Portugal is culinary heaven. It’s easy to find delicious national dishes all over the country and tasty international dishes in many cities. What we love most are the local food specialties. These are dishes or treats that were created particularly in a region, town, or small village. Some of these 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. Pastéis De Belém (Pastéis De Nata)
Probably the most famous pastry in pastry-loving Portugal is the Pastél de Nata (the plural is pastéis). These small egg tarts are a passion for locals and visitors alike. Pastéis are what are known as conventual sweets, originally made in monasteries and convents when sugar became plentiful and egg production in Portugal was (and still is) huge. The egg whites were used for many purposes, including as starch for the nuns’ habits. The result was lots of egg yolks and sugar, which were cleverly turned into sweets of infinite varieties. While only the original producer can use the name Belém for the Lisbon area where it resides, the pastry called Pastél de Nata elsewhere has spread throughout the land.
Where To Try Pastéis De Belém (Pastéis De Nata)
To try the original, head to Pastéis de Belém in Lisbon. The original recipe was sold to this bakery when the Jerónimos monastery next door was forced to raise funds. Just a warning that there can be long lines at peak times. For another Pastél de Nata we love, visit Fábrica de Nata in Lisbon where you can even watch them be made.
Pro Tip: Go inside and get a table in one of the many dining areas rather than wait in line. You can enjoy your pastry as well as the beautiful tile work.
Not to be outdone by Lisbon, the city of Porto has an iconic food specialty too. The Francesinha is undoubtedly one of the most unique local food specialties in Portugal. If you’ve ever imagined a sandwich that would satisfy even the most ravenous diner, then the “Little Frenchie” has to be it. Frankly, there’s nothing little about it. The Francesinha was created by Daniel da Silva, who lived in France for a time before returning to Portugal. He saw the croque monsieur (french ham and cheese sandwich) there and wanted to “Portuguesify” it. The result is an over-the-top massive meal between two slices of bread. What’s in it? Fresh sausage, steak, smoked sausage, ham, and cheese. But, that’s not all. On top of the sandwich is melted cheese, beer, garlic, tomato sauce, and topped with a fried egg. This is a sandwich best to share or what we call a “gut buster.”
Where To Try A Francesinha
You can find Francesinhas in many parts of Portugal, but I suggest having one in Porto. Opinions differ about the best so we won’t add fuel to the fire. Try a famous place such as Café Santiago, Lado B Café, or Francesinha Café. This is just one of the best sandwiches in Portugal.
3. Lapas (Limpets)
The Island of Madeira has something special that seafood fans will love. Lapas is the Portuguese word for limpets, which are single-shelled mollusks that cling to coastal rocks. With a sweet, mild flavor, lapas are served sautéed in garlic butter and served with fresh lemon. As a starter or side dish, another specialty in charming Madeira is Bolo de Caco. The soft, chewy bread in the shape of a cake is made with sweet potato. It’s often served warm with garlic butter and makes the perfect complement to lapas.
Where To Try Lapas
If you’re able to visit Madeira, we highly recommend a stop for lunch at the beachside café called Fajã dos Padres. You’ll get a gondola ride down the hill with spectacular views all around. You can also try lapas at some mainland spots, such as Marisco na Praça in Cascais.
4. Queijadas And Travesseiros De Sintra
Sintra is best known for the many castles and winding roads that make it a favorite day trip from Lisbon. But, it is also known for two unique sweets. The first is the Queijada de Sintra. This small “cheesecake” is surprising because the crust is thin and cracker crisp. The filling is made with a cheese similar to ricotta and baked to get a fluffy crust on top. The other noteworthy Sintra specialty is the Travesseiro. Travesseiro means pillow, so it’s no surprise that it is made with puff pastry surrounding an egg yolk and almond cream then dusted with sugar. These are among our favorite pastries in Europe.
Where To Try Queijadas And Travesseiros De Sintra
Arguably the best-known bakery in Sintra is Piriquita. It has two locations in the tiny town, showing how popular a spot it is, especially for Travesseiros. Another popular Sintra spot is Dona Estafânia.
Suckling pig roasted (assado) whole until the skin is crispy and the meat is pull-apart tender is called Leitão. This dish is celebrated all over the country, but especially in the demarcated wine region of Bairrada. Leitão assado is a passion that permeates the region’s small towns. Cooking Leitão takes patience, using a spit and roasting it whole for hours in a wood-fired brick oven. Many places offer Leitão whole in large chunks, as pulled pork on a platter, or in a sandwich.
Where To Try Leitão
Leitão is so popular, especially around holidays, that it can be found just about everywhere, even in grocery stores like Pingo Doce. For the true experience of Leitão de Bairrada, visit the tiny town of Mealhada, which has more than 30 restaurants serving the dish known as one of the “7 Wonders of Portuguese Gastronomy.” A famous restaurant called Pedro dos Leitóes has been serving it for over 75 years.
6. Choco Frito
Across the bridge just south of Lisbon, Setúbal has been gaining recognition and popularity. An ancient city, it was inhabited by both Phoenicians and Romans. Currently, the city has a growing arts community. A special local dish is choco frito (fried cuttlefish). Cuttlefish are similar to squid and the city displays funny statues of them. Choco frito has pieces resembling chicken fingers boiled soft then covered in seasoned corn flour and fried until the outside is crispy while the inside remains tender.
Where To Try Choco Frito
Setúbal has a wide array of choco frito options. Locals have many opinions of the best so ask around for more ideas. Casa Santiago, King of Choco Frito is a good place to start.
7. Nozes And Areias
Cascais is not only a wonderful resort town just 40 minutes train ride from Lisbon, but it is also a food lover’s paradise. There is unique seafood, such as the tiny slipper lobsters found in the area, as well as the famous Santini ice cream. Two of our favorite sweets are Cascais specialties. Nozes means walnuts and these little balls are a sugary egg yolk mixture coated with a clear candy shell and topped with a walnut. Areias are delicious little pop-in-your-mouth butter cookies rolled in sugar, giving them their name, which means “sands.” We love the Areias so much that we created a recipe to make them at home.
Where To Try Nozes And Areias
There are plenty of bakeries that make these Cascais specialties but we like Bijou and Sacolinha so we can take them with us while watching the fun happenings in downtown Cascais.
8. Azorean Cheese
The Azores are the other autonomous islands of Portugal (Madeira being the first). A huge part of the industry there revolves around agriculture, particularly the dairy kind. We were surprised when we moved to Portugal to discover that much of mainland cheese is made with sheep and goat milk. Azores promotes happy cows grazing on lush lands leading to an abundance of cow dairy products. Among the best are the Azorean cheeses. Each island produces its own varieties that are enjoyed all over Portugal and beyond. Two of our favorites are the São Jorge and São Miguel cheeses, produced on the islands bearing those names.
Where To Try Azorean Cheese
Fortunately for us mainlanders, Azorean cheese is freely available in our local markets. However, if you have the chance to visit these spectacular islands, we recommend making a trip there and tasting them fresh as well. They go perfectly on a cheese board with some fresh bread and fruit.
9. Porco Preto
Food and wine in the Alentejo are incomparable. The region has so much to see and do from seeing ancient ruins to tasting wine, olive oil, cheese, and more. One of its prized products is the porco preto (black pork) that results from the black Iberian pigs fed on acorns from the many oak trees in the area. Porco preto, when you see it uncooked, resembles the heavily marbled Kobe beef of Japan. There is where the flavor rests, and why porco preto is so delicious. It is used to make cured ham and sausages as well. When we visited the town of Évora in the Alentejo, we enjoyed porco preto in just about every form.
Where To Try Porco Preto
Porco preto is available in many restaurants around Portugal. For a real treat, head to Évora and enjoy it at Botequim da Mouraria in the historic downtown or 5Amendoas a little off the beaten path.
One of the best things we’ve learned after moving to Portugal is that there are unique local food specialties all over the country just waiting to be discovered. This is a start, but there is surely more to come.
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