On Eating in Portugal
Sometimes, when you visit a place, you really have to search for good food. You turn down side streets, away from the tourist path and you ride the metro to neighborhoods others are unlikely to venture to. In many cities the main attractions are wedged between cafes with waiters or hosts standing outside coaxing you to get off your feet, get out of the hot sun, and sit down for a bite from their menu– which often seems oddly identical to the menu next door. Often you have to really dig for authenticity, you have to go further to find the people who are making food that they are passionate about.
Not in Portugal…
I’ve yet to meet a people with as much pride and love for their cuisine as the Portuguese. The first thing every guide or host or driver would ask us was, “What have you eaten so far, and where?” In other countries these conversations have been less common; even in the U.S., talking with too much enthusiasm about a hot dog gets you labeled a foodie or a hipster. In some other countries, there are very clear class discrepancies in food; we ate incredible meals in Budapest for what seemed like pennies to us coming from NYC, only to learn later that we were eating in restaurants a local could never afford to sample, even on a special occasion. As we were guided to delicious fare in more humble places, the people were humble as well; we found we had to generate our own excitement over the flavors we were discovering for the first time. While there’s nothing wrong with humility, I am a person who loves food and longs to see it celebrated. In Portugal, every single person we met declared that one of the best things about where they lived was the cuisine. One Uber driver even told us to call him if we had a bad meal during our visit; he insisted he would have the offending restaurant shut down.
I remember one time I was out with my husband for lunch in Brooklyn and I really didn’t like my food; I was so disappointed in the meal that it was actually affecting my mood. Then he reminded me, “Cheer up, lunch wasn’t a home-run but give it a few hours, you’ll get another shot at dinner.” I laughed, of course, once again being pulled back into sanity–there will always be more meals! Still, that is how much I love eating–I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t enjoy everything that I consume. I can find so much appreciation for even the most basic, every day stuff–like super fresh veggies that have been steamed to just the right second to where they are tender, but still green and snappy. Or realllly cold and realllly bubbly seltzer. Simple food done well should make your mouth and your mind nod in agreement, a definitive YES.
I felt right at home in Portugal; people care about food the way I care about food. There didn’t seem to be anyone we met who believed their paycheck or their neighborhood should determine their access to flavor. Even the humblest products like canned sardines and simple egg pastries are not looked down upon; they are consumed by everyone because they are delicious. A true appreciation for food reflects an understanding of the land and of the culture. The Portuguese love their food and they want you to love it too; they know it is one of the best parts of who they are.
We traveled to Porto and Lisboa (Lisbon for us gringos). Here are a few tips for eating well in both places, plus a few snaps of some of my favorite dishes. If you’d like to know any specifics on restaurants or dishes, please just ask in the comments. Obrigada.
- Eat ALL the cod. Funnily enough, cod is not found in the waters around Portugal but due to their history of exploration it was found, preserved in salt, loved, and established as a staple. You cannot appreciate this fish until you eat it in Portugal. I am telling you, we do not know what we are doing with it here. I’ve never had fish with so much flavor, especially not cod. What’s more exciting is that you never really know how your dish will come prepared. We ordered cod multiple times, actually in an effort to repeat scrumptious meals we had had earlier. Sometimes the ingredients in the dish would read exactly the same on the menu, and yet what emerged from the kitchen was completely different. The Portuguese joke that they have 365 recipes for cod–I believe them, and I am convinced they are all insanely tasty.
- Eat bread with every meal. Some people get all nutty about bread on the table in Portugal because unlike in the U.S., it is not always free. Get over it. It’s a couple euro and if you’re at a good restaurant, they are baking it in house–it is worth it. Eat a few olives, spread the fresh butter, dip the crust in the almost drinkable olive oil. Enjoy it, slowly.
- Have at least one “picnic” lunch or dinner. Now by this I don’t actually mean going to the park or the beach and spreading out a blanket. By all means, if that strikes your fancy, do it. Just make sure you have one day where you let a local guide you to the best meats, cheeses, and bread, and go make a meal of it. We did this in Porto and spent about an hour in this shop being fascinated by stories about charcuterie and cheese from the owner. We even took home a creamy, spreadable sheep’s milk cheese that was made by an old lady in a village outside of Porto. She literally sits in her cottage and makes small batches of cheese, and only sells a small amount to her neighbors and this one shop who has built a relationship with her. It was unbelievable. (PS if anyone is wondering–I eat NO dairy in the U.S. but digest it just fine in many other countries–another discussion for another day).
- Talk to everyone you meet about food. I got super frustrated eating in London because Yelp and other sites would have hundreds of positive reviews for a restaurant and then we would go and the food would be terrible. I left convinced that Londoners had never actually tasted good food; they didn’t seem to know what it was. (if you are a London foodie, please send me some tips to guide me the next time!). This is not a problem in Portugal. The Portuguese eat well–and they are happy to direct you to the best spots. On our food tour in Porto our guide told us that each ingredient in a shop comes with directions–whether you ask for them or not. The Portuguese want you to experience their food at it’s very best. Heed their suggestions, your belly will thank you.
- Try ALL the pastry. Alright, I know along with the cod this is actually an impossible task. But do indulge. Admittedly, I am not even the biggest fan of pastry. If I am having dessert, my go-to noms are donuts and cookies, and maybe a brownie here or there. But sampling the pastry all over Porto and Lisbon just felt like the right way to wrap myself up in the culture; to experience how they feel and love. They wrap sweet and they wrap savory and they enjoy it with breakfast and later with coffee and after dinner to end the meal. It is a big part of their daily life. Their pastry is not fancy or complicated like in France. It’s made from just a few simple ingredients and it’s really done well. You can easily browse online to find the best places to find the most famous pastry–pasteis de nata–and they will all be true. Grab several, sit in a square, and watch the trams and people move slowly about as the warm sun bounces off the building’s colorful tiles. A vida Portuguesa.