A platter of freshly grilled sardines, or sardinhas assadas, is typical comfort food in Portugal. Although they are most emblematic of Lisbon and are a highlight of the capital’s summer festivals, sardines are a favourite dish in practically every part of the country. The traditional Portuguese way of cooking sardines leaves the bones and heads intact; to eat them while avoiding the spine, hold the head in one hand and the tail in the other while biting into the fish from the side. A perfectly grilled sardine has flavourful flaky white meat and smoky, crispy skin.
Traditionally, you eat sardinhas assadas with your hands
No one knows the true origin of cozido in Portugal, but the dish is a gastronomic treasure and each region has its own variation. At its core, the dish is a platter of slowly boiled meats, enchidos (sausages) and vegetables. In Trás-os-Montes in northeast Portugal, cozido contains farinheira (breaded sausage), morcela (blood sausage) and alheira (sausage filled with a mixture of game and bread). Cozido from Minho contains chicken, and recipes from Alentejo include lamb. In the Algarve, the dish is often flavoured with sweet potato and mint. The most famous example of the Portuguese cozido, however, is from São Miguel Island in the Azores, where it’s cooked underground inside geysers using volcanic heat. For the best cozido on the island, head to Tony’s Restaurant in Furnas.
The most famous example of cozido à portuguesa is from the Azores
Açorda, a dish made with day-old bread and poached eggs served in a herbed broth, is a typical peasant food from the Alentejo. Portugal’s largest region, this area is known for its fields, farms and vineyards. As locals are traditionally mainly farm labourers, dishes like açorda provided cheap and simple sustenance that could be easily customised with extra ingredients – the wealthier the family, the richer the açorda. Inland, açorda can be enhanced with meats like wild game, while along the Alentejo’s coast you’re more likely to see a version containing shrimp or fish.
Acorda de Bacalhau
Although meat and seafood dominates much of Portuguese cuisine, a few popular recipes are perfect for vegetarians. One is peixinhos da horta, breaded green beans fried to a golden crisp. When the Portuguese first reached Japan in the 16th century, they may have brought a few culinary techniques with them, including this method of tempura-style battering. Even the word tempura may come from the Portuguese temperar, meaning ‘to season’. Peixinhos da horta, which translates as ‘little fishes from the garden’ because of the vegetables’ resemblance to small, colourful fish, are eaten as a starter or snack with a drizzle of lemon juice on top.
Peixinhos da horta translates as ‘little fishes from the garden’
The cool and rainy Portuguese winters call for soul-soothing comfort food. In the remote, rural region of Trás-os-Montes, this means a steaming and colourful plate of feijoada à transmontana, a feijoada (bean stew) of red kidney or white beans enhanced with different parts of pork (including the ears and snout in some recipes), sausages and lightly fried vegetables. It’s flavourful and aromatic; you’ll taste hints of cumin, cloves, garlic and paprika in a traditional rural feijoada. Look for feijoada along the coast, and you’ll probably find variations that substitute the cuts of pork with seafood. A much-loved version from Aveiro is called feijoada de búzios, or bean stew with whelk.
You’ll find many versions of feijoada in Portugal
Sopa da pedra (‘stone soup’) is a dish with its own legend. According to Portuguese folklore, a homeless monk in the village of Almeirim had nothing to eat, so he cleaned a stone and began boiling it in water. As villagers passed, they each added an element to the monk’s pot, including potatoes, beans and different cuts of meat. Once the soup was robust and ready, the monk removed the stone and invited the villagers to join him for sopa da pedra. The story and dish highlight the Portuguese virtue of community, especially in times of crisis. For a traditional sopa da pedra, few restaurants are better than Restaurante O Minhoto – Sopa Da Pedra in Almeirim, an hour’s drive north of Lisbon.
Sopa da pedra is a dish with its own folk tale
The alheira, a type of fowl sausage, is one of the cheapest and most common Portuguese dishes, but it also has a fascinating history. When the Jewish population was expelled from Portugal in 1498, many hid in the mountainous region of Trás-os-Montes in the northeast of Portugal and practised their religion in secret while pretending they had converted to Catholicism. One way to do this was to ostensibly make, display and eat sausages so that everyone would think they were no longer keeping kosher. Nowadays, the dish is available in any corner restaurant or café.
The traditional Portuguese smoked sausage has a fascinating history
Tamboril is Portuguese for monkfish, and while it’s not as popular locally as the traditional cod, there is still an astounding variety of dishes served on the Portuguese coast that include it. It is often cooked in a laurel, garlic and tomato stew with rice, almost like a risotto, to become arroz de tamboril. Caçarola 1 in Figueira da Foz, a seaside village just 16 kilometres (10 miles) from Coimbra, prepares one of the best versions of arroz de tamboril in the region.
Figueira da Foz prepares one of the best versions of arroz de tamboril
Codfish, or bacalhau in Portuguese, is more than simply a traditional dish; it is a national obsession. The dish even has its own nickname, ‘the faithful friend’, and is traditionally consumed on Christmas Eve in Portugal. There are hundreds of different recipes and versions of this classic, but bacalhau à brás is one of the best; a combination of onions, chips, olives, parsley, egg and, of course, cod. Laurentina in Lisbon specialises in codfish and has been proudly serving the dish since 1976.
Balcalhau is typically eaten at Christmas
Aveiro, located between Porto and Coimbra, is famous for its eels, which are most often eaten simply fried or in a soup. Fishing folk at Murtosa and Torreira beaches, just outside Aveiro, make an eel stew seasoned with saffron and accompanied by bell peppers. The dish, known as caldeirada de enguias, pairs beautifully with the crisp white wines of the Bairrada region south of Aveiro. The best place to try the caldeirada is Bastos, a restaurant on the Torreira Beach just eight kilometres (five miles) from Aveiro.
European eel stew with garlic and paprika is best paired with wine
Cataplana is a seafood stew cooked in a copper double pan and served with rice or chips. While the region that traditionally prepares it is the Algarve, one of the best places to try it is the fishing hamlet Porto Brandão, just across the river from Lisbon. It can be reached by car, but most locals will take the ferry that leaves you directly in front of the small huddle of restaurants. The best venue to enjoy this rich fish stew is the restaurant Porto Brandão. In addition to the beautiful food, you can enjoy the glorious view across Lisbon on the way there and on the way back again.
Portuguese cataplana is served with rice or chips
The signature dish of Porto, the francesinha is not a meal for the faint-hearted. The dish comprises two slices of bread filled with steak, ham, sausage and chorizo, covered in melted Edam, drizzled in a secret spicy tomato-based sauce and optionally crowned with a fried egg. The best place to enjoy this sizeable and incredibly filling Portuguese classic is Francesinha Café, which serves the eponymous dish with crispy chips.
The porco preto, or black pig, is a native Iberian species of the common domestic pig found mostly in the central and southern regions of Portugal and Spain and always kept free-range. Porco preto gives the pata negra ham its particularly smoky flavour, and another popular dish made from the animal is secretos. These are the special, fatty cuts of meat, usually served with salad and chips. Most porco preto farms are located in the Alentejo in the south of Portugal, and it is there that you will find the best restaurants to enjoy this national dish. In Évora, Vinho e Noz serves a selection of porco preto dishes.
Porco preto is what’s used to make pata negra ham
Portuguese cuisine is renowned for its seafood, often prepared in the simplest of manners; ask for fresh fish directly grilled over a slow fire, seasoned with lemon and rosemary, and you’ll enjoy one of the best meals in the country. Sometimes, however, a little technique is needed. Such is the case with polvo à lagareiro: a whole octopus is first boiled and then roasted in the oven with plenty of garlic and olive oil. Any city in the country will have a restaurant serving this popular dish, but a great choice is A Tasquinha in Nazaré, a beautiful seaside village.
Try polvo à lagareiro in Nazaré
Portugal’s response to a French chateaubriand steak or Italy’s Fiorentina steak is the posta mirandesa. This consists of a thick tenderloin beef steak cooked over a strong fire. The secret to the incredible flavour is the fact that the meat is sourced from free-range Mirandesa cows, a breed originally from the Trás-os-Montes region and found only in Portugal. O Mirandês in Miranda do Douro will prepare you the finest beef cut Portugal has to offer.
Portuguese steak with potatoes
While tubarão is the common word for ‘shark’ in Portuguese, once it reaches your table it becomes cação. The fish is marinated in coriander, lemon and garlic before being brought to the boil; the soup is commonly eaten with bread, particularly a cornflour variety known as broa. Cais da Estação in Sines, on the coast of Alentejo, has a delicious version of cação on its menu.
Portuguese dogfish soup
Nina Santos contributed additional reporting to this article.