As with many global cuisines, Portuguese cuisine has evolved over time and has adopted flavors and recipes from around the world. The country was a major player during the Age of Exploration, colonizing in South America, India, Africa, and parts of southeast Asia and the Pacific. With each new land discovery, ships returned to the mainland with exotic new spices, herbs, and plants, that became part of the gastronomic tradition. The importance of seafood to this coastal nation with its seafaring heritage also comes into play. You’ll delight and indulge in the simpler, yet hearty dishes in country villages, as well as sophisticated dishes in high-end restaurants that still draw influence from traditional cuisine. Whatever you choose, it will be fresh and delicious.
Cod and seafood stew
Perhaps Portugal’s most popular and iconic ingredient is bacalhau, or salted cod. Historically, it sustained sailors on voyages and was introduced to all the Portuguese colonies. It is said there is a different bacalhau recipe for every day of the year, and it might as well be the national dish of Portugal. Seafood stew, cataplana, is traditionally from the southern Algarve region, but you’ll see it on menus throughout the country. It’s cooked in a cataplana (similar to North African tagines), which uses steam to lock in the flavors and juices, allowing them to simmer and meld with the meats and vegetables. This Old-World dish combines just about any fresh ingredients and is most often made with a garlicky tomato base. Yum!
Not much needs to be said about olive oil except that you should eat as much of it as possible. Each olive oil producing region in the world makes a product that tastes unique, which means that if you’ve had olive oil in Israel or Greece, it’s certainly worth eating the Portuguese stuff, too. Not only is Portuguese olive oil the base for all of Portuguese cooking, but it has also won international awards for its flavor and quality. While it may be overshadowed by the big producers of Spain and Italy, some consider Portuguese olive oil the best in the world.
This is Europe, after all, where each country has their own, distinct cheeses. Sadly, Portuguese cheeses are not as famous as others on the continent (cheddar, Gruyere, brie, or mozzarella…), but they can easily hold their own against the more well-known varieties. You’ll find creamy sheep cheese in the Serra da Estrela mountains, aged cow cheeses from the valleys, as well as goat cheese from small, family farmsteads. Cheese is most often eaten on its own before or after the main meal and rarely used in recipes. If you live in the United States, you can even bring hard cheese home!
No visit to Portugal is complete without sipping it’s most famous product—Port. This wine is only made in the Douro Valley, where traditional rabelo boats are packed with barrels to send down the river to Porto. Port is a fortified wine, which means it is different from regular wine because it is “fortified” with brandy—a spirit made by distilling wine). Because of the addition of liquor, port is rich and sweet with a high alcohol content, so it’s best enjoyed after dinner when you can spend the rest of the evening relaxing!
Eel and octopus
When we say the Portuguese love seafood, we mean all seafood. Eel is extremely popular in the area between Porto and Coimbra and is typically served fried or in a soup. It’s particularly enjoyable with a crisp white wine. Octopus can be similarly prepared, but is also grilled or sautéed in a deep dish of olive oil and garlic. Make sure to get some good, crusty bread for dipping. When fresh and cooked correctly (and the Portuguese know how to do it), eel and octopus are tender (not chewy), mild (not fishy), and just ever-so-slightly sweet.
Fruit – The fruit in Portugal is some of the freshest, colorful, and most perfectly-ripe specimens you will ever see and taste. There will be a plethora at your hotel breakfast, and it’s fun to while away some time in produce markets—maybe pick up a few healthy snacks. With a sunny, warm, and mostly dry climate, Portugal doesn’t have to go far for its fruit, although its outlaying islands do export to the mainland (bananas from Medeira and pineapples from the Azores). Figs, oranges, melons, apples, pears, all varieties of stone fruit, and even almonds, are all grown and eaten in Portugal.
Pastel de nata
Of the many, many pastries you’ll find in Portugal, none is more favored than pastel de nata. The Portuguese have a contingent of Lisbon monks to thank for inventing them in the 1800s (although they may date even earlier). These are palm-sized, egg custard tarts baked in a super crispy, flaky crust. Rich, creamy, with just a hint of sweetness, juxtaposed to the crunch of the shell, is just perfection. They can be found everywhere, as the Portuguese eat them for breakfast, mid-morning snacks, after lunch, in the afternoon, and in the evening—so just about any time of the day. They love them, and you will to.
Matt Holmes is the Founder President of Boundless Journeys. Boundless Journeys is an award-winning tour operator that goes off the beaten path for immersive and authentic travel experiences.
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