You’re in for a treat when it comes to Portuguese food – get ready for its famous salted codfish, Portuguese desserts, hearty stews and much more.
Portugal’s top dishes have become reknown around the world as tasty yet distinctive cuisine. Portugal’s food showcases its history – from the invading Moors in the 8th century to its days as a maritime explorer and colonial power from the 15th century onwards – and its geography. Portugal is bounded on two sides by the sea, so it’s no suprise that seafood tops the Portuguese menu. As you travel around Portugal you’ll find there are regional versions of many popular Portuguese dishes but there are some regional specialities to seek out, too.
Traditional Portuguese food is based on fish, seafood and meat (especially pork), which is grilled, fried or cooked up in stews and casseroles and served with potatoes, rice and simple salads. Portugal is also well-known for its rich and sweet desserts and pastries.
Here are some of the top foods you’re likely to find on the menu in Portugal, with some recipes so you can make them yourself.
1. Arroz doce
The Portuguese have a sweet tooth, with bakeries and pastry shops selling all sorts of delicious delights, many of them egg-based, some of them creamy and all of them rich and sweet. Rich, egg-based desserts, flavoured with cinnamon and vanilla are popular at the end of a meal too. Look out for leite crème, which is an egg custard with a hard caramel topping like crème brûlée, and arroz doce, a traditional Portuguese rice pudding. Arroz doce is Portuguese comfort food, a homey, sweet and creamy dessert sometimes made with condensed milk, sometimes with egg but always flavoured with lemon and cinnamon.
Make your own
- This recipe for arroz doce is just like avó (grandmother) used to make it.
- In this recipe for arroz doce, grilled mandarins are the accompaniment.
The Portuguese word for codfish is bacalhau, but in Portuguese cooking this means dried and salted cod, which is usually soaked in milk or water before cooking. The Portuguese have been eating it since the 16th century when their fishing boats brought it back from Newfoundland. It’s so popular that bacalhau has earned the nickname fiel amigo or ‘faithful friend’, the locals sing about it in folk songs, and it’s become the national dish of Portugal. Most people in Portugal eat it in some form at least once a week. Each region has its own version; some say there are 365 different recipes, one for every day of the year, while others say there are more than a thousand different ways to cook it. Here are just a few of them: baked with cream (bacalhau com natas), cooked with potatoes, carrots, cabbage and egg (bacalhau com todos) or stir-fried with shredded potato, eggs, onions and topped with black olives (bacalhau à brás).
Make it yourself
- A delicious recipe for bacalhau com natas from a Portuguese food blogger.
- Here’s a recipe for bacalhau à brás from Jamie Oliver.
- Try this recipe, in Portuguese, for bacalhau com todos.
3. Caldo verde
Soup is served at most meals in Portugal – fish soups, bread soups, cold tomato soups – but caldo verde is the most famous soup in Portugal. Caldo verde originated from the Minho province of northern Portugal and is a heart-warming green soup traditionally made with just five ingredients: mashed potato, onion, kale (a type of cabbage), olive oil and a sausage, like chouriço, salpicão or tora (blood sausage). It’s eaten with broa, a type of Portuguese corn bread.
Make it yourself
- Here’s a recipe for classic caldo verde in English (image below taken from recipe video).
- Practise your language skills with this recipe for caldo verde in Portuguese.
4. Cataplana de Marisco
Cataplana de Marisco, a fish or seafood stew, takes its name from the clam-shape copper pot called a cataplana in which it’s cooked. The Moors from north Africa introduced the dish to Portugal back in the 8th century and the dish is now considered a classic dish of the Algarve. While ingredients vary from region to region, the dish always includes white fish, seafood, red peppers, onions and little chilli. This is all put into the cataplana and the lid closed firmly down before cooking so that the food inside is steamed to delicious perfection. Eat it with crusty bread, rice or chips (fries).
Make your own
5. Cozido à Portuguesa
Cozido à Portuguesa is a rustic Portuguese stew – and it’s one for ‘nose to tail’ meat lovers. The dish usually includes beef, pork, chicken, assorted smoked sausages such as morcela, chouriço, alheira or farinheira, various other bits of animal – perhaps a pig’s ear or a pig’s foot – with some potatoes, carrots and cabbage thrown in for good measure. It’s all cooked in one pot, with different ingredients added in at different times. The result is a rich and satisfying dish.
Make your own
- Here’s an easy-to-follow recipe for Cozido à Portuguesa with lots of pictures.
- This recipe for Cozido à Portuguesa is in Portuguese (image right from website).
6. Frango no churrasco
Portugal’s favourite fast food must be frango no churrasco (‘chicken on the barbeque’) or as it’s sometimes called frango no brasa (‘chicken on hot coals’). You can buy it as take-away from tiny ‘shops’ on the sides of the road all over Portugal. Whole small chickens are spatchcocked (butterflied open) and marinated in a combination of ingredients that include olive oil, lemon, garlic, white wine and spicy paprika – exact recipes are closely guarded secrets – before being put on a rotating spit over a coal pit. While the chicken is roasting, it’s continually basted with the marinade and the famous Portuguese piri piri chilli sauce, which keeps the chicken juicy. The chilli in piri piri was brought to Portugal from Africa. Eat the smoky, spicy, sweet chicken with chips/fries, salad, bread, rice – and a Portuguese Sagres or Superbock beer.
Make your own
- A Portuguese-language recipe for homemade frango no churasco.
- This recipe is for piri piri chicken.
- Try this easy recipe for frango no churrasco com arroz.
7. Leitão assado da bairrada
Pork is one of the most popular meats in Portugal. Porco preto – Black Iberian pig – is the Portuguese domestic pig, mostly found in the central and southern regions of Portugal, and always reared free-range, often on a diet of acorns. The resulting sweet tasting and moist pork may be braised, chargrilled, pickled, or put into soups and breads but the king of all Portuguese pork dishes is roast suckling pig or leitão assado da bairrada. You’ll find it on the menu all over Portugal but the region of Bairrada in central Portugal is best known for this speciality. In this dish, the skin of the young pig is rubbed with a mix of garlic and pig fat and seasoned with coarse salt and pepper and then skewered on a pole. The pig is then roasted and basted until the intensely flavoured meat flakes away from the bone and the skin is a golden orange and very, very crisp. Enjoy with batatas fritas (chips/fries) and a salada mista of lettuce, tomatoes and onions.
Make it yourself
8. Pastéis de nata
Pastéis de nata is the famous Portuguese custard tart: small, round and very crisp puff-pastry cases filled with egg custard and sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon. The tart originated in the Jerónimos monastery in the Santa Maria de Belém area of Lisbon, where the monks used egg whites to starch their clothes and the leftover egg yolks to make cakes and pastries. The monks sold the recipe to the neighbouring sugar refinery when the monastery, along with all the other convents and monasteries in Portugal, was closed down in 1834. The company started baking the famous Pastéis de Belém in 1837 and continues to do so today but you’ll find pastéis de nata in bakeries all over Portugal. Eat them while they’re still warm.
Make it yourself
- A recipe for pastéis de nata.
- Here’s another recipe for Portuguese custard tarts from a Portuguese food blogger.
9. Queijo da Serra
Queijo Rabaçal, another type of Portuguese cheese.
Portugal produces many cheeses, mostly from sheep and goats, but they are not used for cooking but rather eaten on their own, either before or after a meal. Queijo da Serra is Portugal’s most famous cheese. It’s made from unpasteurised ewes milk up in the mountainous region of Serra da Estrela in the Beira region of Portugal during the winter months and uses thistle to coagulate the milk. The cheese is mild with a slightly salty taste. When it’s young it’s so creamy that you can almost spoon it out of the rind; when it’s older you can slice it.
10. Sardinhas assadas
Chargrilled sardines are synonymous with Portugal. They’re eaten, fresh from the Atlantic ocean, all over Portugal all year but especially in the summer. There’s even a sardine festival in Lisbon every year on the feast day of St Anthony 13 June, when the whole city is filled with the sound of song and celebration and the smell of grilling sardines. First the fish are coated with salt, then they are cooked over a hot charcoal grill. You eat them whole (even the chargrilled skin) and they are served either on a simple slice of bread (which soaks up all the delicious juices) or with boiled potatoes and a salad of grill-seared pepper, tomato, onion and lettuce dressed with oil, vinegar and salt.
Make your own
- Try this quick and easy recipe in Portuguese for sardinhas assadas ao sol.
- A very simple recipe for Portuguese chargrilled sardines.
Read more on local and traditional foods in other countries:
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- Top 10 foods in Belgium – with recipes
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- Top 10 foods in Spain – with recipes
- Top 10 foods in Switzerland – with recipes
- Top 10 foods in the Netherlands – with recipes
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- Top 10 foods in Luxembourg
Photo credits: GostinhoDeBrasil (thumbnail), www.deliciouswordflux.com (bacalhau com natas), www.youcook.pt (caldo verde), Cayetano (cataplana de marisco), www.nobre.pt(cozido à Portuguesa), www.tOrange-pt.com (churrasco de frango), PD (Pastéis de nata); Yusuke Kawasaki (Sardinhas assadas), Elingunner (Queijo Rabaçal).