7 Popular Foods We Tried in Portugal (And One We Didn’t)

My mom learned to cook at the hand of her Portuguese mom, a second-generation American. She’s a great cook but when we had the opportunity to visit Portugal — Lisbon and Porto — one of our goals was to experience traditional Portuguese food as it’s cooked in our ancestral lands.

Love traveling and tasting the local fare? Be sure to read this quick guide to food in Italy!

wooden sign listing popular portuguese foods

All about the cod

To say the Portuguese are all about the cod is an understatement. There is cod — bacalhau — on every menu, everywhere. There are planks of salted cod in the grocery stores and in open air markets. Lisbon and Porto both smelled a bit…fishy.

We spoke with people who joked about a bride getting a 1001 Ways to Cook Bacalhau cookbook, and we definitely saw it offered in a lot of various ways!

dried bacalau in Portugal

We were surprised to find that boiled cod rehydrates into a very good replica of fresh fish. If someone hadn’t told me that it was dried cod, I wouldn’t have guessed. And this simplest of preparations is a common holiday dish!

My mom has fond memories of eating bacalhau and this felt like comfort food to her. I have to be honest and say, though I tried it several ways, I just couldn’t love it.

Storefront of a small deli in Portugal

Bifanas

We were introduced to bifanas during a half day tour with Secret Food Tours in Lisbon. This was the first stop on our tour and we were smitten. Tender, juicy pork was served on a wonderfully crusty roll and alongside a beer.

This was one of our favorite tastes during the tour. We fully intended to go back and have another, but we simply ran out of meals. If you want to try your hand at making bifanas, this recipe looks like a good place to start.

Sardines

The Portuguese love their sardines almost as much as they love their cod. There was even a touristy shop that sold nothing but sardines, imprinted with years! Presumably, visitors were buying tins from their birth year to take home as souvenirs.

These little appetizers got a thumbs up from both of us. Even me, who doesn’t really like sardines. Crunchy bruschetta slices are topped with arugula, sardines, a cherry tomato, and an olive. If a person had sardines on hand it would be very, very easy to make up a plate of these beauties for last-minute guests.

sardines on crusty bread with a cherry tomato

Traditional Portuguese food with a history: Alheira

I’d read the story behind alheira before we left on our trip and was determined to try one of these vegetarian sausages. We found it on a street corner deli that served casual food. Our waiter was a bit shy, but he did assure me that the sausage hidden beneath the fried egg was indeed the alheira I’d ordered.

Portuguese food - egg and fries

Quick history lesson: During the Spanish Inquisition, Jewish residents hiding in Portugal were identified by the lack of sausage hanging from their homes. Pork, after all, isn’t on the menu for Jewish families. Thus developed a bread sausage that, when hung in windows, replicated the curing pork sausages typically hanging to dry. The informers and local zealots were fooled.

As for this meal, fries are fries, but the hidden alheira was surprisingly convincing as a pork sausage.

This was one of our first meals in Portugal, and I have to say, we were both a bit surprised. it didn’t really scream “Portuguese cuisine!”

Fresh Seafood

Both Lisbon and Porto are located along Portugal’s western coast, so in addition to sardines and bacalhau, other seafood is abundant. We enjoyed garlic shrimp along the Douro River as we watched various boats traverse the water.

We were charmed by the handwritten menu — and just look at the prices on some of these Portuguese dishes!

handwritten menu in Portugal

Oh, and then there was the time our waitress was in a hurry and the menu was entirely in Portuguese, so I randomly chose “lulas” from the menu. How far wrong could I go??

Turns out, lulas is squid. And it was coupled with boiled potatoes. This was not my favorite meal.

squid and boiled potatoes

Pasties de Nata

When we arrived in Portugal, I told my mom that we really needed to try pasties de nata. But we got busy and tried other things and a few days went by. When we finally had a chance to order this famous Portuguese dessert, we swooned.

“We should have tried these earlier, so we’d have had a chance to have them more often,” my mom said.

We each ate one with a strong espresso. And then, like responsible adults, we moved on.

pasties de nata

Except we didn’t. We wanted another one of these custard tarts, with their flaky crust and rich filling. We’d tasted our first pasties de nata at Fabrica da Nata and after poking around Castelo de Sao Jorge, we decided to indulge again. So we walked down into town aiming for the location we’d visited previously.

And we walked and walked. We had a very vivid picture in our head of where the shop was. But we couldn’t quite find it. So we turned to the GPS in our phone. We followed the directions on that map for awhile.

cooked pasties de nata in portugal

Then we realized that we were not going in the direction of the pastéis de nata shop we’d visited the day before, so we backtracked. Still couldn’t find it, so we plugged “Fabrica da Nata” into GPS again. Again we headed off in the wrong direction. We may have even done that once or twice more.

When we finally stopped second guessing the GPS, guess what happened? We found a SECOND LOCATION. Yes, our GPS was sending us to a smaller “satellite” location that was nearby.

And because those pastries were so delicious and because we’d searched for that location for so long? We each got TWO.

(Surprisingly, we didn’t run across a single malasada — a Portuguese doughnut popular in Hawaii — while we were there.)

Ginjinha

Ginjinha or simply Ginja, is a  liqueur. Plenty of people during our stay told us about this liqueur. Raved about it even. And you know, I’m open to trying just about anything.

But this drink? It reminded me of nothing so much as cherry cough syrup.

Ginjinha in small glasses

Traditional Portuguese food, minus one

One of the foods that Portugal is famous for — francesinha — eluded us. Obviously it was available, but we found ourselves time and time again looking at a menu that did not offer this crazy sandwich.

Francesinha originated in Porto and it’s a meat lover’s dream. It’s made with bread, wet-cured ham, linguiça, fresh sausage like chipolata, steak, or roast meat, and covered with melted cheese and a hot thick tomato and beer sauce. 

It sounds sounds both delicious and heavy to me. But the fact that we missed it? Gives us all the more reason to return to Portugal!

chalkboard menu in portugal
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