Portuguese cuisine is not as well-known as some nearby countries, like Spain and France – but food from Portugal is really delightful. I ate a lot of delicious, fresh food from Portugal, and wanted to share some of my favourite dishes.
This is a subjective list – and there are more than seven great food dishes from Portugal. However, these dishes have stood out to me during the times I’ve visited Portugal, so I wanted to share them. Perhaps they will inspire you to try some new dishes when you’re in Portugal.
1. Pastel De Nata
The best-known food from Portugal is arguably the iconic Pastel de nata (or pastéis de nata in plural form). This simple but absolutely delicious custard tart was invented in (or possibly before) the 18th century by monks at the Hieronymites Monastery in Belem, near Lisbon (hence pastéis de nata are sometimes called ‘pastéis de Belem’). The monks used egg whites to starch laundry and then found a use for the leftover egg yolks: to make tasty little pastries.
They are fairly ubiquitous in Portugal – you’ll see them in lots of places. If you want to try the original monk’s recipe, go to Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém, in the outskirts of Lisbon.
Whether you have the original or not, these delicious little tarts are the perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee in the afternoon. My favourite pastel de nata experience was at A Brasileira in Lisbon. This is a lovely coffee house in the Chiado area, dating from 1905. It was glorious to sit out on the sunny terrace with a glass of wine and a soft, warm pastel de nata. Bliss!
2. Sardinhas Assadas
Before my first trip to Portugal, all I knew about Portuguese cuisine was that the sardines were good. Gilled sardines, or sardinhas assadas, are a simple pleasure. Sardines on toast was something we had as kids in the UK, but the mushy kind we had from tins were not quite the same as the succulent, fresh kind you’ll find in Portugal.
For a small country, Portugal has a whole lot of coastline: 943km on continental Portugal alone. Sardines are fished all around the Portuguese waters, and the season for the best fresh sardines is in the summer months.
I first saw these little silver fishes being grilled whole in the Algarve region, which is known for having great sardines. And they look wonderful: silvery skin turned to caramel stripes from the grill.
However, my most memorable dish of sardinhas assadas was from a fancy Michelin-starred restaurant in Lisbon. Belcanto does a tasing menu inspired by the produce of Portugal and one course was a tiny, neat version of sardines on toast, served as a canape. It was a lovely fresh mouthful!
3. Bacalhau à Brás
While sardines are a well-known food from Portugal, before my most recent trip to Lisbon and Porto, I hadn’t realised that cod is also a very traditional Portuguese food.
Every restaurant I went to, I asked for a recommendation and more often than not, I was recommended a cod dish – so I ended up eating cod four times in five days!
My favourite cod dish was called Bacalhau à Brás. I was told by the waiter this is a classic Portuguese dish, and great comfort food – and he was absolutely right about the comfort food part.
Bacalhau à Brás is made with flakes of cod, onion and thin strips of potato and is bound together with eggs. It is soft and warm, with a mix of salt from the fish and sweetness from the onion. It is often garnished with olives, but the one I had was served topped with an egg yolk, which I was told to stir in. This really added some sticky richness to the dish and made it feel quite indulgent. I tried this at Tapisco, in the Principe Real region of Lisbon.
4. Bacalhau à Zé do Pipo
Talking about cod dishes, an honourable mention needs to go to Bacalhau à Zé do Pipo. This is another classic cod dish I liked in Portugal, named after its creator, Zé do Pipo, who owned a famous restaurant in the city of Vizela, during the 1960s
Bacalhau à Zé do Pipo has cod with mashed potato made with mayonnaise, plus onions and/or pickles. The one I had, in Faz Frio in Lisbon, was garnished with vegetables, which lifted the texture and taste of the dish. I enjoyed it with a cocktail they made bespoke for me.
5. Peixinhos da Horta
The next food from Portugal that I loved has fish in the name, but no fish in the dish. Peixinhos da Horta are vegetables deep-fried in a light batter.
I ate them in Cantinho do Avillez in Porto, where the waitress explained they are a dish Portuguese parents give to their children to encourage them to eat vegetables. I believe they can be made from all kinds of vegetables, although green beans, peppers and squash are most common. The name translates as ‘Little fishes from the garden’, because I guess they look a little like fried fishes.
The Peixinhos da Horta I tried were deep-fried green beans and they were really delicious! The light crispness of the batter and the fresh juiciness of the green bean was lush: a perfect appetiser.
6. Caldo Verde
Another vegetarian food from Portugal is Caldo Verde, which is a simple green soup originating from the Minho province in northern Portugal. Caldo Verde is often made from collard greens, or similar leafy veg, plus onion, garlic and potato for thickness.
Caldo Verde is often eaten at festivals and on special occasions. I tried this at the traditional Café Guarany in Porto. It was perfect for a light lunch, which felt good after several potato & cod dinners during my time in Portugal!
7. Francesinha sandwich
The final Portuguese food I want to mention is a bit of an acquired taste. This is a speciality sandwich from Porto, and also somewhat of an eating challenge. If you’re on a heart-friendly diet, you might want to think twice before attempting it!
The legendary Francesinha sandwich is a double-decker sandwich containing steak, Linguiça sausage (which seemed a bit like chorizo to me) and ham, topped with a fried egg and covered in melted cheese. It is served in a pool of spicy gravy and normally served with chips. It is a lot of food!
I tried a Francesinha at a no-frills, cash-only café in Porto, called Piolho Café and I’m ashamed to say I wasted a lot of it! I should have known I was about to be served a monster of a meal when the waiter raised his eyebrows when I asked for it. And when I couldn’t finish it and he cleared my plates, the ‘I knew it’ look on his face made me feel like a child whose eyes are too big for their tummy!
So if you’re want to try a Francesinha, and you’re not sure you can manage the whole thing, maybe split it with someone or ask for it without chips.
What about you?
These are the seven foods from Portugal I think you should try, based on my travels so far. What about you? Is there a food from Portugal that you really loved? Anything I should try on my next visit?
And if you’re looking for more foodie travel inspiration, have you tried tapas in Madrid?