Although Portugal is not classed as a Mediterranean country, its cuisine is similar to the countries of the Med. Fresh fruit, vegetables, seafood, cheese, nuts and spices feature heavily in the typical Portugese diet. Like most countries, Portugal also has its own signature dishes and regional specialities.
The national dish of Portugal is Bacalhau – dried and salted cod. Bacalhau was introduced to the Portugese during the New World discoveries in the 16th century, and the country has been obsessed with it ever since. There are literally thousands of recipes that use Bacalhau and hundreds of ways to prepare it.
Along with Bacalhau, fresh fish and shellfish feature heavily in Portugese cuisine, and there are many excellent seafood restaurants. Traditional favourites include Caldeirada, a stew consisting of several different varieties of fish and shellfish, onions, garlic tomatoes, wine and olive oil, served over crusty bread that is served fresh, toasted or lightly fried in oil, and sprinkled with parsley, and Arroz de Marisco, a speciality shellfish dish made with garlic, onions, chilli and cream. Along the coast, grilled mackerel and sardines are commonplace, caught fresh that day by local fisherman.
It would be fair to say that the Portugese are a meat-loving nation. Pork makes up much of the meat consumed in Portugal, and is the mainstay of many dishes. Cozido à Portuguesa is a hearty stew, made from shin beef, pork and sausage and served with a variety of vegetables, rice and potatoes. Carne de Porco à Alentejana is one of the most popular dishes and is a pork, clam stew and potato stew. The people of Porto love tripe and a meal consisting of tripe and haricot beans has become the signature dish of Portugal’s second city.
Vegetarians may struggle when eating out in Portugal. Vegetables tend to be presented merely as an embellishment to the main meal – which will be meat-based. Even asking for the vegetarian version of a meat dish may be problematic – in a traditional Portugese restaurant at least – as many chefs will simply substitute the meat for tuna!
As far as sweets go, if it’s got egg in it then it’s usually a winner, likewise cinnamon. Leite-creme, a very rich egg custard decorated with cinnamon, is one of the most commonly found desserts, along with Pastéis de Nata, which is an incredibly rich custard tart, dusted with cinnamon. Rice pudding, flavoured with, yes, you guessed it – cinnamon – is another favourite.
Much of Portugese fare originates from traditional peasant food, and it’s this heritage that makes it so special. Regardless of what is on the menu, there is a strong ethos that runs through all Portugese cuisine; the use of quality ingredients to make hearty, simple dishes that are bursting with flavour.