).
The island’s most famous meat dish is espetada, comprising several cubes of meat (normally beef), onions, tomatoes and peppers cooked over an open wood fire.
Another mainstay of Madeira’s gastronomy is fried cornmeal (milho frito), often served as an accompaniment to main dishes.
The Madeirans grow a wonderful range of tropical fruits, most of which are displayed in Funchal‘s daily market. Visitors can buy locally-grown avocados, kiwi fruits, mangoes, papayas and figs, as well as custard apples, guavas, passion fruit, pittanga, loquat and tomarillo.
Due to its volcanic nature, Azorean cuisine is rich and varied, with plenty of fish dishes, seafood, meat and cheese.
The famous verdelho wines made on the Azorean islands of Pico and Graciosa (once the preferred table wines of the Czars of Russia) and locally-grown pineapples form a characteristic base for some of the regional cooking.
Azores specialities include a spicy beef casserole called alcatra (a popular dish marinated in wine and baked in the oven) and a tasty serving of sausage with yams known as linguiça com inhames.
Not to be missed is the unique cozido nas caldeiras das furnas, a traditional meal of meat and vegetables cooked in the hot springs of Furnas, a spa town on the east side of São Miguel Island. The food is slowly cooked by steam ejected from the sulphurous springs after the pots are lowered into the ground.
Famous for their dairy products, the nine islands in the Azores offer a wide variety of cheeses to satisfy all tastes. Most notable is queijo da ilha, much appreciated on the mainland and considered the best of its kind in the region. Cured at a constant temperature for many months, the cheese is characteristic for its strong aroma and sharp flavour.