Living in a small village on the Silver Coast in Portugal for two years, most of our options for eating out were limited to Portuguese food (and terrible Chinese food). Having come from SE Asia, at first, we found the food in Portugal a little bland, often overcooked and quite salty; however, living so close to the Atlantic Ocean, we did find amazingly fresh seafood.
With Portuguese restaurants ranging from fabulous (we loved Dom Jose in Bombarral) to worse than mediocre (the humble but lovable Tapas Bar in Lourinha), here’s a look at some of the many typical Portuguese dishes you’ll come across when spending time in Portugal.
Couvert – Bread and Olives
In most restaurants in Portugal, as soon as you sit down, the waiter will bring over some bread, olives, sardine or tuna paste. These lovely nibbles, while you wait for your food, are not free, usually around €1 to €2.
Many first-time visitors to Portugal get a little upset when they realise they have to pay but don’t worry if you don’t want any of the dishes, just say no when the waiter brings them over, and you won’t be charged.
Popular Portuguese Food
Many dishes in Portugal contain bacalhau, (salted codfish.) The history of bacalhau dates back to the 14th century and the Portuguese exploration era. Since 1497, the bacalhau dried and salted codfish was a staple part of the Portuguese Navy’s diet as it could be kept in the ships holds for years.
Today, most of the bacalhau comes from Norway or Newfoundland. You won’t find cod swimming in Portuguese waters, that’s for the sardines.
The traditional method to salt and dry the codfish involves the cod cut lengthwise and hung from the caudal fin. To prepare the bacalhau cod for eating, it needs to be soaked in fresh water for at least 24 hours to reduce the amount of salt. The cod is then shredded and added to many Portuguese dishes.
Bacalhau com Natas (Salted cod with cream)
One of my favourite Portuguese dishes and also a Portuguese classic is Bacalhau com Natas (salted cod with cream.) It’s the ultimate comfort food and perfect for those cold, windy days of which there were surprisingly many when we lived in Portugal. It’s an oven-baked dish consisting of layers of salted codfish, potato, onion and lots of cream and it’s delicious.
Bacalhau à Brás (Salted cod à Brás)
Another bacalhau favourite is Bacalhau à Brás (Cod à la Brás) which is made from shreds of salted cod, onions and fried potatoes, bound together with scrambled eggs. The dish is usually garnished with black olives and sprinkled with parsley. It is believed to have originated in Bairro Alto, one of the historic quarters of Lisbon. The name “à Brás’ is supposedly the name of the chef who created this dish.
Arroz de Polvo (Octopus rice)
One of Jonathan’s favourite dishes – possibly because he knows how just looking at the tentacles makes me queasy and so he’s safe knowing I won’t be sneakily helping myself to his food.
Caldeira (Fish stew)
A traditional Portuguese stew made with fish and seafood, Caldeira de Peixe is quite similar to the French bouillabaisse. Our landlord’s wife made a fabulous Caldeira and many a Sunday, we enjoyed lunch with our ‘Portuguese family’. When we were being filmed for House Hunters International, they wanted to shoot a scene showing Jonathan’s new found love for cooking, and you’ll see him making a Caldeira for the show. Secret: don’t tell anyone, but it wasn’t Jonathan than made that !!!
A popular dish from Porto is the Francesinha, the ultimate hangover food. Actually, it’s pretty revolting, but you can’t visit Portugal without trying this dish at least once. It’s a sandwich similar to the croque monsieur but made in a more exaggerated style. Way too much meat for me as the sandwich is packed full of ham, sausage, roast meat, covered with melted cheese and a hot, thick beer and tomato sauce.
Arroz de Tamboril (Monkfish Rice)
One of our favourite dishes we always devoured whenever it appeared on the menu was Arroz de Tamboril (monkfish rice). Similar to risotto, it’s a rice stew usually cooked in a garlic and tomato sauce. Mmmm, delicious!
Polvo à lagareiro (octopus with boiled or baked potatoes)
One of Jonathan’s favourite Portuguese seafood dishes. Octopus, either boiled or baked served with potatoes.
Sardinhas Assadas (Grilled Sardines)
Well, you can’t come to Portugal and not have sardines. Actually, before we moved to Portugal, I thought sardines just came in tins. A sardines salad will be served with about six grilled sardines, and only a tiny bit of salad. It’s filling, delicious and Angel, our dog, loved devouring the sardines heads.
Bifana (Portuguese sandwich)
The Bifana is a Portuguese sandwich made with crusty bread roll filled with sautéed strips of pork that hopefully have been seasoned with spices, garlic and white wine. Not all Bifanas are equal; sometimes the meat is so overcooked, it’s as tough as nails. We still laugh at the terrible one we had waiting for immigration in Santarem. If the pork is juicy, and tender and made with love, it’s actually quite a nice sandwich.
Prego (Another famous Portuguese sandwich)
Prego translates as nail, but as far as we know, there are no actual nails in this sandwich. It’s basically a beef sandwich served with hot sauce or mustard. Again, if the meat isn’t overcooked, it’s really rather tasty. We don’t have a picture, but it looks just like a Bifana.
Bitoque (Grilled steak and fried eggs)
Another favourite Portuguese dish found in most local restaurants is Bitoque. It is made with fried or grilled steak or pork, topped with a fried egg and generally served with French fries and rice and a small side salad.
Caracois are a popular summer snack in Portugal. The snails are usually cooked in garlic and oregano.
Tremoços (Lupini Beans)
Another great snack food. Once we realised you were supposed to peel the bean before eating, we really enjoyed these salty treats. Go perfectly with your sunset beer.
Feijoada de Marisco (Stew with white beans and seafood)
Another hearty Portuguese stew is the Feijoada de Marisco (stew with white beans and seafood). Delicious and filling, perfect for a chilly day. Add a little Piri-Piri sauce to add an extra kick.
Almost everywhere in Portugal serves chocolate mousse and is there such a thing as a lousy chocolate mousse; I don’t think so!
Pastel de nata (Portuguese custard tart)
And of course, I saved the best till last. The Portuguese custard tart, straight out of the oven and sprinkled with cinnamon is possibly my favourite food in Portugal. Having eaten pasteis de natas all over the country, my favourite were from Manteigaria in Lisbon. There’s one near Chiado in the heart of Lisbon and one in Lisbon’s Time Out Market.
If you don’t mind the long queue, the pasteis de Belem in Belem, Lisbon are pretty amazing too.
An Observation about Portuguese Food
One thing we did notice in our time in Portugal is there are usually not that many vegetables, if any, served with meals. Often food in Portugal is served with rice and chips. A side salad is usually iceberg lettuce, a small tomato and onion.
For vegetarians and vegans, outside the larger cities, it’s hard to find restaurants in Portugal that serve vegetarian food. To be honest, it’s hard sometimes to find vegetables in restaurants, which is weird as fresh markets are filled with fruits and vegetables.
What do you think about Portuguese food? What is your favourite Portuguese dish? Tell us in the comments below.