Portuguese cuisine: Lisbon and beyond

Fresh fish, succulent pork and hearty soups laced with garlic. Dining in Portugal is to taste the presence of other countries. It conjures up images of Brazil, Angola, Mozambique and Macau. Here is our guide to classic dishes and eating out in Portugal.
Traditional Portuguese pork & clams or Porco a Alentejana. Photo: Shutterstock
Traditional Portuguese pork & clams or Porco a Alentejana. Photo: Shutterstock

New food for old

During Portugal’s lavish Age of Empire, its navigators began bringing foods from the Old World to the new. Sugar cane and pineapples were cultivated in Brazil and brought over to Portugal. These are now used in signature dishes in fashionable Lisbon restaurants. Brazilian chilli peppers took root in Angola, another important Portuguese colony, and became so essential to cooks there that today they’re known by their African name, piri-piri. Since Angola ceased to be a Portuguese colony in the mid-1970s, the subsequent influx to Lisbon of thousands of Angolan refugees has meant that piri-piri sauce (an oil and vinegar mixture strewn with minced chillies) is as popular a table condiment in mainland Portugal as salt and pepper. Other exchanges were African coffee, Brazilian cashews and oriental tea plants. 

A la Portugaise 

High quality potatoes and tomatoes are proudly cultivated in Portugal. The phrase found on French menus, 'à la Portugaise', refer to a dish that is richly sauced with tomatoes. Onions, garlic and wheat, indispensable to any self-respecting Portuguese cook, were probably introduced by the Romans who were aiming to make the Iberian peninsula the granary of Rome. It was the Arabs who dug irrigation ditches, who first planted rice and who also covered the Algarve slopes with almond trees. The Algarve’s almonds were ground into paste, sweetened, and shaped into delicate miniature fruits, birds and flowers displaying intricate detail. They are still produced today and you can try them at Pastelaria Gardy (R. de Santo Antonio 16) in Faro. 

The Moors also introduced figs and apricots to the Algarve, together with the trick of drying them in the sun. They planted groves of lemons and oranges and, as was their custom, they combined fruit with fish and with meat. Most supposedly vegetable dishes include meat fat or stock; even a salad is not considered complete without a sprinkling of tuna. Vegetarians may prefer self-catering, shopping at markets for fruit, vegetables and bread.

Bacalhau à Gomes de sá. Photo: ShutterstockBacalhau à Gomes de sá. Photo: Shutterstock

Cod country

Dried salt cod, or bacalhau, is a purely Portuguese invention dating from 1936 when local fishermen where fishing Newfoundland’s Grand Banks for cod. It was in the 16th century that Portuguese fishermen learned to salt cod at sea to make it last the long voyage home, and to sun-dry it into board-stiff slabs that could be kept for months then soaked in cool water before cooking. Nearly as popular as salt cod are the sardines netted off the Atlantic coast. They are considered the sweetest and fattest in the world, and local women grill them right on the streets, using little terracotta braziers. 

Some of the best and most famous salt cod dishes are bacalhau à Gomes de sá (cod cooked in a casserole with thinly sliced potatoes and onions, garnished with hard-boiled eggs and black olives), bacalhau à brás (composed of cod, scrambled eggs, onions and shoestring potatoes) and bacalhau à Conde de Guarda (salt cod creamed with mashed potatoes). A Cevicheria (R. Dom Pedro V 129) in Lisbon produces some of the city’s most exciting fish dishes. This tiny restaurant does not take reservations so be prepared to have to wait before being seated.  Or if you would like to try the best of Portuguese food without the bells and whistles, try Time Out Mercado da Ribeira in Lisbon. This indoor market allows you to sample different styles of cooking in a relaxed and lively setting. To go deeper into the country's seafood culture, try Insight Guides' Coastal Portugal trip.

Bacalhau à brás,  fried shredded cod with french fries, onions and eggs. Photo: ShutterstockBacalhau à brás, fried shredded cod with french fries, onions and eggs. Photo: Shutterstock

King carne

If salt cod and sardines share top billing as the favourite fish, pork reigns supreme as the king of meat. Portuguese pork is incomparably sweet and tender because of the pigs’ agreeable diet and life of leisure. The country’s most famous pork dish is porco à alentejana, for which cubes of pork are marinated in a paste of sweet red peppers and garlic, browned in the fruity local olive oil, then covered and braised with baby clams, still in their shells. The clams open slowly under the gentle heat, spilling their briny juices into the ambrosial red mixture. This dish is served in most resturants around the country but try Casa do Alentejo in Lisbon for an authentic dining experience in a converted mansion with Arabian decoration.


Cabbage patch

The Portuguese national dish is built neither upon salt cod nor pork. Its key ingredient is cabbage, specifically a richly emerald, tender-leafed variety. The dish itself is called caldo verde, a bracing, jade-green soup which is brimming with potatoes, onions, garlic and filament-thin shreds of green cabbage. Sometimes the soup may be fortified with slices of chouriço or linguiça, although in the humblest Minho versions it often contains nothing more than water, potatoes, onions, garlic, cabbage and perhaps a tablespoon or two of olive oil. Try De Castro (Praça das Flores 46) in Lisbon for soup and other well-made classics. Discover more of Lisbon on Insight Guides' Essential Portugal: Lisbon to Porto trip

Soups and stews

Next to caldo verde, Portugal’s most famous soup is probably açorda à alentejana, a coriander-strewn, bread-thickened, egg-drop soup seasoned with copious amounts of garlic. The soups and stews of Portugal – whether they’re made of chickpeas and spinach, tomatoes and eggs, pumpkins and onions, or dried white beans and sausages are frugal and filling, nourishing and soul-satisfying. To make a meal, all they need for accompaniment are a glass of wine, a chunk of cheese and a crust of bread. Portugal’s simple country breads are baked in stone ovens to give them a faint smoky flavour. To experience traditional Portuguese food try Lisbon's Cervejaria da Trindade and dine in a converted monastery.

Portuguese traditional creamy egg tart pastel de nata. Photo: ShutterstockPortuguese traditional creamy egg tart pastel de nata. Photo: Shutterstock

Egg desserts

 The Moors are thought to have introduced egg sweets and tarts to Portugal during their 500-year occupation. Dozens of different egg sweets are made with a prodigious use of egg yolk and sugar. Many are flavoured with cinnamon, others with lemon or orange or almonds, and each is shaped in its own traditional way. Perhaps the most notable Portuguese sweet treat are the Pasteis de natas. The light-as-air custard tarts on sale at, Pastéis de Belém were first created nearby by nuns at the Mosteiro dos Jeronimous, who used the egg whites to starch their habits and so began making the tarts to use up the excess yolks. Constant queues outside of this Lisbon bakery today are a testament to their success and popularity.

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