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!
Traditional Portuguese Food
Portuguese cuisine leans heavily on simple fare, highlighting its coastal access by featuring plenty of seafood, along rustic meals featuring simple ingredients. There’s plenty of local wine to be had, to go along with the meals, and of course, Portuguese desserts are a treat!
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.
In fact, bacalhau is the national dish of Portugal, and there are many ways to prepare it. 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!
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.
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.
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.
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 and French fries was indeed the alheira I’d ordered.
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!”
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 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. I much prefer the port wine that the country is famous for!
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!
We’ll put that on our “next time” list along with the famous seafood dish sardinhas assadas (grilled sardines), caldo verde, piri piri chicken, and porco preto, all traditional Portuguese dishes that we didn’t have time to try.
Originally published in August, 2019; this post has been updated.