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Before visiting Portugal, we did not know many facts about Portugal food. The food in Portugal doesn’t have the same high profile as food in the neighboring countries of Spain, Italy or France.
We knew that codfish and Porto wines were a big part of Portuguese culture, but after a few weeks in the country, we discovered so much more.
There is a lot to be said about the food in Portugal. Let’s start with 12 surprising Portuguese food facts you need to know.
1. What Is Portugal Food Like: Simple and Delicioso!
If we were to describe the food in Portugal in a few words, we would say that Portuguese gastronomy is simple and delicious – or delicioso as they say in Portuguese.
A lot of the dishes, from seafood to meats, are grilled or prepared very simply. You will not find complicated sauces or sophisticated dishes. There are a few ingredients used and everything is impeccably prepared.
In short, the food in Portugal is simple, fresh, and tasty.
You will find most meals prepared with a lot of olive oil, and potatoes cooked in a variety of ways. You will also notice that the Portuguese cook with only what is in season, no more, no less!
2. Famous Foods But Overshadowed by Spain
The simple and delightful Portuguese cuisine is one of the country’s greatest pleasures. We have been consistently impressed by the use of simple ingredients and the delicious food.
On food tours we took in Lisbon, and again in Evora and Porto, we were shocked to learn many facts about Portuguese food from our different guides.
For example, the Iberico pork in Portugal is in fact as superior as the world-famous Spanish jamón ibérico.
Unfortunately, Portuguese cuisine gets overshadowed by its famous culinary neighbor, Spain. Portugal and Spain share the same terrain across borders, yet Spain gets all the glory.
The olive oil follows a similar trajectory. Portuguese olive oil is among the best in the world, but it does not have worldwide recognition.
The Portuguese have a rich heritage in food but much of the dishes are not well marketed and promoted globally.
Even our food tour guides acknowledged this fact and attributed it to a sense of Portuguese humbleness.
Prepare to be surprised by the remarkable quality of the food in Portugal.
3. A Codfish Obsession
More than a simple traditional dish, salted codfish, or Bacalhau, is a national obsession. The Portuguese love it so much that there are over 365 different ways to prepare bacalhau – one for each day of the year.
We learned more interesting Portugal food facts as we learned about codfish. This fish actually comes from the cold waters in Norway, Iceland and NewFoundland, Canada.
As early as the 15th century, during the time of great navigation, Portuguese sailors traveled the world. They needed food that would not be perishable and that could withstand long journeys across the Atlantic Ocean.
Codfish was discovered near NewFoundland and, when dried and salted, it traveled well to Portugal.
You will find codfish prepared in many different ways. Bacalhau à brás is very popular and one of our favorites. It is made from thin strips of codfish mixed with onions, and thin strips of potatoes bound by eggs. It’s often topped with olives and parsley for extra flavor.
Another snack style preparation that we also enjoyed is the pataniscas de Bacalhau. These are codfish fritters which are made with eggs, potatoes, onion and parsley and then lightly fried.
If you love to eat fish, you will enjoy trying different recipes and preparation styles for codfish. Plan to have fun experiencing the many Portuguese recipes for bacalhau.
AUTHENTIC FOOD QUEST RECIPE: Try this Portuguese recipe made with codfish for a delicious appetizer: Pataniscas de Bacalhau Recipe: Easy to Make Portuguese Cod Fish Fritters
4. Food in Portugal Comes in Humungous Portion Sizes
One of the important Portugal facts about food you need to know is that the portions are huge! Whenever we were presented with a dish at a Portuguese restaurant, we were constantly taken aback by the size.
The one Portuguese word you quickly learn is dose or portion size. Outside of Lisbon, the portions seem to increase in size even more.
Interestingly enough, many menus in Portugal have a ½ or meia dose option and in some cases even a ¼ dose option.
Learn the word dose, and be prepared for the huge portion sizes. Plan to share or choose the ½ dose option where offered.
AUTHENTIC FOOD QUEST RECIPE: Another popular and savory Portuguese recipe with codfish and potatoes, check our Bacalhau A Lagareiro Recipe
5. What is The Couvert in Portugal
As soon as you sit down at most restaurants in Portugal, you will be presented with an array of treats to tempt you before your meal.
This is the couvert – a selection of small dishes to whet your appetite.
The selection will likely include slices of local cheese, bread and olives. Be warned before digging in that these delights are not free.
If you choose to have even just one slice of cheese, you will be charged for the basket. The same goes for the bread and olives.
Before you start absently eating the little bites, realize they are not complementary. While they are not expensive, about €1 to €2, you might want to resist the temptation due to the already huge portion sizes.
On the other hand, if you don’t touch anything, nothing will be added to your bill at the end.
6. Abundant Wines and Surprising Vinho Verde
There is more to Portugal than Port wines – the red and white wines are amazing too.
We visited several wine producing regions including Lisbon, Alentejo and Douro Valley.
Be warned, some of the wines (especially from the Alentejo region) have a high alcohol content due to the constant sun exposition. It’s common to find a bottle with a 14% ABV.
What surprised us the most, was learning that it’s not unusual for a wine to have 6 to 8 different grape varieties mixed within a single bottle.
In the north, you will find the famous Vinho Verde. Translated as “green wine,” it is not actually green in color.
Here, green means young and the name refers to the wine’s very short fermentation time. It can be slightly sparkling, and is surprisingly light and fruity.
Overall, Portuguese wines are easy to drink and perfect to pair with the local food specialties.
7. Delight Yourself with Canned Fish
Eating canned fish is not reserved only for the days when there is nothing left to eat. In Portugal, the best fresh fish is canned for future consumption.
You will find sardines, mackerel, tuna and even codfish available in a can. The canned preparations are also plentiful. The most basic sauce you’ll find the canned fish in is olive oil.
You’ll also find interesting preparations using different spices such as curry, chili, and peppers, as well as vegetables such as red pepper and chickpeas.
Many restaurants now offer canned fish as a starter on their menu. This food trend started in Lisbon.
The best way to start your canned fish exploration is to visit the loja de conservas or house of canned goods in Lisbon.
This shop represents the producers from all over Portugal. You will see a brief history of each major producer with the corresponding cans to choose from.
They also organize tastings so you can sample a few cans to help you decide what to purchase.
8. The Craft Beer Scene Takes Off
Know that there is more to beer than the national Sagres and Super Bock beers. You will find these national beers commonly served in cafes and bars.
The beer scene in Portugal has been preserved from foreign invasion due to the nationalist years during the Salazar dictatorship years.
In the last ten years, the craft beer bar scene has been burgeoning. You will find new craft beers offered at local restaurants and some also sold at the supermarket, like the Vadia brand.
Many new restaurants, concepts and trendy bars will offer local craft beers on their menu.
9. Pay with a Customer Card at Cafés and Pastelerias
Cafés and Pastelerias (pastry shops) are scattered all over the country. The Portuguese have a unique culture built around coffee breaks and afternoon tea, often accompanied with a sweet or savory snack.
Pastelerias serve more than coffee and little bites. They are popular for lunch and you can get the prato do dia, or dish of the day, at very reasonable prices.
Outside of lunch, they are commonly frequented for a late afternoon snack referred to as lanche.
When you order at a Pasteleria, your server will place a card on your table which you will use to pay your bill at the end.
So, instead of a bill, everything you ordered is uploaded onto the card and that is what you give the cashier to settle your bill.
Don’t be surprised when your server places the customer card on your table.
10. Eggy and Conventual Portuguese Desserts
Most people are familiar with the very famous pastéis de nata, which loosely translates in English to Portuguese custard tarts.
Beyond this dessert, what surprised us the most was how yellow and “eggy” the desserts in Portugal are. When you bite in some of the desserts, it feels like slurping into an egg.
Another interesting fact about Portugal food is that the overuse of eggs in desserts is actually linked to religion.
Egg whites were used in convents to starch the priest’s clothing as well as the nuns’ robes.
Left with the egg yolks and time to kill, the nuns had to get creative. Making the most delicious and famous desserts became a tradition in Portugal.
As a result, many desserts are yellow in color. They are made with egg yolks and sugar. Desserts like Pao de Lo, Queijadas, Toucinho do céu, and more, are native to the convents. This is why they are called conventual desserts.
And this might also explain why Portuguese have such a sweet tooth!
11. The Portuguese Are Friendly and Very Hospitable
While not technically about Portuguese food, we cannot leave out the warmth and generosity of the people.
The Portuguese people, while some appearing aloof, are very open, curious and incredibly warm.
When we travel, we prefer to stay with locals through Airbnb to have a deeper connection to the local culture, food and people.
While in Lisbon, our Airbnb host, out of the blue, graciously offered to teach us how to make a typical Portuguese dish called açorda, which is a type of bread soup.
Not only did we have an amazing cooking experience, we also enjoyed the meal on her elegantly decorated dining room table, using her fine china and not the everyday dishware. We felt incredibly special and genuinely welcomed.
One thing that also surprised us is the number of languages the Portuguese speak. While attempting to speak Portuguese, we’ve been constantly surprised when we get a response back in near perfect English.
If English is not spoken, you can count on the Portuguese to speak either French or Spanish, or sometimes both.
On your travels to Portugal, you will be welcomed warmly and you will be able to easily get around and be understood.
12. Walk Off The Food While Sightseeing Portugal’s Capital
The city of Lisbon is pieced together by steep hills and narrow streets. It is said, that like Rome, Lisbon was built on seven hills on the banks of the Tejo, the Tagus River. Though today, the city of Lisbon stretches way beyond that.
Navigating the city is an unavoidable cardio exercise routine. Walking through the city is walking up and down numerous times.
The biggest advantage of this obligatory exercise is that you get to work off all the delicious Portuguese food.
As you walk around, be sure to look down. You will be enthralled by the beautiful and creative Portuguese pavements.
Known as calçada, these stone pavements are arranged in patterns or images like mosaics. The calçada tradition dates back to the Romans who were experts in the construction of stone pavements and the use of decorative mosaics.
Also be aware that the pavements can be dangerous. They are uneven, with potholes and unfilled gaps all around. And when it rains, the pavements can become dangerously slippery.
For safe and comfortable sightseeing experiences, bring a good pair of walking shoes and walk off your hearty Portuguese meals.
With these 12 surprising facts about Portugal food, we hope to whet your appetite and pique your curiosity to learn more about traditional Portuguese cuisine.
Indeed, the food in Portugal is much more than pastel de nata, salted codfish or Porto wines.
Portugal is a country with rich natural resources and it is reflected in the local food, wine and beer.
We hope this interesting facts will about the local culinary food scene will make your experiences pleasant.
Savor the diversity of fish, seafood, and Portuguese ham. Delight in the delicious desserts with historical and religious ties.
Sip on the unique wines and Port, and enjoy the hospitality of the Portuguese people.
Have you been to Portugal or know about Portuguese food? Do you have any facts about Portugal food you would like to share?
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Claire is co-founder of Authentic Food Quest and a lover of simple and exquisite cuisine. Since 2015, with her partner, Rosemary, she has been traveling the world as a digital nomad, creating content about local food experiences.
Her advice from visiting 45 countries and more than 240 food cities has been featured in Lonely Planet, Business Insider, Honest Cooking, Food Insider, and Huffington Post. She has also co-authored three books, including one in collaboration with Costa Brava Tourism.
An ex-mechanical engineer, Claire is responsible for SEO, keeping the website running, and the fun food & travel videos on YouTube.
When Claire is not eating, she can be found running or cycling. Find out more about Authentic Food Quest