Portuguese Food Culture: 9 Popular Dishes You Must Try

Portuguese food culture
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis
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As European dining goes, Portuguese food is often unfairly overshadowed by the gastronomy of near neighbors such as Spain, France, and Italy. But Portuguese food culture is not to be overlooked! Featuring a huge array of regional specialties made from a variety of delicious ingredients, the uber-fresh seafood haul of the Atlantic Ocean, and a hint of spice from Africa and the Far East, the delights of this Iberian nation are enough to satisfy any foodie!

In fact, so rich is Portugal’s food culture that the country doesn’t have just one national dish but seven! There was even an official vote back in 2011 to determine that. It ended in a taste-bud-tingling medley of salted suckling pig, sweet custard tarts, and zingy rice stews with seafood and greens. We can see why they couldn’t pick an outright winner!

Cue this list. It’s our selection of the Portuguese dishes that we think you 100% need to try while traveling this amazing nation. Some options are better sampled in certain regions, others are ubiquitous and available all over, no matter if you’re hitting the golden beaches of the Algarve or the historic wonders of bustling Lisbon. Forks at the ready, folks…

Bacalhau

Portuguese bacalhau
Photo by liveinlondon_/Pixabay

Made from dried, salted cod, this age-old seafood staple is pretty synonymous with Portugal and is super-common in the former territories of the country, like Angola, Macau, and Cape Verde. The term bacalhau essentially refers to the main ingredient – it’s the Portuguese word for cod. But not the fresh stuff. This cod is salted and dried to preserve it for months on end, just as it was back in the days of Portuguese explorers and seafarers.

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They say that there’s something like 1,000 individual dishes that can be made from bacalhau. It can be prepared simply with either potatoes or rice and served alongside a salad. Or, it can be chopped and fried and then added to slow-cooked fish pies with tops of mashed potatoes and cheese. However, one of the most popular renditions is Bacalhau à Brás, a mix of eggs and olives and parsley that’s said to be the favorite dish of a certain Portuguese footballer called Cristiano Ronaldo – heard of him?

Alheira

Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Alheira is a type of sausage that has a long history and is pretty unique to Portugal. Invented way back in the 1400s by members of the Portuguese Jewish community, they were intended to hang in the smokehouses of families that had supposedly been coerced into converting to Christianity by the Portuguese Inquisition. The idea? To show that the conversion was real to prove it by displaying a new dietary zeal for pork.

But there’s not actually a smidgen of pork in the mix! Alheira is typically made from a mixture of chicken or game meat all rolled together with bread to give the same appearance and consistency as a regular sausage. It wasn’t long before people realized how tasty that was and within a hundred years or so it had become an important part of the wider national cuisine. Today, alheira can be bought from most butchers and is usually served simply fried with sides of potatoes and veg.

Caldo verde

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Caldo verde is a simple and rustic soup. The name literally translates as ‘green broth’’ with the green color coming from kale, one of the soup’s main ingredients. That’s in there along with diced potatoes, garlic, and onions. Caldo verde originates from the Minho region of northeast of Portugal, which is also famous for Vinho Verde, a light and sparkling Portuguese wine that’s uber-dry. As with many of Portugal’s favorite dishes, recipes for caldo verde can often vary from place to place. Sometimes slices of local sausage, called chourico, are added just before serving for an extra punch of flavor.

Caldo verde is typically served with a slice of corn bread called broa de milho to help mop up. Delivered in a thick, earthenware bowl, caldo verde is one of Portugal’s most popular comfort food and often gets onto the menu at family celebrations such as weddings and birthdays. It’s also worth knowing about if you’re traveling Portugal on a budget – caldo verde is a cheap and cheerful classic of Portuguese cuisine, often costing as little as a Euro and easy to find in many restaurants and cafes.

Grilled sardines

Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Some of the best meals you could ever wish to eat are made from just a few well-prepared but simple ingredients, such as the legendary Neapolitan Margherita pizza or British fish and chips. The incredibly simple dish of grilled sardines is another of these, and a prime example of Portuguese food culture. The Portuguese are the biggest fish eaters in the European Union and the smell of grilled sardines is ubiquitous in Portugal, especially throughout the summer months, when it twists and turns between the cobbled lanes of old Lisbon and beyond.

Though incredibly uncomplicated, Portuguese grilled sardines are packed full of flavor. Best enjoyed near the coast during the warmer months, grilled sardines are served straight from the barbecue, usually with just a dousing of olive oil, salt, and lemon juice. There’s even a whole festival that’s dedicated to eating these marine delicacies. It’s called the Feast of St Anthony and it takes place every year in early June. If you’re around then, head to the narrow alleys of the Alfama in Lisbon, which is alive with sizzling grills, music shows, and dancing.

Arroz de Marisco

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Another seafood staple of Portuguese cuisine is arroz de marisco, meaning seafood rice. Though often inaccurately compared to the Spanish paella, arroz de marisco is not as dry and has a consistency more like a stew. Again, regional variations of arroz de marisco are common throughout Portugal, though the dish is always cooked in a broth along with a host of fresh seafood.

Prawns are a staple ingredient of arroz de marisco, usually accompanied by mussels, clams, crab or lobster. The seafood, rice, and broth are cooked together to create a delicious flavor and give the rice a rich texture. Extra taste is added with a generous helping of white wine and a few select fresh vegetables, such as peas, carrots, and tomatoes. It’s a case of the the nearer you are to the Portuguese coastline the better when it comes to seeking out the best arroz de marisco!

Francesinha

Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Loaded with meat and cheese and egg, the francesinha sandwich is not one for vegans, nor anyone looking to cut out the calories or carbs. We’ve actually heard it described as a “heart attack in food form” by a Portuguese friend, right before they dug in and took one huge bite. Must be worth it, eh?

The dish is the most iconic export of the northern city of Porto. It’s thought to have been adapted from the French classic croque monsieur. In fact, francesinha literally means ‘little French girl,’ though we can’t see what that has to do with the toasted bread filled with layers of meat!

It’s pretty daunting stuff. The sarnie is packed with all sorts, including ham, sausage and beef steak, then topped with melted cheese and slathered with a beer and tomato sauce. A fried egg is usually dropped on top, along with a generous helping of chips for the side. If you’re in Porto and feeling VERY hungry, the francesinha is one not to miss!

Leitao da Bairrada

Leitao da Bairrada, or roasted suckling pig from Portugal
Photo by cegoh/Pixabay

Another dish for the carnivores is Leitao da Bairrada, or roasted suckling pig. The breed of pig used for this dish comes from the region of Bairrada, which is widely considered to produce the most delicious pork meat in Portugal. The suckling pigs of Bairrada are fed on a heavy diet of acorns. That’s said to create the unique flavour and give the finished product a distinct texture.

To cook Leitao da Bairrada, a whole pig is skewered and basted with fat, garlic, herbs and seasoning. It’s then roasted over a fire until the skin is browned and crispy. The result is an incredibly soft and succulent pork meat that falls apart in your mouth. Such flavourful meat is usually served quite simply, with slices of orange and a fresh salad or chips. As Leitao da Bairrada is quite a large dish, a more manageable alternative is the sandes de Leitao, a sandwich or chunky bread roll stuffed with the pork meat.

Frango assado com piri piri

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Frango assado com piri piri is another Portuguese classic, though it’s heavily influenced by the onetime Portuguese territories of Africa and beyond. Commonly known, simply, as frango assado, this dish is closely associated with the Algarve. It was here that many Portuguese expats settled in the 1970s when returning from spells living in colonies such as Angola and Mozambique. When they returned they brought African influences and ingredients, which they then added to traditional Portuguese recipes. It’s at this time that piri piri peppers were mixed with Portuguese chicken. Bingo!

Though its origins may lie in the Algarve (via Africa), frango assado has become popular throughout Portugal. Frango assado is usually made from a whole chicken that has been marinated in oil, seasoning, and crushed piri piri peppers. The chicken is either roasted or grilled over charcoal and, depending where you are in the country, served with either rice or chips. As ever, there are a host of regional and local variations, though it’s commonly believed that the best piri piri in Portugal is to be found in the south.

Pastel de nata

Pastel de nata from Portugal
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Our journey through Portuguese food culture ends with the country’s most famous sweet: The pastel de nata. This delicious and rich egg and custard tart topped with a sprinkling of cinnamon is one of Portugal’s most famous exports, much loved in numerous countries all over the world. Its origins lie in a monastery in 18th century Lisbon, where monks who used egg whites to starch religious garments made the tarts as a way to use up the leftover yolks.

The monastery sold the tarts to make extra cash, and, in 1837, sold the recipe to a nearby bakery. That bakery is the Pasteis de Belem, which is still owned by the same family who make their natas to the monastery’s original secret recipe! Their tarts are the only type allowed to be called pastel de Belem, while the many others created from similar recipes have to be called pastel de nata. Though a sweet, the pastel de nata is not purely a dessert, and it can be enjoyed at any time of day as a snack, usually accompanied by a strong, bitter coffee.

Portuguese food culture – our conclusion

Don’t go thinking that Portugal isn’t primed for foodies. It is! Okay, so it might not hit the culinary headlines like France or Italy, but there are some seriously tempting dishes to get through here. The national cuisine fuses the bounty of the Atlantic Ocean with the earthiness of Iberian cooking, adding in just a twist of exotic flair from Africa and the Far East, where there were once Portuguese colonies.

A day here can begin with a sweet custard tart in a roadside café and end with a hearty salt-cod stew in a traditional taverna. Or, you can sample your way through some of the tastiest grilled sardines this side of the Greek islands or get stuck into real country food like suckling pick and pulled pork sandwiches.

What is the most popular food in Portugal?

The pastel de nata is arguably the most popular food in Portugal. A great dessert or a quick and filling snack, the pastel de nata has been hugely popular in Portugal since it was invented in Belem near Lisbon in the mid-19th century. In fact it’s so popular that the egg and custard tart has found fans not only in Portugal but all over the world.

What is a typical breakfast in Portugal?

Breakfast in Portugal is not considered one of the major meals of the day. A typical Portuguese breakfast usually consists of slices of fresh bread eaten with ham or cheese (or both). Another common breakfast in Portugal is a few slices of toast served with butter and maybe jam. The most important part of a Portuguese breakfast tends to be coffee which is usually served with milk.

What is Portugal’s national dish?

With so much great food within its borders Portugal doesn’t have one single national dish, choosing instead to opt for seven national dishes. Collectively known as the seven wonders of Portuguese gastronomy, these dishes represent a broad range of the country’s diverse food culture. That said, you could put a decent case forward for any number of contenders for Portugal’s national dish, including bacalhau, frango assado, caldo verde or even the pastel de nata.

What food is Portugal famous for?

Portugal is famous for a variety of foods, though the pastel de nata is probably the most famous of them all. Frango assado com piri piri, or piri piri chicken, is another of Portugal’s most famous food dishes. Portugal is also famous for bacalhau, thanks to the wide variety of different recipes and regional variations of the dish that can be found throughout the country. Piri piri chicken has become ubiquitous throughout Portugal and is closely associated with the country, even though the dish is heavily influenced by ingredients and spices from overseas.

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