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Lisbon is a bargain city to visit compared to other European capitals. With smart new restaurants offering new-wave Portuguese dishes, old-style establishments serving the classics, and plenty of bars and food markets, it’s the perfect foodie destination.
Don’t leave Lisbon without trying…
Usually made from chicken or game mixed with bread and fat, alheira has a slightly vinegary, smoky taste. It’s one of the few Portuguese sausages meant to be eaten as a sausage and not chopped up into other things. When cooked at home, they’re grilled or baked. In a restaurant, they are usually deep-fried and served with lovely homemade chips with a fried egg popped on top – a good budget-friendly filling meal. You can get them in the supermarket for around €3 each.
2. Ovos mexidos with farinheira or bacalhau à brás
It’s amazing how versatile the egg is in Portugal. Even scrambled egg gets several treatments and isn’t limited to just breakfast. Ovos mexidos (scrambled eggs) with farinheira is, on one hand, a delicious starter, and on the other, a gentle introduction to the farinheira, which is one of the Portuguese sausages that needs to be eaten in small quantities. This smoked sausage is made with flour, pork fat, paprika and white wine.
Salt cod is famously cooked in hundreds of different ways. It can be flaked or shredded without becoming a mush, like fresh fish might. Bacalhau à brás is made with flaked salt cod, pan-fried with finely cut potato chips, then enveloped in creamy scrambled eggs and topped off with black olives and parsley. It is supreme comfort food, and just another way of eating eggs, something the Portuguese are very fond of.
The Portuguese are crazy about cheese. There isn’t as much variety as in, say, France, but what there is is almost always interesting. Most cheeses are small bundles of sheep, cow or goat’s cheese, ranging from dry and extremely salty to buttery and stinky. Dispense with flamengo, the edam-like sliced stuff, and go for a pure white Requeijão (ricotta), a crumbly Niza, or a gooey Serra da Estrela or Azeitão. Eat them with the wonderful jams such as pumpkin, tomato and fig that they are typically served with.
We recommend trying Queijo de Azeitão. It’s a PDO cheese made about 35km away from Lisbon, with a buttery centre which you scoop out onto bread or crackers. The Portuguese find any excuse to eat cheese – as a starter, at the end of a meal, or at any time of the day just because.
4. Pastelaria (cakes)
Forget pastéis de nata. Okay, don’t forget pastéis de nata, because they are delicious and you can’t avoid them – they are everywhere! However, Portugal is incredibly sweet-toothed and there are cakes and biscuits to be found in every café.
Go to a pastelaria to find the greatest range. In some you’ll find flouncy, fruity affairs, but try the simpler things which are truly Portuguese. There aren’t bold flavours, just egginess with hints of cinnamon, and sometimes aniseed. If you don’t like extreme sulphury egginess, avoid things with a yellow-orange paste in them – that’s just egg yolk and sugar you’re looking at.
5. Meat sandwiches
They may sound simple – and, years ago, they were made with dry, leathery meat – but today it’s hard to find a bad meat sandwich in Lisbon. There are three kinds of meat sandwich that you will easily find on the streets: the bifana, a pork loin steak which has been marinated in stock and red pepper paste, served in a crusty bread roll; the prego, a beef steak sandwich often served inside a bolo do caco, a bread made with sweet potato; and the sandes de leitão, a roll filled with shredded, roast suckling pig with a pepper-and-salt sauce made from the roasting juices of the meat.
This is Portugal’s equivalent of prosciutto or jamón. It’s worth forking out a little bit extra to get the really good stuff. You can buy it freshly sliced in good delicatessens where they will have different hams made from different kinds of pig, acorn or chestnut-fed, with different ages – some are cured for as much as three years.Ask for 50g of something really expensive (€5-€9 for those 50g) and a bit of cheese to make a picnic of it in the park. Beware, in restaurants, of plates of presunto if you haven’t asked for them… eat it, and you may pay more than €10 for the privilege.
7. Tosta mista and torrada
If there is one thing that flamengo cheese is really good for, it’s a tosta mista (a ham and cheese toastie). If you just want cheese, ask for a tosta de queijo. Almost any café will make you one, at any time of day, and if you’ve been slogging up and down the hills of Lisbon you’ll have earned the carb fix.
They come in two varieties – on pão de forma (sliced bread) or on pão caseiro (decent bread), depending on the kind of café you’re in. Either is good, oozing stringy cheese and dripping with butter. You can also ask for just toast (uma torrada) in any café – two doorstops of bread will arrive, slathered in melting butter, on both sides of the bread.
8. Jaquinzinhos or carapauzinhos
These tiny fish are horse mackerel, floured and deep-fried until crunchy. In a tasca (the Portuguese equivalent of a “greasy spoon” café) they will be served with red bean rice or tomato rice. Don’t be squeamish – this is a fish you eat whole, from the head to the tail, and usually in just one bite. They’re hard when they’re fried, so there aren’t any squishy bits to remind you that you are eating a whole fish.
9. Feijoada (bean stew)
Much of Portuguese cookery comes from rural villages, where every ingredient had to be used to its fullest. Feijoada, similar to cassoulet, is a pork and bean stew, which uses various cured sausages to give it flavour and bits of pork that aren’t the prettiest. Bits of ribs and belly sit alongside chopped-up noses and ears. If you leave those bits on your plate, the locals will think you’re crazy, but they won’t mind. A good feijoada has a deep smoky flavour and you probably won’t be able to eat again (or move) for hours.
It’s almost impossible to visit Lisbon and not be confronted with bacalhau. There are thousands of ways to cook this old Portuguese staple of salted cod and almost every establishment offers at least one version. Many visitors still shy away from it because of its stinky reputation, but don’t avoid it. In its dry state, yes, it reeks, but once it is cooked, roasted, boiled or shredded and mixed into other things, it’s just cod with some flavour to it.
Before you commit to eating a whole steak of salt cod, pastéis de bacalhau (deep-fried fishcakes found in most cafés) are a good way to introduce yourself to the idea. You can also try bacalhau à brás, scrambled eggs with salt cod, potatoes and olives (see above).
11. Polvo à lagareiro (octopus roasted in olive oil)
If there is one thing the Portuguese never stint on, it’s olive oil (azeite). ‘À lagareiro’ means ‘in the style of the olive oil producer’, or rather, the person who had a whole tank (lagar) of olive oil at their disposal. For this dish, octopus tentacles are roasted in lashings of olive oil, with plenty of garlic and salt, and served with ‘batatas a murro’ (punched potatoes). The spuds are boiled, then finished off alongside the octopus in its oil, having first been punched to break the skin. This is also a common way of cooking salt cod.
12. Favas com enchidos (broad bean stew with sausages)
13. Cozido à Portuguesa (Portuguese stew)
Like many traditional Portuguese dishes, cozido isn’t pretty. Its name literally means ‘a boil-up, Portuguese style’ and that’s exactly what it is. To make it, various sausages are placed in the base of a huge deep pan: chouriço, farinheira and morcela are the the basics. Cuts of pork and beef (some lean meat, but usually plenty of belly, ribs and chunks of ears, feet and noses) are placed on top of the sausages. The pan is topped up with water and boiled. Sometimes in the same pan, sometimes in a separate pan, peeled potatoes, cabbage, carrots, green beans and occasionally turnips are also boiled to death.
It sounds (and looks) awful, but the intense flavours of the sausages filters up through the meat and vegetables, imparting their distinct flavour along the way. Pasta and rice is often cooked in the resulting broth to be served alongside the rest. It is a favourite dish of many Portuguese as it’s traditionally eaten as Sunday lunch.
14. Peixe e marisco (fish and seafood)
Seafood is also best eaten simply steamed or boiled, or in very simple concoctions such as dressed sapateira/carangueijo (crab), amêijoas à Bulhão Pato (clams with garlic, coriander and lemon juice) or gambas al ajillo (large prawns in garlic, strangely called the Spanish name instead of the Portuguese). The purest taste of the sea comes in the form of percebes (gooseneck barnacles) that look like dinosaur claws.
15. Torresmos (Portuguese pork scratchings)
Torresmos come in many different forms – there’s even a kind of sliced ham version, which looks like those bars of soap made from soap offcuts. The one to look out for is torresmos from the Alentejo, usually found in tascas. Just like pork scratchings, they are made from fried pork skin and fat, but in this version much of the lard is sealed into the torresmos. Worth nibbling on for the intense pork flavour.
16. Sericaia com ameixa de Elvas (a soft eggy cake and a crystallised plum)
There are thousands of cakes and puddings in Portugal in which the main ingredient is egg. Sericaia is at the lighter end of the scale. Made from eggs, milk and a little flour, it’s dusted with cinnamon and usually served with its traditional accompaniment of an Elvas plum, a plum crystallised in its own syrup. A dense but light pudding with which to end a meal.
17. Pastéis de nata (Portuguese custard tarts)
Of course, no trip to Lisbon will ever be complete without eating a pastel de nata. They can be found in most cafés in the city, including a handful which specialize in these world-famous custard tarts. The best are the ones with the most buttery pastry and the wobbliest custard.
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What’s your favourite Portuguese food? Leave a comment below…