The Joy of Food: What It’s like Eating with a Portuguese Family

Have you had açorda?

“No”, “what is it,” we asked in unison.

“Açorda is a traditional Portuguese bread soup from the Alentejo region, where I’m from”, Cristina replied.

In Lisbon at the time, we were Airbnb guests at Cristina’s home. That’s when she graciously extended the invitation for a cooking class in Lisbon at her home

Prior to that, we had conversations about what brought us to Portugal. “We were on a mission”, we told her, “to discover and highlight the local and authentic food experiences of Portugal.” Our goal, we said “is to inspire travelers to connect deeper with the local culture and people, through food.”

At Authentic Food Quest, one of the ways we discover the local food culture is by staying with locals. This is how we ended up at Cristina’s four bedroomed apartment, in the Penha de França neighborhood, away from the popular Lisbon tourist zones.

“If you are around on Friday at 6:30 pm, we’ll have a ‘cooking class in Lisbon’ and I’ll teach you how to make açorda. We’ll eat together with my daughters”, Cristina said.

Article last updated – January 3rd 2020 with additional practical information
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Alentejo Region: Portuguese Culture and Traditional Portuguese Foods

Known as the “breadbasket of Portugal”, the Alentejo region covers about 30% of the country. The area is home to vineyards, olive groves, fertile farmland, excellent cheeses and black pork raised from pigs fed on a diet rich in acorns and oak.

Alentejo cuisine is one of the richest and most original in Portugal. This unique cuisine has developed from the creativity of poor rural farmers and the use of the natural ingredients from the land.

One of the basic and important elements of the food culture in Portugal is bread. The Alentejo region, a major grain producer, is famous for Alentejano bread or Pão Alentejano.

This traditional bread, with a large lump that pops out of the top of the bread when baked, is an important ingredient in several Alentejo dishes.

Alentejo bread for Alentejo Food in Evora by Authentic Food Quest, Traditional Portuguese bread, Alentejo bread is always part of Portuguese dinner and part of a typical Portuguese mealFreshly baked Alentejo bread or Pão Alentejano (photo credit: @paodaterra.oficial)

“We’ve got to get back on time to make açorda with Cristina”, we chided ourselves as we rushed around to buy wine and Portuguese desserts for dinner.

We had just come back to Lisbon by train from Évora, the capital of the Alentejo region. On our trip to Évora, we discovered several Alentejo dishes, including freshly baked Pão Alentejano and Migas, another dish made from crumbled bread, exclusively from the Alentejo region.

However, we hadn’t had açorda and were excited about discovering this traditional Portuguese food in a Lisbon cooking class at Cristina’s home.

Picture of Evora, the best place for traditional Portuguese foodA view of Evora from Sao Francisco Church

Açorda – Traditional Portuguese Meal from Alentejo 

What is Açorda?

Once we got back in and settled, we found Cristina in her beautifully tiled Portuguese kitchen getting dinner going.

“The kind of açorda, I am making”, Cristina said, is “how we eat it today, and not how it was eaten in the countryside. I am adding shrimp to it, whereas traditionally, it was eaten with pork or nothing at all.”

This traditional dish, Cristina told us, is not widely available at restaurants, but it’s very popular. “Typically”, she added, “açorda is made using three-day-old Alentejo bread”.

“It’s what the poor people in Alentejo ate and you made it with everything you had”, she added.

One of the most important ingredients is the olive oil. And, the” olive oil must be from Alentejo,” she declared.

Cristina in her kitchen for Portuguese food and Portuguese Dinner while Eating with Portuguese family by Authentic Food Quest. Making traditional Portuguese food in a cooking class in LisbonCristina cooking in her beautifully tiled Portuguese kitchen

Olive Oil and Coriander – Key Açorda Ingredients

Olive oil is an indispensable ingredient in Portuguese cuisine. It is used as a dip for bread, splashed over grilled fish, basted over pork chops, used to season potatoes, vegetables and more. It’s difficult to find a dish on a Portuguese menu that hasn’t seen olive oil.

Considered the “Queen of Condiments”, olive oil has long occupied a prominent place in Portuguese culture. Going back to the Roman Period and the Visigoths who protected the olive trees. And, all the way to the Arabs in the 17th century, who named Portuguese olive oil “aziete”, an Arab word for olive juice.

During the Discovery Age, olive oil was used for illumination and the quality of Portuguese olive oil in the 19th century was awarded at the 1889 Paris World Exhibition.

Cooking with Portuguese Oil for Portuguese foods for Portuguese Dinner and Eating with a Portuguese family and cooking class in Lisbonby Authentic Food QuestCooking class in Lisbon at Cristina's home with copious amounts of Portuguese olive oil

Making Açorda in a Cooking Class in Lisbon with Cristina

As we discussed the olive oil, we watched Cristina pour copious amounts of olive oil in a pot mixed with garlic and onion. Only the inside of the bread is used for açorda, and this was mixed into the sizzling onion and garlic mixture.

As we talked, we helped Cristina chop up coriander and rosemary, while the shrimp was boiling separately in a pot of hot water with salt. Coriander gives açorda, its distinct taste. And as Cristina put it, “if you don’t have coriander, don’t make açorda”.

About 20 minutes later the açorda was ready and topped off once again with olive oil from Alentejo and the cooked shrimp.

Preparing Acorda for Portuguese foods for Portuguese Dinner for Eating with Portuguese family by Authentic Food QuestMixing in coriander (cilantro) to the açorda

Authentic Food Quest Tip: Another way to experience eating in Portugal and Portuguese culture is to eat with locals in Lisbon. We had the opportunity to share a wonderful dinner with locals using EatWith in Mexico City. It was a delicious experience and lots of fun. For something different enjoy a truly authentic dining experience with locals in their private home. Eatwith, the world’s biggest community for dining experiences with locals offers a number of Lisbon experiences to choose from.

Typical Portuguese Cauliflower Soup to Start 

To start off the dinner, Cristina made a simple cauliflower soup or sopa de couve-flor. While the soup is typically made with regular potatoes, Cristina chose to mix three different kinds of potatoes – purple, white and yellow.

In the boiling water, she added chopped cauliflower, including the stems and leaves. Moabi, Cristina’s oldest daughter, brought the cauliflower from her home in the district of Portalegre in Alto-Alentejo, the northern half of Alentejo.

Cristina preparing Cauliflower Soup for Portuguese food for Portuguese Dinner for Eating with Portuguese family by Authentic Food Quest in a cooking class in Lisbon at Cristina's homeCristina chopping up forest farm grown cauliflower

Together with her partner, Gennaro, a lanky Italian man, they had come to Lisbon for the weekend.

“The only time I cook the cauliflower leaves and stems is when Moabi brings me cauliflowers from her food forest farm”, Cristina told us.

Immediately intrigued, we both asked in unison “what is a food forest farm?”

Shooing us out of the kitchen and into the living room, Cristina told us to ask Moabi and Gennaro as she finished preparing the soup.

Cooking with Portuguese Olive Oil from Alentejo for Portuguese food and Portuguese Dinner while eating with a Portuguese family by Authentic Food QuestAdding Alentejo olive oil to the cauliflower soup

Food Forest Farming – Living Sustainably and Holistically 

Moabi, we learned, used to live in Lisbon, but left for a quieter life in the northern Alentejo region.

As fascinated as we were with her story, she was just as curious as to why two former corporate career gals, had left their careers to travel around the world through local food.

The feeling was universal. Despite the geographic and cultural differences, a desire to live a more meaningful life was at the core.

In 2010, Moabi and Gennaro told us they created Tribodar, a holistic learning center in the northern part of the Alentejo region. Their dream, they told us “ is to foster connections to the community, to the natural world, and make sustainable use of all resources.” They follow a permaculture philosophy and help residents live with a reduced footprint.

On their land, they practice Forest Farming, where they cultivate vegetables under the forest canopy. With the current use of chemicals, our soils have become degraded and applying forest farming techniques creates a more sustainable food system, they shared. For more, this article goes much more in-depth into forest farming.

The seasonal vegetables they were growing on their land at the time of our dinner were cauliflower, broccoli, fennel, and lettuce.

RosemaryTalkingwithMaovi_Portuguesefoods_PortugueseDinner_EatingwithPortugusefamily_AuthenticFoodQuestLearning about forest farming with Moabi and Gennaro

Family Reunion over a Home Cooked Meal in a Cooking Class in Lisbon

“Mom”, I’m sorry I’m late”, said Juana, Cristina’s younger daughter as she went around kissing everyone hello on the cheek. “It took me a long time to find a parking spot on a Friday, night in Lisbon”, she said. We smiled in empathy, in recognition of this worldwide frustration.

“The two chairs at the end are for you two,” Cristina said as she directed us to our seats.

Before us was a beautiful table setting, with fine china and stemware for both wine and water.

“We’ll start with the white wine from my friend’s vineyard”, Cristina said as she poured the wine around the table.

Cristina Claire and Rosemary at Dinning Table for Portuguese food for Portuguese Dinner and Eating with a Portuguese family by Authentic Food QuestWith Cristina at the table about to try the local Portuguese white wine

Entrepreneurship – Key to Survival During Portugal’s Economic Crisis

Cristina, like her friend, lost her job during the Portuguese economic crisis which started in 2008. Helped by a 2011 bailout from Europe and the International Monetary Fund, the Portuguese economy is on the road to recovery, fueled by tourism.

A former Professor of Sociology, Cristina, turned to renting rooms in her apartment through Airbnb to make ends meet. At the time of our stay, she was building a chalet on her property to also offer via Airbnb.

“We had to be creative when we lost our jobs”, Cristina said. Her friend and former colleague turned to making wine with her husband. In fact, the wine we were drinking was from their first vintage, and we were all guinea pigs.

When the economic crisis hit the U.S. at around the same period, I was working in my corporate job. I remember being focused on working hard and keeping my job, oblivious to the impact the economic crisis was having around the world.

“We went to pick grapes in the Rhône wine region in Southern France”, added Moabi “ to make ends meet”.  While she and Gennaro had a horrible experience, where they felt exploited, they did what they had to do, when they couldn’t find jobs home.

Rosemary,Maobi, Gennaro,Juana and Cristina for Portuguese food and Portuguese Dinner while Eating with a Portuguese family with made in a Lisbon cooking classby Authentic Food QuestBonding with Cristina and her Portuguese family over dinner

Traditional Dinner – Eating in Portugal

Homemade Portuguese Cauliflower Soup

Over the cauliflower soup, we got to know Juana. New into her career as a nutritionist, Juana, was a single woman in her late twenties.

Passionate about traveling, she was at a stage where she was trying to figure out if she wanted to be a nutritionist for the rest of her life. “I was good in biology and the sciences, and I just fell into nutrition,” she said.

She was most interested in our travels and especially our quest for authentic food in South America. “I want to go to Argentina and travel around the continent and volunteer. Already a well-traveled lady, the allure to South America was also in part driven by Portugal’s former colony, Brasil.

As we talked about traveling, we savored the flavors of the purple cauliflower soup. Blended into a purée, it was packed with fresh and garlicky flavors.

Cauliflower Soup for Portuguese food and Portuguese Dinner while Eating with a Portuguese family by Authentic Food QuestHearty cauliflower soup or sopa de couve-flor

Tasting Açorda & Portuguese Wine

As Cristina served the açorda, I passed around a bottle of Portuguese wine from the Douro Region.

Wine production is one of Portugal’s most ancient traditions. The Douro Valley is the first demarcated and regulated wine region in the world. It is known for producing some of the best wines in Portugal, and also in the world.

The açorda, with a risotto-like texture, was hearty and full of flavor. Each bite into the stunning dense soup was biting into a much loved traditional Portuguese soup.

The origins of the açorda are said to go back to the times of the Moorish occupation of the Portuguese territory. Portuguese culinary researchers believe the açorda is an evolution of Moorish bread soups.

Acorda with Shrimp for Portuguese food and Portuguese Dinner while Eating with Portuguese family by Authentic Food Quest. This acorda was made in a Cooking class in Lisbon with CristinaDelightful açorda with coriander and shrimp

Nisa Cheese from the Alentejo Region

Already familiar with European cheese varieties, and especially those from France, we enjoyed discovering Portugal’s wide variety of artisanal cheeses. Claire, an avid cheese lover made it a point to try as many Portuguese cheeses as she could.

In keeping with the theme of Alentejo cuisine, Maobi brought the local Queijo de Nisa (Nisa Cheese) from Alto-Alentejo with her. This semi-hard cheese made with raw sheep’s milk has a protected geographical status or Denominação de Origem Protegida (DOP).

This cheese was mild with nutty flavors. It is deeply rooted in the Alentejo region and considered a major source of protein in the diet of the region. The magazine “Wine Spectator” considers it one of the 100 best cheeses in the world.

Alentejo Sheep Cheese Sotonisa Portuguese foods for Portuguese Dinner for Eating with Portuguese family by Authentic Food Quest discovered in Cooking class in Lisbon with CristinaNisa cheese, named one of the best cheese in the world

Bolo de Bolacha – Traditional Portuguese Biscuit Cake Dessert 

To finish off the meal, unbeknownst to us, Cristina had already prepared a simple and traditional no-bake cake. Even though we had picked up local Portuguese pastries, we were more intrigued by her favorite childhood dessert she had prepared.

Bolo de Bolacha or “cookie cake” in English, is a cake made with stacks of Portuguese bolacha Maria biscuits and condensed milk.

As Cristina told us, Maria biscuits are kids’ favorites in Portuguese homes. “Eating Maria cookies is a way to connect to childhood”, she went on to explain,

The cake is simple to make. The recipe calls for mixing condensed milk, cream, egg yolks, and Maria cookies soaked in coffee. Cristina adapts the recipe and does not use sugar added and is light on the coffee.

The cake, we learned also comes as a mousse, and that’s the version Cristina prefers.

The Portuguese desserts followed by coffee was the perfect end to a typical Portuguese meal with a warm and generous Portuguese family.

Picture of Traditional Portuguese Dessert called Bolo de Balacha or Biscuit Cake. This is a Traditional Portuguese food and the end to a Portuguese Dinner while Eating with a Portuguese family by Authentic Food QuestHomemade Bolo de Bolacha or Biscuit Cake

Authentic Food Quest Tip: Check out this other simple, no-bake Portuguese dessert recipe using Maria biscuits. Click this link for Serradura dessert, an easy Portuguese dessert recipe.

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In Summary

Food opens doors and connects us in more ways than we might imagine. Services like Airbnb make it easy to meet locals and share experiences  

When you have the opportunity to share a meal with a local family, you discover that you are more alike than you are different.

Through sharing stories at Cristina’s dinner table, we found our points of commonality. We talked about our lives and what mattered. Whether it was traveling to discover the world, or setting up a holistic learning center, fulfillment was at the core.

The warm environment Cristina created in the Lisbon cooking class and the traditional Alentejo dishes brought us together in a powerful way.

At that table, “the center of the universe”, from about 8:00 pm to 11:00 pm, we crossed geographic barriers and shared a special moment.

A moment that was only made possible through food.

“I believe that any people’s story is every people’s story, and that from stories, we can all learn something to enrich our lives.”

– Harriette Gillem Robinet, from If You Please, President Lincoln

Eat With Locals in Lisbon

Eating with a Portuguese family and learning about the local Portuguese culture is a wonderful way to get more out of your travels to Portugal.

On your trip,  consider eating with Portuguese locals at home. Select any EatWith experience when you click the link below and enjoy Portuguese food with locals. Click below and book your EatWith experience in Lisbon. 

Book Your Stay at Cristina’s Airbnb in Lisbon, Portugal

One of the pleasures of staying with locals while traveling is connecting over special moments like this. On our food travels, we like to stay with locals using Airbnb, as a way to better understand the local food culture.

If you have never used Airbnb before, you get $55 off your first Airbnb booking by using our link. It doesn’t cost you anything and it helps us to get a small credit for our next Airbnb stay.

If your travels take you to Lisbon, book a stay with Cristina or explore other local Airbnb options.

Have you shared memorable meals with locals on your travels?  In the comments below, please tell us about your favorite experience.

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52 thoughts on “The Joy of Food: What It’s like Eating with a Portuguese Family”

  1. It’s a fantastic idea to stay with a local family if one is interested in exploring authentic local cuisine! I am a foodie myself but I had not considered that idea until very recently when I stayed over at a Romanian friend’s home and her mom made some really amazing Romanian food for me. That is when I realised, this could be something I can do more often. It’s also brilliant to understand their culture, way of life and so much more about them. Portuguese food looks pretty amazing, I haven’t had the opportunity to try any yet but anything rich on olive oil and coriander is sure to go down well with me 😉

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  2. It’s always such a privilege and a treat to be invited to eat home cooking with locals on your travels! This sounds like an amazing experience, both for the food and the company. I especially appreciate that it was all pescatarian and could have been veggie-friendly except the shrimp in the açorda. As a pescatarian traveler it’s such a gamble when you accept an invitation to share a meal with locals.

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    • We never take an invitation to eat with one’s family lightly. It is truly a privilege. Knowing the menu ahead of time can make a big difference, allowing you to prepare in advance, while still being present. Thanks, Carrie.

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  3. I love eating this way when I’m travelling – it really does give you an insight into the way local people live. I’ve been to Portugal many times and only once experienced anything similar (in Foz Coa). What a great AirbnB find

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  4. I feel like I’ve learnt so much more about Portuguese culture and food after reading this article! Love your pictures and authentic writeup of this experience.

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  5. I love this story of eating with a local family. You learn so much about the culture and the culinary. I’ll have to second the motion that a good olive oil makes all the difference with Medditeranian cooking.

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  6. I absolutely love this story! The way you all connected over food is amazing. And you learned so much about the region. I personally would love to learn more about their olive oil. Also, did Moabi say if they allow visitors to their farm?

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    • Thank you so much Vicky. So glad you enjoyed the story. There is so much to discover when you connect over food 🙂 Actually, Moabi does allow visitors on their farm. I’ll be sure to update the post and include that information. Really appreciate your feedback!!

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  7. What an awesome post! AirBnB is an amazing “hack” for local experiences. Many people just do it cause it’s cheaper than a hotel or closer to something they want to see, but the local interaction is WAY cooler than any hotel. And you get experiences like this one you guys had, without even paying for them. AMAZING!

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    • Thanks so much Mike. Indeed, Airbnb does provide ways to connect with locals, that you cannot get if staying at a hotel. It was a great experience and a wonderful way to travel. What’s your preferred style of accommodations?

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  8. One of the best parts of traveling is connecting with the people and their culture/traditions. Since so much is centered on the food that people eat, joining a family for a local dinner entree is a perfect scenario. We have really cherished oppotunities we’ve had to do the same, including having “popcorn” soup in Madrid, Spain!

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    • That’s wonderful to hear Tami. Totally agree, connecting with the locals makes for a memorable travel experience. Wow, popcorn soup…that must have been very interesting! Thanks for sharing your experience. To many more unique local travel experiences!!

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  9. Eating well in Portugal is not hard! I’ve had a spanish bread soup before but this one looks really thick. And the purple of the cauliflower soup comes from the cabbage I expect? It all looks yum.

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  10. All of this food looks delicious. It seems like learning from locals is the perfect way to experience local cultural foods. I’d love to try açorda some time – yum. I haven’t used Airbnb before but may have to give it a try for a more authentic experience.

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  11. I was in Portugal a few months ago and absolutely loved the food! But how lucky you are to experience this with a local family. It must have been an amazing time! Great post with so much detail!

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  12. I started to drool reading your article. I have never had similar experience from Airbnb. For me, the idea of sharing meals and stories and creating friendships was something I had more connected with Couchsurfing, so I am super happy that there are such cool hosts on Airbnb too! I was, however, hoping to read about a recipe for a real Pastel de Nata! I am addicted to that one 🙂

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    • That’s interesting Radka to hear that about Couchsurfing. I really do think it depends on the host and their personality. Check out an earlier article about the food in Portugal for a recipe for pasteis de nata. Cheers.

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  13. What’s better than eating traditional food with the local who cooked it for you? That’s what I called a fortunate experience! The acorda looks more like a porridge for me. I really want to try that Bolo de Bolacha though.

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    • The acorda is actually bread soup and it is a traditional Portuguese dish. While it might look like porridge, I can guarantee it doesn’t taste like it 🙂 The history is fascinating. You can’t go wrong with the Bolo de Bolacha dessert!!

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  14. Had never heard of açorda but it sounds and looks delicious. I’ve been peaking at airbnb experiences and this seems like one that is super immersive and worthwhile.

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  15. What a wonderful and unique experience to have a local cook for you. It sounds like such an interesting meal, full of things I have never heard of before. That bread looks so yummy! Thanks for sharing

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  16. OK. This post could not have better timing. I am literally leaving in 10 days for a Portugal. We’ll be spending a couple of days in Lisbon and then hiking all through the Alentejo region!!! Ah this makes me SO excited. Thanks for the history and culture lesson, and most importantly, the food! I’ll be sure to look into this Airbnb to enhance our trip, and I’ll make certain we find some pao Alentejano 😉

    Reply

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