Portugal is culinary heaven. It is easy to find delicious national dishes all over the country and tasty international dishes in many cities. What we like the most are the local culinary specialties. These are dishes or sweets that were created particularly in a region, town or small village. Some of them have become so popular that you can find versions of them beyond their original home. Every bite tells a story. So we want to share with you some of our favorite unique local food specialties in Portugal and where to find them.
1. Pasteis De Belem (Pasteis De Nata)
Probably the most famous pastry in Portugal, pastry lover, is Pastél de Nata (plural is pastéis). These little egg tarts are a passion for locals and visitors alike. Pastéis are what is known as convent sweets, originally made in monasteries and convents when sugar became plentiful and egg production in Portugal was (and still is) enormous. Egg whites were used for many purposes, including as starch for nuns’ habits. The result was lots of egg yolks and sugar, which were skillfully turned into candies of endless variety. Although only the original producer can use the name Belem for the Lisbon region where it resides, the pastry called elsewhere Pastél de Nata has spread throughout the territory.
Where to try Pastéis De Belém (Pastéis De Nata)
To try the original, go to Pasteis de Belem in Lisbon. The original recipe was sold to this bakery when the Jeronimos Monastery next was forced to raise funds. Just a warning that there may be long queues at peak times. For another Pastel de Nata we love, visit Nata Factory in Lisbon where you can even see them being made.
Pro Tip: Go inside and get a table in one of the many dining areas rather than queuing. You can enjoy your pastry as well as the beautiful work of the tiling.
Not to be outdone with Lisbon, the city of Port also has an emblematic culinary specialty. Francesinha is undoubtedly one of the most unique local culinary specialties in Portugal. If you’ve ever imagined a sandwich that would satisfy even the most voracious of diners, then the “Little Frenchie” has got to be it. Frankly, it’s nothing. La Francesinha was created by Daniel de Silva, who lived for a time in France before returning to Portugal. He saw the croque-monsieur (French ham and cheese sandwich) there and wanted to “Portuguese” it. The result is a massive overdone meal between two slices of bread. What’s inside ? Fresh sausage, steak, smoked sausage, ham and cheese. But that’s not all. On top of the sandwich are melted cheese, beer, garlic, tomato sauce and a fried egg. It’s a sandwich best shared or what we call a “gut breaker”.
Where to try a Francesinha
You can find Francesinhas in many parts of Portugal, but I suggest getting one in Porto. Opinions differ on which is best, so we won’t add fuel to the fire. Try a famous place like Cafe Santiago, Lado B CafeWhere Francesinha Cafe. It’s just one of the best sandwiches in Portugal.
3. Lapas (limpets)
The Madeira Island has something special that seafood lovers will love. Lapas is the Portuguese word for limpets, which are single-shelled molluscs that cling to coastal rocks. With a sweet, mild flavor, the lapas are served sautéed in garlic butter and served with fresh lemon. As a starter or side dish, another specialty of charming Madeira is Caco Bolo. The soft and moist cake-like bread is made with sweet potato. It is often served hot with garlic butter and is the perfect complement to lapas.
Where to try the lapas
If you can visit Madeirawe highly recommend stopping for lunch at the beach cafe called Faja dos Padres. You will have a gondola ride up the hill with spectacular views all around. You can also try lapas at some mainland locations, such as Marisco na Praca in Cascais.
4. Queijadas And Travesseiros Of Sintra
Sintra is best known for its many castles and winding roads which make it a favorite day trip from Lisbon. But, he is also known for two unique candies. The first is the Queijada de Sintra. This little “cheesecake” is surprising because the crust is thin and crispy. The filling is made with a ricotta-like cheese and baked for a fluffy crust on top. Sintra’s other notable specialty is the Travesseiro. Travesseiro means pillow, so it’s no surprise that it’s made of puff pastry wrapped around an egg yolk and almond cream then sprinkled with sugar. These are among our favorite pastries in Europe.
Where to try Queijadas and Travesseiros De Sintra
Sintra’s best-known bakery is arguably Piriquita. It has two locations in the small town, which shows how popular it is, especially for Travesseiros. Another popular place in Sintra is Dona Estafania.
Roasted suckling pig (assado) whole until the skin is crispy and the meat is tender is called Leitão. This dish is celebrated throughout the country, but especially in the Demarcated Wine Region of Bairrada. Leitão assado is a passion that permeates the small towns of the region. Cooking Leitão takes patience, using a spit and roasting it whole for hours in a wood-fired brick oven. Many places offer whole Leitão in large chunks, as pulled pork on a platter or in a sandwich.
Where to try Leitao
Leitão is so popular, especially during the holidays, that you can find it almost everywhere, even in grocery stores like Pingo Doce. For the true Leitão de Bairrada experience, visit the small town of Mealhadawhich has more than 30 restaurants serving the dish known as one of the “7 wonders of Portuguese gastronomy.” A famous restaurant called Pedro dos Leitoes has been serving it for over 75 years.
6. Choco Frito
Across the bridge just south of Lisbon, Setubal gaining recognition and popularity. An ancient city, it was inhabited by both the Phoenicians and the Romans. Currently, the city has a growing artistic community. A special local dish is choco frito (fried cuttlefish). Cuttlefish look like squid and the city displays funny statues of them. Choco frito has chunks resembling chicken fingers boiled then covered in seasoned cornmeal and fried until the outside is crispy while the inside remains soft.
Where to try Choco Frito
Setúbal offers a wide range of choco frito options. Locals have many opinions on the best ones, so ask around for more ideas. Casa Santiago, King of Choco Frito is a good starting point.
7. Nose and Areias
Cascais is not only a wonderful seaside resort just 40 minutes by train from Lisbon, but it is also a foodie’s paradise. There are unique seafood, like the tiny lobster found in the area, as well as the famous Santini ice cream. Two of our favorite sweets are the specialties of Cascais. Nose means nuts and these little balls are a mixture of sweetened egg yolk coated in a transparent candy shell and topped with a nut. Areias are delicious little butter biscuits that slip into the mouth and are rolled in sugar, hence their name, which means “sands”. We like it Areias so much so that we created a recipe to make them at home.
Where to try Nozes and Areias
8. Cheese from the Azores
The Azores are the other autonomous islands of Portugal (Madeira being the first). Much of the industry there revolves around agriculture, especially the dairy type. When we moved to Portugal, we were surprised to find that a lot of continental cheese is made with sheep’s and goat’s milk. The Azores favor happy cows that graze on lush land, which leads to an abundance of cow’s milk products. Among the best are the Cheeses from the Azores. Each island produces its own varieties which are appreciated throughout Portugal and beyond. Two of our favorites are the Saint Georges and Sao Miguel cheeses, produced on the islands bearing these names.
Where to try Azores cheese
Luckily for us continentals, cheese from the Azores is freely available in our local markets. However, if you have the chance to visit these spectacular islands, we recommend that you take a trip there and taste them fresh too. They go perfectly with a cheese platter with fresh bread and fruit.
9. Pork Preto
Gastronomy and wine in the Alentejo are incomparable. The area has so much to see and do, from visiting ancient ruins to tasting wine, olive oil, cheese, and more. One of its most prized products is porco preto (black pork) from the Iberian black pigs fed on acorns from the many oak trees in the area. Porco preto, when you see it raw, resembles the heavily marbled Kobe beef of Japan. This is where the flavor lies and why porco preto is so delicious. It is also used for making raw ham and sausages. When we visited the city of Évora in the Alentejo, we enjoyed porco preto in all its forms.
Where to try Porco Preto
One of the best things we learned after move to Portugal is that there are unique local culinary specialties all over the country just waiting to be discovered. It’s a start, but there’s surely more to come.
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