I give you some ( hopefully ) new suggestions for healthy and balanced food choices when you visit Portugal.
While Portugal’s maritime explorations and trading helped the kingdom accumulate immense wealth and access to rare spices, those benefits did not trickle down, so most ordinary people in Portugal eked out a living from the land and sea and relied on simple rustic food that was sustaining, but also wonderfully flavorful. We encourage you to taste and explore Portugal’s food. Read on for how to better navigate this exceptional cuisine with our list of 10 things they eat in Portugal.
Bacalhau is more than just an iconic symbol of a nation whose fortunes were made plying the seas — it is the single most important dish in Portugal. Made from dried, salted cod fished in the cold waters off the coast of Norway, it’s said there are enough recipes for bacalhau that you could cook one every day of the year and never make the same dish twice. As with other foods, bacalhau was carried on ships to other ports, and the recipe made its way into other cuisines in Galicia in northwest Spain, as well as former Portuguese colonies in Mozambique, Cape Verde, Angola, Macau, Brazil, and Goa. Each region and outpost now has its own specialties, but three well-known examples are bacalhau à Gomes de Sã from Porto, which is salted cod, potatoes, onions, black olives, and hard-boiled eggs; Bacalhau com natas, which is salt cod cooked with cream and onion; and Bacalhau à brasfrom Estremadura, which is salt cod, potato, onion, and scrambled eggs.
It is believed the Moors of North Africa introduced the cataplana to Portugal in hopes of recreating the tagines they left behind. Like the tagines of North Africa, cataplana is both the name of a regional dish and the pot in which the food is cooked. Despite its simple appearance, the cataplana revolutionized cooking by eliminating the heat and labour involved in cooking over an open flame or in a searing wood oven. Shaped like a round clamshell with a hinged lid, the cataplana was traditionally made of hammered copper but is now often made of non-stick metal. To use a cataplana, the food is placed in the bottom half of the pot, and once the lid is closed it seals in the steam, aromas, and cooking juices during simmering so that intense flavours develop and permeate all the ingredients. The cataplana began in the southern region of Algarve where the Moors held sway until the end of their empire in the thirteenth century, however, over time, this cooking method spread and so did old recipes like Amêijoas na Cataplan. This dish is a classic example of Portuguese inventiveness that combines ham, chouriço sausage, baby clams, tomatoes, onions, and garlic in a liquid elixir that is heady from the moment you raise the lid of the cataplana.
Portugal’s dependence on the sea is evident in her cuisine, and certain regions such as Algarve and Estremadura are renowned for the diversity and quality of their catch, which is often sold right from the boat at the large Cascais fish market in Lisboa. The Portuguese cook hundreds of their favourite fish and seafood options in clean, light, tasty ways that include grilling it over charcoal, baking it, pan-frying it, roasting it in an oven, cooking it in a cataplana, or broiling it. Anytime you are on the coastline, you can stop in any one of the many quaint seafood cafés that line the harbours, select a freshly caught fish or another kind of seafood from an iced display, and then tell your waiter how you want your meal cooked. The fish is priced based on weight, and some of the most popular offerings include mackerel, sardines, tuna, sea bass, octopus, squid, anchovies, swordfish, sweet Portuguese clams, crabs, oysters, mussels, and lobsters.
Soups and Stews
There is an old Portuguese proverb that says, “Of soup and love, the first is the best.” In Portugal, what doesn’t go into soups is a shorter list than what does, and national soups like caldo verde and feijoada have sustained the Portuguese through feast and famine. Feijoada, which in Portuguese means beans, is a bean stew made with beef or pork, where the beans play musical chairs based on the region. From one region to the next, traditional local beans are used. In the northeast, in Trás-os-Montes, feijoada is made with red kidney beans, tomatoes, carrots, and cabbage, while in the Minho and Douro Litoral near Porto, feijoada is made with white beans, rice, and sometimes chouriço and farinheira sausages.
Blessed with a Mediterranean climate, Portugal is a veritable garden where vegetables grow easily and come in every shape and colour, including tomatoes (Portugal grows so many tomatoes that it’s the largest exporter of tomato paste in the world), cabbage, eggplant, bell peppers, squash, cucumbers, lettuce… you get the picture. Salads are almost as popular as soups, but the mainstay is still a simple salad made with lettuce and tomato and tossed with vinaigrette containing exceptional Portuguese olive oil and vinegar. Vegetable side dishes are often creative and make use of what’s in season and fresh, as in Ervilhas com Ovos, peas and eggs. This is a fabulous combination of fresh peas cooked with ham that has a just-fried egg added on top right before the plate is served. Some of the most popular pulses and legumes were introduced by the Moors, and dishes like Feijão-Frade em Salada showcase delicious chickpeas cooked with onions, parsley, and ham tossed with vinegar; or Favas à Saloia, which is fava beans prepared with garlic sausage and lean bacon in spring when the new baby vegetables are most tender.