The cooking of mainland Europe’s westernmost country is deeply rooted in the heart of local ingredients.
Superlative seafood, sun-ripened fruit, lamb raised on flower-speckled meadows, free-range pigs gorging on acorns beneath oak forests.
Without them, it just doesn’t taste the same.
So while diners worldwide crowd Italian trattorias, French bistros and Spanish tapas bars, Portuguese restaurants abroad generally cater to melancholy emigrants seeking in vain to matar saudades (kill their longing) for mom’s home-cooked food.
Things are changing.
The success of Portuguese chefs like George Mendes in New York and Nuno Mendes (no relation) in London is generating a global buzz and their creating a legacy in food industries about the cooking of their homeland.
Regular visitors have long been in on the secret, but here are 20 reasons why Portugal should be on every foodie traveler’s list.
- Piscivore perfection
In Europe, only Icelanders eat more fish than the Portuguese.
Superstar chef Ferran Adria says seafood from Portugal’s Atlantic waters is the world’s best — and he’s Spanish.
Markets glimmer with a startling variety, from baby cuttlefish to U-boat-sized tuna.
If your food heaven is fresh seabass expertly barbequed with a hint of lemon, garlic and olive oil, this is the place.
Best eaten by the sea in restaurants like Sao Roque in Lagos, Restinga in Alvor, Furnas in Ericeira, Azenhas do Mar or Restaurante da Adraga west of Sintra, Ribamar in Sesimbra, or Doca do Cavacas on Madeira island.
- Liquid gold
Drive the backroads of the Alentejo, Beira Interior and Tras-os-Montes regions and you’ll weave through endless olive groves.
Olive oil is the basis of Portuguese cooking, whether it’s used to slow-cook salt-cod, dribbled into soups or simply soaked up with hot-from-the-oven bread.
Exports have quadrupled over the past decade as the world wakes up and smell the coffee to the quality of Portugal’s liquid gold, either from big-time producers like Gallo and Oliveira da Serra, or hand-crafted, single-farm oils.
The latest prize: a gold medal for Olmais Organic oil at the World’s Best Olive Oils awards in New York.
3.The national boiled dinner
Portugal’s cooking is rigorously regional: meaty and robust in the north, Mediterranean in the south.
Yet one dish unites the country: cozido.
Best eaten as a big family lunch, this is a boiled one-pot featuring a hunk of beef, various piggy bits, sometimes chicken, always cabbage, potatoes, carrots, turnips and an array of sausage, including paprika-spiced chourico and cumin-flavored blood pudding.
- Lisbon’s gourmet awakening
A new generation of chefs is shaking up the capital’s restaurant scene with ultra-modern takes on gastronomic tradition.
Leading the charge is Jose Avillez.
His Belcanto restaurant facing the Sao Carlos theater won a second Michelin star in 2014.
Its menu features braised red mullet with liver sauce, clams and cornmeal; oxtail with foie gras, chickpeas and creamy sheep cheese. Rivals include Henrique Sa Pessoa’s new Alma restaurant, just round the corner and wowing diners with the likes of hake with burnt leek and hazelnuts; or Joao Rodrigues, voted chef-of-the-year with his riverside Feitoria.
They say Portugal has 365 recipes for cooking salt cod.
In fact there are many more.
Bacalhau is served “a bras” with scrambled eggs, olives and fries; as fish cakes (pasteis de bacalhau) alongside black-eyed-peas; barbequed, oven-baked or simply boiled with cabbage and carrots, then drizzled in olive oil.
Crumbled with cornbread in the university city of Coimbra, baked under mayonnaise Ze-do-Pipo-style in Porto, chopped into a favorite Lisbon salad with chickpeas and onion, bacalhau is always close to the Portuguese soul.
It’s available everywhere, but Lisbon’s Laurentina restaurant may just serve the best.
- Say Queijo
Why Portugal’s cheeses are not better known is a mystery.
True, amarelo da Beira Baixa — a herby goat-and-sheep-milk mix, was judged the world’s greatest in a tasting organized by Wine Spectator and Vanity Fair a few years back.
Yet creamy Serra da Estrela from the milk of ewes raised in Portugal’s loftiest mountain range; hard, pungent cow’s-milk cheeses made on the precipitous mid-Atlantic slopes of Sao Jorge island; or peppery Terrincho produced in remote Tras-os-Montes, remain largely unknown.
Such dairy delights may be served as appetizers or after a meal with red wine or port, sometimes accompanied with quince jam (marmelada).
7.So much wine
For a small country Portugal makes an astonishing variety of great wines.
Summery vinho verdes from the green northwest.
Full-bodied reds and fruity whites from Douro, Dao and Alentejo.
Bubbly from Bairrada; legendary Port and Madeira vintages.
Honeyed moscatel from Setubal.
Rare tipples from odd places like the Lisbon surfer suburb of Carcavelos.
Or the World Heritage vineyards clinging to a mid-Atlantic volcano on Pico Island.
8.Porto’s tasty trinity
In the 15th century, patriotic Porto donated all its meat to Prince Henry the Navigator to feed his soldiers when they sailed off to do battle in Morocco.
Left with just offal, they concocted a dish which remains the city’s signature: tripas a moda do Porto.
It’s not for the faint-hearted: a stew of butter beans, calves’ feet, pigs’ ears and peppery chourico as well as the tripe — the chewy white lining of cow’s stomach.
Ever since, inhabitants of Portugal’s second city have been known as tripeiros — tripe-eaters.
Porto’s other best-known dishes: slices of deep-fried octopus and monster meat sandwiches smothered in spicy sauce and named francesinhas — or little French girls.
9.Bifana vs. prego
To make a bifana, marinate thin slices of pork in white wine and garlic, fry, slap it into a bread roll, add mustard or hot sauce to taste.
For a prego, the process is pretty similar, but the main ingredient is beef steak. These are Portugal’s snacks of preference.
Done right, with quality meat and juices that soak into the soft white bread, they are unbeatable. Accompany with cold beer. Pregos are also customarily used to round off a feast of clams, shrimp or crab in marisqueiras — specialized seafood joints.
Those at Lisbon’s Ramiro are legendary.