Food in Portugal - What to Know and to Eat
While the spice trade introduced new ingredients to Portuguese soil during the Age of Exploration, Portuguese cuisine is rooted in hearty peasant cooking. Many of the country’s most beloved dishes are well-seasoned combinations of the ingredients that were most accessible and inexpensive to Portugal’s peasant class centuries ago.
With access to more than five hundred miles of Atlantic coastline, seafood, unsurprisingly, has made its way into Portuguese diets and hearts, especially in the form of salted codfish and sardines, while generational pig farming in the country’s interior explains the other Portuguese obsession: pork and sausage.
Fortunately for anyone with a sweet tooth, pastelerias are never far in Portugal, and their pastry shelves are always stocked with versions of “convent cakes” and desserts still made using the original recipes from the 18th-century nuns and monks who invented them.
Expect simple but nourishing and delectable cuisine to follow you everywhere you go in Portugal!
The Dining Experience in Portugal
In Portugal, dining out is a national pastime. Local restaurants blanket cities big and small, offering long lists of well-prepared dishes at great prices and often-stellar service.
While dining hours aren’t exactly aligned with what Westerners are used to at home, they’re not as extreme as you might find in neighboring Spain. In Portugal, restaurants open for lunch starting at 12:00 p.m. or 12:30 p.m. but don’t usually fill up until around 1:00 p.m. Dinner is most commonly taken at 9:00 p.m. or 9:30 p.m., but restaurants do open as early as 7:00 p.m.
Dining out in Portugal is as quintessential to your travel experience as exploring Porto’s azulejo-tiled streets and the Algarve’s beach towns. Restaurants are the ultimate doorway into local Portuguese culture, and they’re not to be skipped!
Traditional Portugese Dishes
These traditional Portuguese delicacies definitely belong on your must-try list:
- Pastel de Nata - Don’t leave Portugal without sampling this centuries-old dessert. Pastel de nata, an egg-custard tart dusted with cinnamon, was originally created by the Catholic monks at the Jerónimos Monastery in the 18th century.
- Caldo Verde - Caldo verde is an iconic Portuguese soup of potato, sausage and cabbage. You’ll find it on most menus throughout the country, but it originated in Northern Portugal in the area between Minho and Douro.
- Alheira - This pork-free sausage comes with a fascinating history. It was originally consumed by Portugal’s secret Jewish population as a way to prove they’d converted to Catholicism during the Inquisition. Today, alheira can be found at nearly every corner eatery. It’s made with bread and chicken or game.
- Bifana - Bifanas are to the Portuguese what hamburgers are to Americans. These pork steak sandwiches seasoned with garlic and spices can be found at corner eateries countrywide, and they’re typically consumed as a snack between meals.
- Polvo à Lagareiro - Polvo à Lagareiro, octopus that’s boiled and then oven roasted, can be found on menus throughout the country. This is a great plate to add to the rotation if you ever tire of grilled fish dishes.
- Sardinhas - Sardinhas, or grilled sardines, are a favorite food in the Portuguese diet. The dish is typically served with olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon on top.
- Bacalhau - Like sardinhas, bacalhau (salt cod) is a national obsession in Portugal. The Portuguese typically eat it as many as two or three times per week, and there are rumored to be more recipes for it than days in the year.
Backroads Pro Tip
If the breadth of bacalhau dishes on offer is too overwhelming, start with the bacalhau à bras, shredded and sautéed codfish served with onions, straw-fried potatoes, scrambled eggs and olives and then garnished with parsley.
Regional Foods and Specialties
Across Portugal, you’ll find every city, town and village has its own lists of unique culinary specialties. Here are several region-specific dishes you don’t want to miss when passing through Alentejo, Aveiro or Porto:
- Porco Preto or Pata Negra - Portugal’s Alentejo region is known for its acorn-fattened black Iberian pigs. On menus, the pork is often listed by its Spanish name, pata negra, but porco preto is the correct Portuguese term. The pigs’ acorn diet gives the pork an almost nutty flavor.
- Caldeirada de Enguias - For the best eel stew in Portugal, head to Aveiro, a coast-hugging town located between Porto and Coimbra. The trip-worthy caldeirada de enguias in Aveiro is seasoned with saffron and accompanied by bell peppers.
- Francesinha - This signature dish of Porto consists of steak, ham, sausage and chorizo sandwiched between two slices of bread. It’s then covered in melted Edam cheese and drizzled with a tomato-based sauce. You can also order it with a fried egg on top.
Backroads Pro Tip
Visitors to this country often overlook dessert, but Greek desserts can’t be recommended highly enough. A simple but delicious option is Greek yogurt with honey or preserves, but more elaborate delicacies are on offer as well. This includes amygdalota (fluffy almond and egg white cookies), phyllo and honey–based desserts (baklava and others), walnut cake (karythopita), Greek doughnuts with honey and walnuts (loukoumades) and kaimaki and mastiha ice creams. These are items you can’t find anywhere else, so don’t be afraid to venture farther afield than cheesecake and random chocolate desserts. You can have those at home!
Portugese Dining Terms: Glossary
Words to Know on the Menu
- Pão: Freshly baked bread
- Azeitonas: Olives
- Pratos do dia: Plates of the day
- Um acompanhamento: Side dish
- Um prato principal: Main dish
- Uma entrada: Starter
- Água fresca: Water served cold
- Água natural: Water served at room temperature
- Vinho da casa: House wine
Words to Know When Dining Out
While plenty of Portuguese locals speak at least a little bit of English, it’s always appreciated when you try your hand at a few local words and phrases. Here are a few to get you started at a local restaurant:
- The check, please.: A conta, por favor.
- What do you recommend?: O que você recomenda?
- I would like…: Eu gostaria…
- Thank you: Obrigado/a
- Bon appetit!: Bom apetite!
In Portugal, tipping is not common practice, unless you’re well within the tourist hubs or at some of the finer restaurants. If you do choose to leave a tip, however, 5 to 10 percent is enough. If a service charge has already been included in your bill, there’s no need to tip.
In Portugal, dining out does come with several not-so-intuitive quirks.
Unlike in restaurants in the States, that basket of bread or plate of olives dropped on your table at the start of a meal is not on the house. In fact, it’s safe to say you’ll wind up paying for anything sitting on your table—even if you didn’t order it. If you don’t want the snacks, simply ask the server to take them away at the beginning of your meal.
Another quirk is that local restaurants aren’t likely to make substitutions to your plate, and their menus probably won’t list what comes with each dish. You can, however, assume your dish will most likely arrive with potatoes, rice, boiled vegetables or a side salad.
Dining attire at most restaurants, from the local spots to the higher-end restaurants of Lisbon and Porto, is typically casual but conservative.
Want to Know More about Portugal?
Read the full “Portugal: Travel Guide Overview”.
WHAT IS BACKROADS
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great Portugal adventure!