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Famous for its fresh seafood, filling pastries, and delicate blend of savory and spice, Portuguese food is one of the world’s most underrated cuisines.
Having some of Europe’s most renowned cuisines a stone’s throw away, notably Spanish, French, and Italian, have meant so many travelers have often overlooked the buttery soft treats and salty fresh delights that traditional Portuguese cuisine brings to the table in abundance.
Today, we put this right. Together, let’s dive into this exquisite cuisine and stimulate our senses through fifteen of the most unique and tempting Portuguese foods you simply have to try when you visit.
1. Pastéis de Nata (Portuguese Custard Tarts)
There’s simply only one place to start with Portuguese food, and that’s with Pastéis de Nata.
Pastéis de Nata are truly scrumptious egg tart pastries. They are wildly popular throughout Portugal and have a unique history.
Pastéis de Nata were first baked at the Hieronymites Monastery in Belem, Lisbon, in the seventeenth century.
During this time, staggering amounts of egg whites were used to starch the clothes of both monks and nuns. This led to large amounts of unused egg yolks.
So, convents got creative and used the egg yolk to create a number of delicious pastries to feed the monastery.
In 1820, the Liberal Revolution in Portugal meant that monasteries across the country faced closure. So, the monks got creative. To make money, they sold the recipe for these delicious pastries to a local sugar refinery.
This refinery, known to this day as Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém, officially opened in 1837, and it has been selling Pastéis de Nata ever since.
Natas are defined by their crispy outer base and fluffy, cinnamon-infused eggy centers. They are incredibly delicious and can be found in bakeries across Portugal.
However, the two you have to try in Lisbon are from the just mentioned Pastéis de Belém, to try the original recipe, and Manteigaria, a recently opened bakery that claims to have the best Pastéis de Nata, known for a thinner crust and sweeter filling. The debate about which is the best is a hot topic in Lisbon among locals.
Read more: Portuguese Desserts You Need to Try
Spanish chorizo may need no introduction, but the Portuguese have a mouthwatering take on this rich and much-loved sausage meat.
Portuguese chourico starts out as minced pork, with plenty of fat. A number of flavors are then mixed with the meat, including Portuguese wine, plenty of garlic, paprika, and salt and pepper. This rich meat mixture is then stuffed into a long casing and smoked as it dries.
Both Portuguese and Brazilian cuisine has got incredibly creative with chourico, and the sausage can be cooked in a number of different ways.
Chourico assado, however, is where the real magic happens. This dish involves scoring the top of the chourico to release the flavor, then placing it inside a special earthenware dish, and cooking it with a splash of Aguardente, a Portuguese distilled liquor, over a roaring flame. This type of cooking unleashes all the flavors packed inside the sausage.
Chourico pairs so well with a range of sides, but you can enjoy it just as much on its own with a cold alcoholic drink.
3. Bacalhau (Salted Cod)
As Portuguese food goes, few dishes have the historical significance as bacalhau (salted cod) does. For centuries, Portuguese fishermen have been catching some of the freshest, most succulent fish from the waters of the Atlantic.
In the 1500s, with no refrigerators or freezers, fishermen had to preserve their catches through a process of salting and drying. While the introduction of freezing techniques in the 1900s led to many countries abandoning the drying and salting of cod, many Portuguese continued the tradition.
Today, bacalhau is a Portuguese culinary delicacy. Traditionally, it is served with hearty white potatoes or white rice. However, it wouldn’t be Portuguese cuisine if there wasn’t plenty of culinary creativity.
Thousands of bacalhau recipes are served across the country. A particular favorite of mine is Bacalhau a Gomes de Sa, from Porto. This pairs the intense, salt-infused cod with onions, olives, and potatoes in a rich and wholesome casserole dish.
Bacalhau is a Portuguese food you simply must try. Its preparation alone is a dying art, and one the Portuguese are holding onto with love and care.
4. Pastéis de Bacalhau (Salted Cod Fritters)
Pastéis de Bacalhau is essentially a dish of rich, heavily seasoned salted cod fritters. Wander around Lisbon, Porto, or any Portuguese city for that matter, and it won’t take you long to notice how much the Portuguese love their fried food.
Typically, the classic serving sees iconic Portuguese salted cod mashed with a mixture of russet potatoes, chopped onion, parsley, and eggs. Once you have a thick and flavorsome cod and potato combination, the mixture is then split and rolled into cake-like shapes.
Finally, these cod cakes are deep-fried in a pan of smoking hot oil. Once browned and crisp, they’re ready to be served.
Perfect with a squeeze of lemon juice, pastéis de bacalhau can be enjoyed as both an appetizer and a main dish.
A recipe originating in the north, this style of bacalhau dish was popular among the poorest Portuguese people. Now, it is enjoyed by people from all walks of life.
5. Chicken Piri Piri
From the 1400s onwards, the Portuguese Empire spread to many parts of South America and Africa. One of those countries was Mozambique, located on the southeast coast of Africa.
Intrepid Portuguese explorers happened across a very spicy species of chili while exploring the tropical forests of Mozambique.
This hot chili, known as ‘pilipili’ in Swahili, was soon cultivated by the Portuguese for cooking. Its intense, spicy flavor was used in a number of dishes, and these foods quickly spread throughout the Portuguese Empire.
Today, piri piri sauce mixes these chilis with a range of delicious ingredients, including zesty lemon, peppers, garlic, and paprika, among others.
With a piri piri glaze across the charred skin of a smokey chicken thigh and a side of crispy fries, you get a zingy, spicy flavor very few chicken dishes can match up to.
6. Bifanas (Portuguese Sandwiches)
Bifanas are beautifully simple and so succulent. These pork or steak sandwiches are enjoyed at bars and bakeries throughout Portugal.
The taste will differ depending on where you are. In the south, where bifanas originate from, you get a meatier, garlic-infused taste.
In the south, the locals use larger slices of pork or steak. These are loaded up inside a lightly toasted bread roll and enjoyed with a dollop of mustard.
In the north, however, in cities like Porto, the bifana takes on an entirely different form. There, the pork or steak is brewed in a pot of spicy sauce and a generous amount of seasoning.
These tender pieces of meat, dripping with delicious sauce, are then stuffed inside a bread roll. The juices, soaked into the bread, enhance the flavor.
From street food vendors to Portuguese bakeries, you won’t be too far from tasty bifanas. It’s a bite-sized snack with plenty of punch.
7. Francesinha Sandwich (Portuguese Croque-Madame)
Many of the world’s most beloved sandwiches boast some truly incredible flavors. Francesinha is a Portuguese food that lives up to that mantra.
This stuffed sandwich comes from Porto and was created by French chef Daniel da Silva. Francesinha was his attempt at adding a taste of French cuisine to Portuguese food.
Influenced by croque-monsieur, Francesinha was first served at A Regaleria, a resturant in Porto, in 1953.
The sandwich itself is packed with meaty goodness. It commonly consists of cured ham, smoke-cured sausage, steak, or various other roasted meats, all stacked between two thick slices of bread. The sandwich is then smothered in layers of melted cheese, giving it that iconic yellow color.
The magic of Francesinha, without a doubt, is in the sauce, of which the original recipe remains a secret. What is known to us, however, is the sauce’s core ingredients. These are largely beer and tomato-based sauces, which vary in spiciness depending on where you eat them.
Drenched in secret sauce, Francesinha is a beloved Portuguese food. It’s full of flavor and heart, and you’ll struggle to finish it in one sitting!
8. Caldo Verde (Portuguese Traditional Green Soup)
Caldo verde is a flavorful soup with a rich Portuguese heritage. It comes from the north of Portugal, and for a long time, it was a simple and filling vegetable stew eaten by the poorest people in the country.
Caldo verde traditionally utilizes simple and plentiful ingredients. Traditionally, it is a stew of starchy potatoes, olive oil, and some type of green, with salt and pepper to season.
Kale was traditionally used in the recipe, while other greens, such as cabbage and broccoli, can also be used. Chourico and other types of smoked sausage can be used to make a smoky and hearty meat-based version of this stew.
Today, caldo verde is commonly prepared for celebrations and holidays, but it can be found all year round. Portuguese love eating this soup with a side of crusty white bread, and this belly-warming favorite is a food you definitely have to try.
9. Grilled Sardines
Grilled sardines are truly delicious in Portugal. Venture to local tascas or restaurants by ports and fish markets, and you’ll be treated to gloriously fresh and tender seafood caught that very day.
I vividly remember wandering south of the Ponte Luis in Porto to the humble district of Gaia. There, I watched a chef grilling sardines straight off the boat.
Portuguese chefs love to grill them wrapped in foil to seal in the flavor, and locals will often eat the fish with the charred skin too.
All you need is a little seasoning and a splash of lemon juice for a dish that will bring the Atlantic to your palate. Order with a side of boiled potatoes and some greens, and you’ll be dining like a local.
10. Mixed Fresh Seafood
As mentioned above, seafood in Portugal is truly divine. There’s just something special about those Atlantic Ocean waters.
The elaborate, expensive regions of Portugal, naturally, get creative with seafood dishes. For local people, however, it’s very common to eat seafood with a little seasoning and a simple side of potatoes or vegetables.
Platter combinations are a great way to sample many of the wonderful tastes of the ocean. Served with a tray of boiled potatoes and hearty greens, you’d be amazed at how delicious seafood can be cooked this way.
Shrimp, prawns, muscles, and squid, along with many different types of fish, are just some of the seafood you can try in Portugal. Visit seaside towns or port-based regions and watch the fishermen come in with the day’s catch. That seafood will be on the plates of local restaurants within hours.
11. Polvo (Octopus)
Despite seafood already making several appearances in this list, we’ve reserved a special place on your plate for octopus, or ‘polvo’ in Portuguese, as it features in many traditional dishes of Portuguese cuisine.
Arguably the most well-known is Polvo à Lagareiro, a simple yet delicious way to try octopus. The term ‘lagareiro’ is a style of cooking that dresses various types of seafood in generous amounts of extra virgin olive oil.
Polvo à Lagareiro takes the octopus through two stages of cooking. Firstly, the octopus is boiled in water. Once the meat is soft, the octopus is removed, drained, and then cut into pieces.
Next, the octopus is grilled or roasted until lightly charred. This method fuses a delightfully crisp texture with a fresh, salt-laden meat taste. Finally, once assembled on the plate, the octopus is dressed with extra virgin olive oil. It pairs wonderfully well with skin-on roast potatoes, onion, and garlic.
Grilled octopus and octopus salad are two other common ways to try octopus in Portugal. Look for ‘polvo’ on the menu if you’re feeling a little adventurous, and give this delicacy a try.
While Portugal is not as famous worldwide for its cheeses as it is for its wines, its cuisine is blessed with a healthy number of flavorsome cheeses.
Azeitão cheese is one of its most popular. This strong, earthy cheese is made from unpasteurized ewe’s milk. Thistles are used in its production, which gives the cheese its creamy texture and, when ripe, a wonderous hint of herb-like sweetness.
Hailing from the Arrabida Mountains, near Lisbon, Azeitão is one of many Portuguese kinds of cheese made from ewe’s milk.
From the spiciness of Castelo Branco to the buttery texture of Bica de Queijo, there’s a taste for all cheese lovers in Portugal.
Farmer’s markets are a great way to sample these cheeses. Trips into the mountainous, rural areas, will also get you closer to a range of cheeses and cheesemakers.
13. Feijoada (Bean Stew)
Feijoada is a wholesome bean and meat stew. The national dish of Brazil, this simple stew also has an important place in Portuguese cuisine.
Traditionally, feijoada was cooked in a clay pot over low heat. To this day, many Portuguese and Brazilians still cook it using this ancient technique.
Feijoada’s core ingredients are beans and, traditionally, the ‘less desirable’ parts of the cow or pig, including offal and beef or pork trimmings.
Recipes vary, using a wide range of beans. However, you’ll commonly see black beans used in the Brazilian recipe and white or red beans in Portuguese feijoada. Garlic and chili help give the stew some kick, and traditionally it’s served with a side of steamed rice.
You’ll also see feijoada served with slices of orange. This helps offset the high iron intake from the red meats used. A true comfort food, feijoada has a rich history and is eaten by millions across the Portuguese-speaking world.
14. Bife com Ovo a Cavalo (Steak on Horseback or Steak & Eggs)
This traditional Portuguese dish tops a lean, grilled cut of steak or pork with a fried egg. It’s then served with fries, rice, or a crisp, green salad.
The Portuguese love to eat this food at lunchtime. You’ll often see lunch menus and placards outside restaurants regularly feature this dish.
As you can see from the name, the term ‘on horseback’ refers to the way the egg sits atop the lean cut of meat, as though it were riding the meat. This dish originates from Beira, where workers on the olive farms would cook cuts of meat in the ovens at the olive oil mills.
The key to a flavorsome Bife com Ovo a Cavalo is in the marinade. Traditionally, leaner and lower-quality cuts of meat were used, so spicy marinades gave the meat more flavor. Massa de pimentão, a sweet red pepper marinade, is a popular choice of marinade.
For an authentic taste of local, honest Portuguese cuisine, you simply must try this simple yet satisfying and simple dish.
If you want to keep things simple, snack-based, and incredibly juicy, a prego, similar to the bifana, may be exactly what you need to refuel after a fun afternoon of trekking the hills of Lisbon or scaling the cobbled streets of Porto.
While at first glance, this may look like a steak sandwich, a prego is so much more. The beef, traditionally leaner cuts as pregos were snacks eaten by the working class, is always coated in a garlic marinade. The marinade can include plenty of other spices, herbs, and ingredients, depending on the restaurant or vendor.
Chopped garlic is also placed on top of the steak, which is tenderised, and once prepared the steak is grilled and served in a bread roll – as long as you order ‘prego no pão’, which means to order the prego sandwich-style. If you order ‘prego no prato’, it will come on a plate, without bread.
Enjoy it with a side of crispy French fries, an ice cold beer, and a generous dollop of warm, earthy yellow mustard, as with a bifana, for a dish that oozes with juicy, garlic-infused meaty goodness.
16. Canned Sardines and Seafood
There’s no end to the wonderful ways you can try various seafood in Portugal, and it won’t take you long when wandering the streets to see canned sardines, fish, and other seafood in abundance.
Ideal for a souvenir to bring home, or to make some classic dishes in your own kitchen, renowned restaurants like Sol e Pesca in Lisbon will even serve you up some beloved sardine, tuna, and seafood dishes with your chosen tinned product from the store in their restaurant.
The beautiful packaging alone, including everything from intricate Art Nouveau designs to sleek, post-modernist branding, can have you hooked for hours on end!
The likes of canned sardines, tuna, and octopus bring deep briny, salty, and oily flavors and textures to the table. While these canned products can be used in many dishes, often a slice of toasted bread and a squeeze of lemon juice is all you need to really savor their layered flavor profiles.
Another beloved choice, especially at bars throughout Portugal, Pica-pau is Portuguese comfort food at its most unapologetically indulgent.
The dish consists of slices or chunks of fried beef, but sometimes pork and/or a mixture of both, swimming in a shallow pool of beer-based gravy, which can include a range of ingredients, including garlic, chili, and olive oil.
Topped with crunchy pickled carrot, cauliflower, and black olives, and served with crunchy bread to mop up that wonderful sauce, pica-pau is the go-to choice of snack when enjoying a round of crisp, cold beers at a bar or tavern.
18. Port Wine
Finally, a trip to Portugal is not complete without at least a sip (and probably more) of sweet and soothing port wine.
Port wine is exclusively produced in the Douro Valley region, in the north of Portugal. If you visit Porto, it’s very straightforward to book a wine tour or visit this truly stunning area of Portugal.
There are also some fascinating port wine cellars you can visit, right in the heart of downtown Porto.
Port wine itself has a very rich, sweet taste. It’s a much-loved dessert wine, and it pairs well with many Portuguese dishes. Its dark red color comes from the luscious grapes grown in the Douro region.
During production, Aguardente, a neutral grape spirit, is added to cease fermentation at a certain time. This leaves residual sugar in port wine, giving it such a sweet taste. The process also raises the alcohol content.
Port wine, named after the city of Porto itself, is adored in both the north and south of the country. You simply have to try it.
Read more: Portuguese Drinks You Need to Try
Portuguese Food Summary
Portuguese cuisine boasts some of the freshest, most delicious seafood you’ll ever taste. But as we can see, there’s so much more to this wonderful cuisine. For a start, there’s the ample Mediterranean influence, both from climate and geography.
Add to the melding pot the Japanese and African influence, and you have a truly unique cuisine packed with honest, humble dishes full of spice, sweetness, and heart.
Whether you visit the sweeping coastline or beautiful mountains, great food will never be too far from you in Portugal.
And, no matter where you go, be sure to visit the Duoro Valley region. The wine is wonderful, and the views are utterly breathtaking.
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