Over the last 16 years I’ve sampled a lot of different Portuguese food. Most of the time, it’s been a pleasure, although there are some things I will never touch (snouts, feet and ears) and others I refuse to repeat (tripe).
Portuguese restaurants can range from Michelin star grandeur to side-street eating places where aluminum tables are draped with paper and menus are scrawled (often illegibly) on a board. The joy of these eateries is that you are never quite sure how the following hour will unfold.
Fortunately for the less adventurous palate, it’s easy enough to avoid dubious ‘delicacies’ and discover why people are fiercly proud of their traditional Portuguese food. So, if you’re not sure what to eat in Portugal, read on.
Note: The word ‘best’ in this context is wholly subjective and based on my preferences.
Best Portuguese cheese
Portuguese sheep and goat cheeses are delicious, whether served as a snack, appetiser or to round off a meal.
They range from the soft requeijão made from whey, usually enjoyed with doce de abórbora (Portuguese pumpkin jam) to the rock hard 18-month old cured cheese.
Tip: soak this strong cheese in olive oil and pair with a full bodied red Dão wine.
My first choice of Portuguese cheese is always a runny (amanteigado) Serra da Estrela sheep’s cheese. You can discover the production process, (and, of course, taste) this local dairy delicacy on this Serra da Estrela tour from Lisbon.
A close second is the equally runny Queijo de Azeitão from the Lisbon region. Cut a lid out of the rind and scoop out the gooey goodness.
Tip: I love it with fig jam, although a caramelly honey will do.
Best Portuguese cakes
Most visitors to Portugal will try at least one pastel de nata, the creamy custard tart that originated in Belém. Read more about pasteís de nata and the original pastel de Belem here.
Tip: If you’d like to try your hand at making these iconic tarts, book your place on a Pastel de Nata workshop in an authentic Lisbon bakery.
While I am fond of these custardy treats, I prefer a queijada, a light tart made with cheese, or the wickedly indulgent três delicias from the Algarve with its layers of carob, fig and almond. (The one pictured below has an added layer of chocolate so I suppose it should be called quatro delicias).
For more Portuguese cakes and desserts to satisfy the sweetest of teeth, see this post.
Best Portuguese bread
Bread plays an important role in traditional Portuguese cuisine and forms the basis of many hearty soups and main dishes, especially in the Alentejo region.
For white bread, my first choice is pão da avó (grandma’s bread), which is crusty, moist, full of holes and very tasty.
What I head for in a bread basket, however, is broa, especially the yellow version. Broa is Portuguese corn bread, traditionally cooked in a wood oven, with a wonderfully crunchy crust and moist innards. It’s quite dense and filling so you won’t need much.
Tip: Broa makes a great base for sardines and grilled peppers, popular food in Portugal, especially in June.
Best fish/seafood dish in Portugal
When I first moved to Portugal I discovered the joys of octopus. Polvo à lagareiro has remained my Portuguese dish of choice all these years. It’s steamed octopus baked in the oven with tiny baked potatoes and garlic, all drowned in olive oil.
I’m also rather partial to sapateira recheada, which is a sauce of pureed crab meat served in its shell.
The most popular food in Portugal is probably bacalhau (dried salted cod). Don’t worry. By the time this Portuguese cod-fish reaches your plate, it will have been soaked and rinsed and should not taste salty, although sometimes it hasn’t been rinsed quite enough to remove all the salt flavour.
I like bacalhau à casa, which, around Goís and Arganil at least, means battered and fried and served surrounded by thin discs of fried potatoes and covered in an onion sauce. Bacalhau com broa is another firm favourite – baked cod fillet served on a bed of turnip top greens (grelos), topped with broa breadcrumbs and served with tiny baked potatoes drizzled with olive oil (batatas à murro).
Note: À casa means house style so always check what that means before ordering.
My favourite Portuguese meat dish
A typical Portuguese food you will always find on a menu do día is meat, usually lots of it.
One of the best meat experiences I’ve had in Portugal has got to be naco na pedra. This is a thick chunk of quality beef steak served on a sizzling hot stone.
When it reaches your table, the outside will usually have been seared but it will continue to cook for as long as it stays on the stone. If you prefer your steak well done, you’ll need to slice it so it cooks through before the stone cools. Otherwise, tuck in.
Best Portuguese soup
Soup is an integral part of the Portuguese diet and when you eat in restaurants, this is often where you’ll get your vegetables. Although caldo verde (kale soup) is hugely popular, I’m not overly fond of the texture and it’s not my favourite Portuguese soup.
Give me Alentejan tomato soup any day. It could easily be a meal in itself, thanks to the bread and poached egg it contains.
Best Portuguese ‘sausage’
The closest translation for enchido is sausage but Portuguese enchidos are a world apart from British sausages. The traditional way of making sure none of a family’s slaughtered pig goes to waste is to cure the resulting meat products by hanging and smoking.
The most well-known enchido is probably chouriço, a paprika sausage that’s often flambéed at the table or added to other dishes for flavour and colour.
It came as a surprise to me to find that I am partial to a good quality morcela, a blood sausage which is similar to black pudding. When served on a bed of cooked apples, it’s quite a treat.
Best Portuguese snacks (petiscos)
To round up my best of Portuguese food, let’s take a look at those little snacks so important to keep us satisfied between meals.
Petiscos is sometimes translated as tapas but the term covers more than the dishes meant for sharing. It also includes typical Portuguese snacks, often fried or baked, such as cod fritters (pataniscas de bacalhau). The ones I had on a food tour of Porto were especially good.
My guilty pleasure is a rissol de camarão, a fried shrimp patty. Inside a golden breadcrumbed pancake envelope you’ll find a creamy prawn sauce, hopefully with an actual prawn inside.
Hungry for more? Check out my experience of a Lisbon food tour
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Delicious Portuguese Food You Should Try.