When in Portugal on the hunt for its most famous foods, you might dabble with a Francesinha (Porto’s croque madame, except overwhelmingly meatier, cheesier and drowning in tomato-beer sauce) and gorge on fresh seafood, which international chefs consider some of the best in the world.
However, besides these few well known delicacies, many more unique regional foods are found from Portual's North, Center, South and islands. Here are some of the historic events and cultures that helped shape Portugal’s rich and diverse gastronomy over the centuries.
Centuries old olive trees in Portugal's Alentejo region
History of Portuguese Cuisine
From the 3rd-century BC to the 4th-century AD, Romans settled in Portugal with their garlic, onions, wine, wheat and hopes of turning the Iberian Peninsula into Rome’s granary.
From the 8th- to 12th-century, Moors cultivated olive trees in Portugal’s northern hills, rice along the Tagus River banks, and figs, almonds and citrus in Algarve.
Portuguese embraced cross-cultural fusion and “food pollinated” the globe during their 15th - and 16th-century Age of Discovery, introducing tempura to Japan in the 1200s, tea to England in the 1600s and vindaloo to India in the 1400s.
With access to sugar from Madeira since the 1400s, when the rest of Europe was still using honey for sweetener, Portugal developed a strong sweet tooth, which rubbed off on Brazil in the 1500s.
Salt Cod and Spices
Fishermen returned from Newfoundland with sun-dried salted cod. Navigators brought back spices, coffee and nuts from India, South America and North Africa, potatoes, tomatoes and peppers from the New World and ginger, curry, saffron and paprika from Japan, China and Ethiopia.
The first Portuguese cookbook dates back to the mid-1500s and features many iterations of peasant cooking with simple ingredients, flavorful herbs, exotic spices and 10th-century Moorish methods of salting, smoking and pickling.
Under Salazar’s dictatorship (1932-1974), Portugal closed off from the rest of the world. Poor regions’ gastronomy evolved with a focus on fewer ingredients cultivated to new levels.
Portuguese Food Today
Today, 180+ Portuguese food products have protected PDO or PGI status and Portugal is Europe’s biggest consumer per capita of wine, fish, soup and rice (of which the average Portuguese consume 17kg each year).
PDO carolino rice from Ribatejo makes delicious oven-baked duck rice (arroz de pato) in the North, wet rice stews with a tomato-cilantro broth and seafood chunks (arroz de marisco) along the coast, and creamy, cinnamon dessert rice (arroz doce) throughout Portugal.
Menu staples include steamed-and-roasted octopus (polvo a lagareiro), grilled sardines (sardinhas), sergeant (robalo), bream (dourada), squid (lulas) and ameijoas à bulhão pato (clams in white wine, garlic, and parsley-sauce perfect for dipping bread).
Ray and mackerel are more specific to the North, Portugal’s best oysters hail from Aveiro, peculiar crustaceans like percebes thrive in Algarve, swordfish (peixe espada) comes grilled with bananas in Azores and thick tuna steaks are iconic to Madeira.
Simple, wholesome broths, like the Northern Caldo Verde made with potato, onions and turnip greens, provide veggie-cravers some relief.... but look out for the occasional chouriço slice thrown in as was tradition in poor households that could only afford meat scraps as flavor-enhancers.
Eating Portugal's famed percebes
Meats and Cheeses
Portugal’s iconic cured dairy and meat products include creamy and pungent Serra da Estrela cheese (coagulated with thistle flowers) and chicken- and bread-stuffed alheira sausage from the North where many Catholic Jews escaped prosecution during the 1500s by hanging these porkless sausage look-alikes in their windows.
Alentejo’s cumin- and clove-spiced morçela sausage is made with blood of the famous porco preto (black pigs fed on acorns that impart a nutty flavor to their meat, which tender, grilled secretos de porco preto offer a less sanguinous experience of).
Less egg-y examples of Portuguese sweets include Alentejo’s pasteis de feijão sweet bean pastries and ricotta-like Queijada cakes, and Algarve’s humid orange roll, bolo de laranja.
On the baked theme, Portugal’s bread rivals France’s in quality and diversity from the Northern pão do milho (cornbread) and broa de vintes, dense carob bread. to the Azorean bolo de caco, an english muffin made with sweet potato flour.
Old Pão Alentejano, with a hard crust and soft crumb, is revived (as the Moors did) by drowning a thick slice in flavorful fish or meat broth topped with a poached egg.
Farah’s two regional foodie favorites not to miss include carne de porco Alentejano, a succulent pork cubes and clams in their spicy juices laddled over crisp potatoes accompanied by pickled vegetable. And, make sure to find the Algarve’s cataplana, a seafood steamed with bright vegetables in a bronze tajine-like pot.
Intrepid travelers, try Azorean cozido, various meats cooked in warm underground volcano hotsprings. Tripas à modo do Porto is a 15th-century recipe that emerged when Henry the Navigator asked Porto’s residents to sacrifice their meat for North Africa-bound ships and led them with offals and organs, which they boiled into a hearty stew with white beans).
Looking for more Portuguese food inspiration? Check out our post about top foods not to miss on your trip to Portugal.