The Portuguese people are warm and welcoming, happy to share their country’s rich history and culture, both influenced by a complex interaction of different civilizations over the course of more than a thousand years. You will see the art and hear the music, but you will not fully experience holidays in Portugal without partaking in the exquisite cuisine and traditional dishes of Portugal created by the bounty of the land and the Atlantic Ocean.
Pastéis de Nata (Portuguese Custard Tarts)
Historically, many places in Europe used honey for sweet foods, but the Portuguese island of Madeira produced sugar from as far back as the 15th century. The first cakes and desserts were created by nuns and monks who used egg whites to starch their clothes and so found ways to incorporate the yolks into their recipes. Pastéis de nata are small, round, crisp and filled with egg custard. They are served sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon or with a side packet of sugar and cinnamon for you to sprinkle to taste.
More: read Keri’s post on where to find the best custard tarts in Lisbon
Queijo da Serra (Cheese of the Sierra)
Portugal’s most famous cheese is also one of its oldest. The mild, slightly salty cheese is handmade by the women of the mountain region of Serra da Estrela during the bitter-cold winter. The ubiquitous thistle flower is used to curdle unpasteurized ewe’s milk. When the cheese is young, it’s creamy enough to spoon out of the rind. Older cheese gets sliced. Either way, the singular taste is enhanced with Pão de Bico (Beak of Bread) and rich, full-bodied Alentejo red wine.
Ameijoas a Bulhao Pato (Clams in White Wine Sauce)
Clams a Bulhao Pato is named for the 19th-century Lisbon poet Bulhão Pato. His name lives on in this delightful dish. His poems, for the most part, have faded from memory. Bulhão Pato lived along the Tagus River that flows into the Atlantic Ocean—a spot known for its beds of the most succulent and flavorful clams. The clams are cooked in olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper and cilantro. Dip traditional Portuguese Alentejo bread into the sauce – you won’t want to leave one drop behind.
Caldo Verde (Green Broth)
Caldo verde originated in northern Portugal, but is now popular throughout the country, particularly for celebrations, such as weddings, birthdays and religious festivals. It can be eaten before a main course or as a late-night supper. This quintessential Portuguese soup is made with simple ingredients: potatoes, kale and onions cooked with garlic and olive oil. It is best served in the traditional clay pot with a slice of “linguica” (smoked pork sausage) and broa, Portuguese corn bread.
Bolinhos de Bacalhau (Cod Dumplings)
Cod has been part of Portuguese culture since the Vikings traded it for Portugal’s salt about 1,300 years ago. There are hundreds of cod recipes: grilled, baked, stewed and deep fried as fritters. The fritters are sometimes a snack, sometimes a starter course, sometimes a main course served with rice and salad. The batter is made of shredded cod fish, potatoes, eggs and parsley and is cooked until golden crispy on the outside but melt-in-your-mouth on the inside.
Alheira de Mirandela (Pork-free Sausage)
During the Inquisition in 1498, Judaism was outlawed. Some Jews hid in the mountains in northeast Portugal and continued practicing their religion while pretending to have converted to Catholicism. They would be identified immediately if they did not eat pork sausages, so they made their own sausages from poultry and game and no one was any wiser.
Alheira is stuffed with chicken, turkey, duck, rabbit, venison, partridge or pheasant, as well as bread and garlic. The sausage eventually reached the rest of the Portuguese, maybe due to the mouth-watering, smokey and earthy aroma wafting through the air. The sausage is often served with a fried egg and fries—a perfect combination of flavors.
Polvo à Lagareiro (Octopus in Olive Oil)
Portuguese cuisine is renowned for its seafood, and it is often served simply: fresh fish grilled over a slow fire and lightly seasoned. And then there are the more elaborate, exotic dishes. Octopus comes to mind. Santa Luzia is a fishing village known as Portugal’s Octopus Capital. Catches of octopi are brought to shore early every morning. The whole octopus is boiled with onion, then grilled or roasted with potatoes, garlic cloves and olive oil. The finished dish is sprinkled with cilantro. Octopus is traditionally served during holidays in Portugal, particularly on Christmas Eve before the cod course.
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