You’re in for a treat when it comes to Portuguese food – get ready for its famous salted codfish, baked desserts, hearty stews, and much more.
Portugal’s top dishes have become renowned around the world as tasty yet distinctive. Portugal’s food showcases its history – from the invasion by the Moors in the eighth century to its days as a maritime colonial power beginning in the 15th century – as well as its geography. The sea surrounds Portugal on two sides; it’s no surprise that seafood tops the Portuguese menu. As you travel around the country, you’ll find plenty of regional versions of many popular Portuguese dishes, but there are some regional specialties to seek out, too.
Traditional Portuguese food is based on fish, seafood, and meat (especially pork). These bases are commonly grilled, fried, or cooked up in stews and casseroles. Common side dishes include potatoes, rice, and simple salads. Portugal is also well-known for its rich and sweet desserts.
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. Portuguese dessert foods are often egg-based, some of them creamy, and all of them rich and sweet. Rich, egg-based desserts, flavored 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 also arroz doce, a traditional Portuguese rice pudding. Arroz doce is Portuguese comfort food; it’s a homey, sweet, and creamy dessert sometimes made with condensed milk, sometimes with egg, and always flavored with lemon and cinnamon.
Make your own
The Portuguese word for codfish is bacalhau. In Portuguese food, this refers specifically to dried and salted cod, which is usually soaked in milk or water before cooking. The Portuguese have been eating bacalhau since the 16th century when their fishing boats brought it back from Newfoundland. It’s so popular that bacalhau has the nickname of fiel amigo or ‘faithful friend’, the locals sing about it in folk songs, and it’s the national dish of Portugal.
Most people in Portugal eat it in some form of bacalhau 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
Most meals in Portugal involve a soup; fish soups, bread soups, and cold tomato soups are quite common. The most famous Portuguese soup, though, is caldo verde.
Caldo verde came from the Minho Province of northern Portugal. It’s a heart-warming green soup traditionally consisting of just five ingredients: potato, onion, kale, and olive oil, as well as a sausage, like chouriço, salpicão or tora (a blood sausage). Eat it with broa, a type of Portuguese cornbread.
Make it yourself
- Here’s a recipe for classic caldo verde.
- Practice your Portuguese language skills with this recipe for caldo verde.
4. Cataplana de Marisco
Cataplana de Marisco is a fish or seafood stew that takes its name from the clam-shaped copper pot called a cataplana. When the Moors came from northern Africa, they introduced the dish to Portugal back in the eighth century. Cataplana is the classic dish of the Algarve.
Although ingredients vary from region to region, the dish always includes white fish, shellfish, red peppers, onions, and a little chili. This is all put into the cataplana and the lid closed firmly down before cooking. The food then steams inside of the cataplana to delicious perfection. Eat it with crusty bread, rice, or 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 foot – with some potatoes, carrots, and cabbage thrown in for good measure. Everything cooks in a single pot with different ingredients added in at different times. The result is a rich and satisfying dish.
Make your own
6. Frango no churrasco
Portugal’s favorite fast food must be frango no churrasco (literally, ‘chicken on the barbeque’) or as it’s also called, frango no brasa (literally, ‘chicken on hot coals’). You can buy it as take-away from tiny shops on the side of the road all over Portuguese cities and towns.
Whole small chickens are spatchcocked and usually marinated in olive oil, lemon, garlic, white wine, and spicy paprika; the exact marinade recipes are valuable secrets. After marinating, the chickens then go on a rotating spit over a coal pit. While the chicken roasts, it’s continually basted with the marinade and the famous Portuguese piri piri chili sauce; this keeps the chicken juicy. Eat the smoky, spicy, sweet chicken with fries, salad, bread, rice, and an ice-cold bottle of Portuguese 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
Portuguese food features a considerable amount of pork. Porco preto – black Iberian pig – is the Portuguese domestic pig. Primarily found in the central and southern regions of Portugal, the black Iberian pig is always reared free-range, often on a diet of acorns. The resulting sweet-tasting and moist pork can be braised, chargrilled, pickled, as well as 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 menus all over Portugal, but the region of Bairrada in central Portugal is the homeland of this specialty.
In leitão assado da bairrada, the skin of the young pig is rubbed with a mix of garlic and pig fat, seasoned with coarse salt and pepper, and then skewered on a pole. The pig then roasts, requiring frequent basting until the intensely flavored meat flakes away from the bone and the skin is golden orange and very, very crisp. Enjoy with batatas fritas (fries) as well as 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 neighboring sugar refinery when the monastery, along with all the other convents and monasteries in Portugal, closed in 1834. The company started baking the famous Pastéis de Belém in 1837 and continues to do so today. 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.
- Pastéis de nata also made its way to Macau. Here’s a recipe for the Macanese version of the famous tarts.
9. Queijo da Serra
Portugal produces many kinds of cheese, mostly from sheep and goats. Usually, they’re not for cooking; rather, locals eat this cheese on its own before or after a meal.
Queijo da Serra is Portugal’s most famous cheese. Unpasteurized ewes milk is the primary ingredient of queijo da Serra, a cheese that comes from the mountainous region of Serra da Estrela. Producers of the cheese use thistle to coagulate the milk. Queijo da Serra is a mild cheese 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. Fresh from the Atlantic Ocean, the Portuguese eat this fish year-round, but especially in the summer. There’s even a sardine festival in Lisbon every year on the feast day of Saint Anthony (13 June). On this day, the sounds of song and celebration fill the air as locals devour sardines.
First, the sardines are coated with salt, then cooked over a hot charcoal grill. You eat them whole, crispy skin and all. Common serving styles include 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.