Traditional Portuguese Food
Cuisine is one of the most integral parts of Portuguese culture. From the café culture to innovative restaurants to the markets and roadside stands found in every city, town, and small village, food (and drink) always seems to be on the mind of the Portuguese people.
The heart of traditional Portuguese cuisine is all about simple yet flavorful home-style comfort food to be enjoyed leisurely with family and friends. Historically, the majority of the Portuguese population was poor farmers, and families depended on what they could grow, raise, or hunt. From these ingredients, families cooked up whatever could be used, with nothing going to waste. Today, much of this family-style method of cooking and serving remains ingrained into the cuisine, with an emphasis on simple local produce, grains, meats, and fish.
Though traditional Portuguese cuisine varies widely throughout each region, there are some general ingredients that you can find used extensively almost everywhere. Onions, garlic, and tomatoes are commonly used as a base, which is found in most stewed and braised fish dishes, such as caldeirada (rustic fish stew) and arroz de marisco or tamboril (shellfish or monkfish stewed with rice). With roasted foods, only roasted garlic and onions tend to be used. Coentros (fresh cilantro/coriander) is the favorite seasoning for almost every dish, whether it’s stewed or roasted; other common seasonings include louro (bay leaf) and oregãos (oregano)—both grown and dried locally—andpimentão doce (paprika). Spicy food is not that common, but when the Portuguese want to add some spice, they use piri-piri, a small, red chili pepper that’s also grown locally and can be found both fresh and ground up.
Regional and Seasonal Products
Central and southern Portugal are filled with acres of beautiful orange trees, and most cafés offer fresh-squeezed, naturally sweet orange juice that is delicious during the winter months. In summer, there’s an excellent selection of ripe and juicy melons to choose from, such as your typical meloa (cantaloupe), melancia (watermelon), and melão, a general term for the other types of green, yellow, and white honeydew–style melons found in Portugal, which are generally the most flavorful. In the fall and early winter up north, wild mushrooms are plentiful. Hunting season is popular, with both local and gourmet restaurants offering fresh game, such as veado (venison), codorniz (quail), perdiz, (partridge), faisão (pheasant), and javali (wild boar). Coelho (rabbit) and pato (duck) are generally farm-raised, and available year-round.
Simple, comfort food aside, the Portuguese also know how to make some excellent specialty artisanal food products, which you don’t want to miss. The most famous are their delicious breads and pastries. Bread baking originated again from poor farming families having to make their own things, and with the historical abundance of windmills perched on nearly every hill and mountaintop, flour and cornmeal were easy commodities. There are numerous different types of bread from every region, some notable ones being broa-de-milho, a thick corn bread with a hard outer crust from Tras-os-Montes, and pão Alentejano, a chewy and thick "ciabatta-like" bread from Alentejo, which is used in many of their local dishes.
Pastry making came about as a by-product from both the wine business and convents, when egg whites were used by winemakers for filtering wines, and by the convents and monasteries for pressing and starching their habits. Thus, there were tons of leftover egg yolks, and the friars and sisters used them along with sugar and cinnamon imported from the Portuguese colonies to start a business making little egg sweets. Nowadays, pastries are so popular you cannot walk down a street in Portugal without encountering at least a couple of cafés or pastelerias. With all these sweets, it’s no surprise then that the Portuguese also have some excellent espresso coffee to enjoy with them; two of the favorite national brands are Delta and Nicola.
If you don’t have much of a sweet tooth, try some of Portugal’s delicious handmade cheeses (queijo) and charcuterie (enchidos), which come in all sorts of flavors and textures. Some of the most internationally famous Portuguese cheeses include the milky soft Queijo de Serpa from southern Alentejo, Serra de Estrela from the mountains in the north, and Azeitão from the namesake town in the southerly region of Estremadura—all made from sheep’s milk, pungent in aroma and flavor with an amanteigado ("smooth like butter") texture. For a harder and milder cheese, try Nisa, made with sheep’s milk from the Alentejo, or Pico, made with raw cow’s milk from the Azores. Charcuterie produced here has a wide variety of chouriço (sausage) and presunto (Portuguese-style prosciutto), some favorites being made from the local Iberian black pigs, chouriço de porco preto, as well as blood sausage (morçela) and a soft sausage generally made from a mixture of pork, poultry, and bread called alheira.
Açorda Alentejana (Alentejo), "bread soup" with garlic, olive oil, and cilantro.
Ameijoas à Bulhão Pato (Estremadura), clams cooked with garlic, white wine, olive oil, and cilantro.
Bacalhau á Bras, salt cod sautéed with onions, fried potato sticks, egg, and black olives.
Bacalhau com Natas, salt cod with cream, gratin style.
Bifes de Atum à Madeirense (Madeira), tuna steaks sautéed with garlic, bay leaf, and parsley.
Bolo de Alfarroba (Algarve), a sweet cake made from the local Alfarroba tree seed pod.
Chicharros Recheados (Azores), Azorean stuffed mackerel.
Cozido à Portuguesa, hearty stew of beef, pork, sausage, cabbage, potatoes, and carrots.
Francesinha (Porto), sandwich of steak, sausage, and ham covered in melted cheese and spicy tomato sauce.
Leitão à Bairrada (Bairrada), roasted baby pig (not suckling) with spicy black pepper sauce and oranges.
Polvo à Lagareiro, roasted octopus with garlic, onions, and potatoes.
Rojões à Minhota (Minho), fried pieces of pork/pork fat with blood sausage, potatoes, and green olives.
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