Eat Like A Local: Portugal
Fresh seafood, local produce, excellent wines, delectable pastries – Portugal will surprise you with the sheer variety, and quality, of its gastronomy. Here’s what to eat in Portugal.
I didn’t have a single bad wine in Portugal. Actually, make that ‘a single bad meal’. That’s quite an achievement considering it was a two-week long road-trip traversing the length of the country, from Porto in the north to Lisbon in the south. Often overshadowed by neighbouring culinary heavyweights like Spain, France, and Italy, Portugal has managed to keep its gastronomy secret – till the recent tourism boom put the bacalhau and the pastéis de nata in the same league as boeuf bourguignon and tiramisu. But there’s more to Portuguese cuisine than dried codfish and custard tarts (as delectable as they may be).
Portugal has always been known for its port wines. The Douro Valley where the port vineyards perch prettily on undulating, terraced hills is the world’s first designated wine region and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Port wine is fortified and aged in the vast cellars in Porto’s Gaia district, and I spent a happy evening cellar hopping from Graham’s to Taylor’s to Cálem tasting ruby and tawny ports of varying vintages.
I even tried an utterly refreshing port tonic made with chip dry port, a cocktail that all the cool kids are sipping in Porto and Lisbon.
But Portugal’s wines are not restricted to the sweet and strong ports. There’s the crisp and acidic vinho verde, a young, light-bodied wine made with Alvarinho grapes, or the fruity reds from Alentejo, or the fortified Madeira wine from Azores. The Portuguese, in general, seem to have a taste for sweet wines.
Near Lisbon, at the Bacalhôa Winery in Azeitão, I sample moscatel, a golden topaz coloured wine, intensely fruity and aromatic with flavours of bitter orange, raisins, and figs. It’s no wonder that a bottle of it finds its way into my luggage, along with a 10-year-old tawny port.
In Lisbon, I also encounter another sweet, fruity liqueur – ginjinha is made by soaking sour morello cherries in the Portuguese brandy aguardente along with a generous dose of sugar. I queue up at the hole-in-the-wall A Ginjinha, just off Rossio Square, to down a shot of the potent ruby red liqueur that warms the cockles of my heart. Read more about ginjinha in my article for Mint Lounge here.
If there’s one thing that can be considered the mainstay of Portuguese cuisine, it’s the seafood, which isn’t surprising given the country’s long coastline and the generous bounty of the Atlantic. Matosinhos grew from a small fishing village into a port city just 8km north of Porto.
As I stroll its lanes, I can see why it’s known as ‘the dining room of Porto’. There’s a profusion of seafood restaurants, and the smell of freshly grilled, salt-crusted sardines fills the air.
At the Anthony Bourdain-approved Esplanada Marisqueira Antiga, I’m confronted by a massive seafood platter – shrimp, clams, crabs, and oysters jostle for space, but my favourite turns out to be the percebes or goose barnacle, strange scaly tube ending in a claw-like foot, which you pinch off and suck out the flesh from inside the tube; it tastes of the sea and is utterly addictive.
The Portuguese are also big on preserving seafood using various techniques. Canning is a huge industry, especially in northern Portugal. At Conservas Portugal Norte in Matosinhos, I watch fascinated as an assembly line of women in blue smocks cleans and debones fish with a surgeon’s precision, places them in tins that are then filled to the brim with oil and canned. 10,000 tons of fish – tuna, sardines, and mackerel – are tinned every day in this one factory alone, and the cans are wrapped in colourful retro packaging, the perfect local souvenir to bring back for family and friends.
The most iconic ingredient of Portuguese cuisine is bacalhau – dried and salted cod, which is eaten in a variety of ways; they say there are hundreds of recipes for bacalhau, the most widely consumed fish in the country, and ironically, the only one that is not eaten fresh. The Portuguese have been salting cod for more than 500 years, ever since the first intrepid sailors set off to discover the New World. In the absence of refrigeration, drying and salting the fish was the only way of preserving it. Most of Portugal’s bacalhau comes from the seas around Newfoundland, Norway, and Iceland. Fish markets across the country sell huge hunks of bacalhau that the Portuguese buy by the kilo.
In Lisbon, I meet José Esteves, a local chef who offers cooking classes and ‘dine with a local’ experiences at his home (book via Singular Trips). He shows me how to cook with bacalhau – the salted fish is soaked in water for a few hours, the skin and bones are removed and the fish is ready for cooking.
I ate bacalhau is many forms during my trip, but my hands-down favourite dish is bacalhau à bras, which is what José whips up for me. He cooks the codfish with onion and garlic, and then adds eggs beaten with salt and pepper, and thin, fried potato sticks, finally garnished with parsley and black olives.
A typically Portuguese dish that I particularly loved is caldo verde, a creamy, heart-warming soup made with potatoes and thinly chopped kale, often with sliced chouriço (sausage) added to it. The soup is originally from the Minho region in northern Portugal but is a national favourite usually consumed during celebrations.
Another traditional stew is cataplana, named after the copper pot shaped like two clam shells hinged at one end, which is used to make the flavourful fish stew with potatoes, fish, shrimp, mussels, and herbs like fennel and coriander. The vessel is clamped shut and the stew is allowed to bubble at a low heat, retaining all the seafood and herb flavours inside.
No meal is complete without dessert, but the Portuguese have taken their sweet tooth to another level. Every corner and every neighbourhood has a pastelaria (pastry shop) where locals gather for coffee and gossip, and where shelves brim over with tarts, cakes, and other confections. It’s quite common for the Portuguese to eat a pastry along with their coffee (which is uniformly excellent all over the country). Many of the pastries originated from the convents and monasteries scattered across Portugal. When the liberal revolution of 1820 shut down the monasteries, many of the recipes came to light and became available to the common people. Literally, every town and city in Portugal has its own speciality and you’re never too far from a sugar fix. Read more about the five sweets you absolutely must try in Portugal in my post here.
This article was commissioned by Man’s Wold India and was published in their June 2017 issue. Read it here.