Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

Portuguese Foods



Cows and ewes supply milk which is used more to produce the many varieties of local cheeses than to take as a beverage. Five- and six-course meals are not uncommon in Portugal, especially in the North where hearty eaters abound in the cooler, moister weather. Some form of white soft or mild local cheese appears either before or with the fruit course. Queijo do Alentejo and Serra are two popular soft cheeses made from ewe’s milk. They are especially good with apples and walnuts and washed down with a velvety red wine like Dao. Other good cheeses include Queijo da Serpa and Queijo da Azeitao. Flamengo is a cheese often proffered to tourists; it is similar to a Gouda hut considered not as good as other local cheeses.


Most of the fruits of Portugal come from area orchards and vineyards and are enjoyed in season: oranges, apples, figs, melons, limes, peaches. Imported fruits such as pineapples and bananas also form an important part of the fruit intake. Monks in the 1300s are credited with teaching the peasants the arts of fruit growing. Fruits, enjoyed in their fresh ripe state, are often eaten with cheese as a meal course before the sweet desserts. The famed plums of Elvas are eaten liquored and iced or fresh.

Portuguese vegetables are enjoyed garden-fresh frequently as soup or casserole ingredients but seldom overcooked. Turnip greens are a great favorite as is the strongly flavored kale, the principal ingredient in the northern specialty caldo verde. This is a very popular soup, made from potatoes and finely shredded kale or other greens, well seasoned with pork sausages (linguica or chourico) and garlic. Fresh coriander with its clean lemon-like taste is used in so many dishes that it can almost he regarded more as a food than as a seasoning.

Potatoes belong at the top of the list of vegetables. They are used in soups and stew-type dishes with either meat, fish, or seafood and they are a part of almost every dinner or supper. So fond are the Portuguese of their potatoes that these vegetables often appear beside rice as the second starchy food of the meal.

The Portuguese enjoy a wide variety of vegetables but prefer them in cooked form rather than fresh in salads. Many soups are made predominantly with vegetables and highlighted with garlic browned in olive oil and the pungent garlic sausages of which there are so many types.

Garlic and onions, scallions and leeks are a large part of Portuguese cuisine. And the ancient olive trees deserve special mention. Olives are used in cooking, adding their color and taste to many dishes. They are enjoyed brined, pickled, black or green.


Porco (pork) is the staple meat of the Portuguese table. Nothing is wasted; trimmings and odd pieces as well as fat and offal are used in the many varieties of sausages, some spicy and some mild but almost all pungent with garlic. Presunto is the name given to smoked hams, while pato is salted, smoked, and spiced pork tenderloin. The spicy casserole called porco con ameijoas is only one of many combining stewed or braised pork with some form of seafood, in this case cockles.

Some beef is used but it is leaner and tougher than beef found in North America, for the most part requiring slow moist cooking or else held in marinades to tenderize before grilling. Chicken, duck, and game are also used when available. Meat of young animals is favored; veal, lamb, kid, suckling pig.

So important is fish in the Portuguese diet that at least one meal a day will be based on a fish dish, and even if meat happens to be the main dish of the meal, it will be preceded by both soup and a fish course. In June, the sardine season, almost everyone grills sardines outdoors on small charcoal-heated braziers. Lampreys have the height of their season in March and these are used mainly in stews. It should be noted that grilled fish is the one dish that is often accompanied with a salad of freshly sliced tomatoes and onion rings. Herring, cod, salmon, and trout are plentiful as are every variety of shellfish and seafood.

Beans are served frequently, especially in stews and casserole-type dishes. Dobrada is a hearty peasant dish of tripe and beans. Incidentally, the natives of Oporto are so noted for their love of tripe and the many ways of preparing it, they are often called Tripeiros or “tripe-eaters.”

While chicken meat may not be so important, chicken eggs certainly are. Where would all the lusciously sweet yolk-rich desserts, the airy-light sponge cakes and delicate meringue confections with exotic names like “nun’s nipples” and “nun’s breasts” be without eggs? Hardly a sweet rice pudding or the ubiquitous pudim flan (caramel custard) could possibly exist without eggs. Aside from the multitude of sweetmeats and confections that are based on eggs, eggs are also served hard-cooked or poached as colorful garnishes to other dishes like fish casseroles or codfish cakes. Tortilha is the name for omelet, and the omelet, aside from eggs, may also contain a satisfying portion of onions, potatoes, other vegetables, and a garnish of spicy sausage.

The trees in Portugal offer many things: fruits for eating, pine boughs to add aroma to the bake ovens, cork for wine bottles, olives for eating and making oil, and, last but not least, almonds, walnuts, and chestnuts: nuts for roasting, munching, salting, sugaring, and making into cakes and pastries. Almonds are especially plentiful in the southern Algarve district.


The basket of fresh bread is probably the first thing that is put on any Portuguese table for any meal. If the meal is breakfast, then the local bread – whether made from cornmeal or corn flour, rye flour or coarse, nutty wholewheat flour — will be accompanied by fresh butter, sweet preserves and, depending on the area, either hot tea or coffee.

The slightly sweet heavy bread made from the flour of maize is the bread of northern Portugal and is called broa. Crusty and warm, it is particularly good served with caldo verde, the national soup of greens and potatoes.

Crusty breads of rye or wholewheat flour are more popular in the mid and southern regions where they are commonly used in the Moroccan way to mop up gravies, juices, and sauces from meat or seafood dishes. Breads are only taken from the table when the desserts are brought out.

The Moors brought rice cultivation to Portugal, and rice is much used in many savory and sweet dishes. It seems that the Portuguese cannot decide if they prefer rice or potatoes, so commonly are both served on the same plate.


Fats are consumed in many forms: fatty sausages made mainly from pork and lard; the fat contained in egg yolks and used so widely in desserts and confections; hut most of all, olive oil. Portuguese olive oil, called azeite, is produced for domestic consumption and is rarely exported. Azeite is the principal cooking fat and is also used by the canners of anchovies and sardines. The characteristically strong color and flavor of the Portuguese olive oil is clue to the processing. Olives are allowed to remain in the field from two to ten days before pressings and are deliberately run through hot water to bring out the strength of taste and depth of color. In other countries pains are taken to rush the fresh olives for pressing and to pass them through cold water to give a product light in both taste and color.


Only the sweets of Iran, Turkey, Greece, and Morocco can vie with the confections, pastries, puddings, cakes, and other desserts of Portugal for honey-rich syrupy sweetness. It is not difficult to see that Portuguese sweets must have originated with the Moorish occupation, but the Portuguese have gone further with the addition of egg yolks and feathery-light meringues to create a confectioner’s heaven of desserts. Each small village proudly displays at least one fancy pastry shop and most villages even have their own specialties for the sweet tooth.

From olden times, the nuns in monasteries were famed for their exquisitely wrought sweets rich in sugar, eggs, vanilla, chocolate, and almonds. Tinted sugar and almond paste molded sweets are called macapao or marzipan. Similar sweets may be shaped like tiny sausages, fish, shellfish, fruits or vegetables and some are more suggestive with shapes and names like “nun’s kisses,” “nun’s nipples,” and “nun’s breasts.” At least one place, Amarante, is famed for its phallic-shaped brioches, probably survivors of ancient fertility rites common in many European areas and now melded into religious festivals.


Staple seasonings include garlic, coarse sea salt, lemon juice and wedges, and the generous use of fresh or freshly dried herbs such as mint, coriander, and parsley. Azeite, the Portuguese olive oil, must also he considered a national seasoning for the special flavor it imparts to many dishes. Fresh eggs, fresh butter, and vanilla together with grated lemon or orange rinds scent bakery and desserts but almonds must take an important place too. Curry blends also find a place, hearkening to Portugal’s ties with India.


With wine appearing at every meal except breakfast, there can be little doubt as to what constitutes Portugal’s favorite beverage. Yet, many writers speak of Portugal’s passion for coffee too. And some areas prefer tea over coffee as the beverage both for breakfast, after meals, and with the many sweets taken as snacks or between-meal treats.

More than 240,000 people in Portugal are permanently engaged in some aspect of wine-growing or processing, while more than 1.25 million depend directly on the wine trade for their income. These are startling figures considering Portugal’s size. The variety of her wines usually startles outsiders as well. The world is familiar with port and Madeira but many should familiarize themselves with the varieties of port: vintage port, crusted port, wood port, vintage tawny and the lesser-known white port made from white grapes to produce a fine dry aperitif which is excellent when chilled.

Similarly Madeira wine is infrequently known in all its varieties from the dry aperitif seltial Madeira to the light dry verdellw, good also as an aperitif or with a first course. The bual Madeira is considered to be in the middle range, rich hut versatile, while the well-known richly full Malmsey Madeira is best served as a sipping wine or with dessert.

The Vinho Verdes of the northern Minho province (named from the grape) are zesty wines that come in either red or white. Aromatic whites are produced in Obidos while the whites of Alcohaca and Bucelas are richly golden, reminiscent of fine Rhine wines. The grapes of the Duoro are used mainly for the production of a popular red table wine called consumo. About one-quarter of the grape production is used for port wine. The muscatel grapes of Azeitao produce a sweet dessert wine whose flavor is heightened with the addition of fresh muscat skins giving It the perfume of fresh fruit.

Lisboans enjoy the many wines as well as tea and coffee. However in Lisbon, more than anywhere else in Portugal, foamy beer is also enjoyed, especially in the cervejarias (beer parlors) where the beer is accompanied by steaming plates of fresh fish or seafood specialties.

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