The Portuguese have a close relationship with food, with no shame. Most typical dishes are hearty, garlicky, and greasy, as all comfort food should be.
Spending time at the table in Portugal is not a past time, it’s a cultural event even when you’re not celebrating anything. From petiscos to more complicated recipes, traditional Portuguese food is one of the reasons why travelers fall in love with the country. But where should you start? What dishes should you try first? At Devour Lisbon we managed to put together a list of the dishes you can’t miss.
A typical soup in the Alentejo region, açorda will leave you wondering how something so simple can be so delicious. Pieces of day-old Alentejo bread are added to a simmering broth heavily seasoned with garlic and coriander. The bread should soak up the broth but not cook in it. Most versions of this soup add an egg on top, poached or boiled. Depending on where you are in Alentejo, some recipes include fresh fish or salted cod. Casa do Alentejo, one of the Lisbon restaurants where locals eat, is a great place to find this and other equally delicious dishes.
2. Sopa da Pedra
At Devour Lisbon we love a dish with a great backstory and that is the case of sopa da pedra. Legend has it that a poor friar who was on a pilgrimage was too proud to beg for food, despite being hungry. Instead, he asked his hosts if they could spare some vegetables to add to his rock soup. Intrigued, they gave him different products to add to his sopa da pedra. There are variations of this recipe and it’s a typical dish in the Ribatejo area, but all of them are hearty soups and typically served with a rock in the bottom.
3. Cozido à Portuguesa
If there’s one stew in the world that’s perfect for meat lovers, it’s cozido à Portuguesa. It almost seems like someone came up with the crazy idea of cooking all the meats they had in the house and add some potatoes and some vegetables. There are dozens of variations of cozido throughout the country, but the most famous worldwide is probably the one from Furnas. In this small village of S. Miguel Island (Azores), the cozido is slowly cooked with volcanic steam inside a hole in the ground.
Original from Mirandela in the North, alheira is the pork sausage that’s not pork sausage. During the Inquisition in Portugal and Spain, the Jewish population was forced to convert to Christianity. In public, they would behave as Christians to survive, but in private they kept their culture and traditions alive. To avoid persecution and because it was against their religion to eat pork, the Jewish in Mirandela created this “fake” sausage made with other meats. You’ll find different versions, some less garlicky than others, but deep-frying them is the best way to cook it.
Salted cod may come from Norway or Iceland, but somehow it’s the most traditional Portuguese food you’ll eat. So much so that people say there’s one different bacalhau recipe for each day of the year. Any bacalhau dish is a good dish, and the fish is so versatile that the only thing you won’t be seeing it in is dessert. It has a more pungent smell than other fish, so don’t be caught off guard. Typical dishes include à lagareiro, à Brás, and à Gomes Sá.
Cataplanas are more frequent in the South, but some places in the North also cook their version of this fish stew. The dish is named after the cooking pot, a sort of slow cooker made of copper or stainless steel, a heritage of Portugal’s Arabic past. The recipe is as simple as choosing your favorite seafood, adding sliced potatoes, onions, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and herbs, and let it stew.
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The most famous sandwich in Porto is a full meal. One francesinha is usually enough for two, so be careful when ordering. It’s messy to eat, and you’ll need the precious help of a fork and a knife to cut through the molting mix of cheese and spicy sauce, the slices of lightly toasted bread, and the layers of different meats. What’s the secret of a great francesinha? Almost everyone will say it’s the sauce.
You know some of the best-loved traditional Portuguese foods—now it’s time to try some for yourself. Our Tastes & Traditions of Lisbon Tour will give you a crash course in eating like a local, from how to navigate Portuguese mealtimes to what to eat and where. And, of course, there will be plenty of typical bites along the way.
Sandra Henriques Gajjar is a freelance web content writer and travel blogger born in the Azores and based in Lisbon for 20+ years. Since 2014 she’s been blogging about travel, culture, and the people she meets in between at Tripper, a blog on sustainable cultural tourism.