Although not as high profile as other European cuisines, Portuguese cuisine is straightforward and hearty. It relies on fresh, high-quality ingredients that are found in abundance in Portugal's farmland and vast coast. While hearty, the dishes of Portugal also practice a certain culinary flair in both flavour and presentation making for a feast for all the senses. The cuisine will vary in the different regions of Portugal, but visitors will find some common treats throughout. For those one the hunt for traditional Portuguese cuisine, here are five dishes not to miss.
Pastel de Belem
The Pastel de Belem, a gorgeous little egg custard tart, is to Portugal at breakfast time as bagels are to New York City. These little breakfast treats have made their way around the world representing Portuguese cuisine, but their origins can be traced back to within the convents of Lisbon in the 17th century. As the story goes, the nuns of the convent went through so many egg whites when starching their habits; they needed something to do with the yolks. From that sprang these small, sweet little tarts that are sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar. The original recipe is sold in only one bakery in Lisbon (the Antiga Confeitaria de Belem), rumored to only be truly known to three people in the world, but every city in Portugal has their own incarnation of the tart.
Bacalhau, or salt cod, is a staple in Portugal. It is said that the Portuguese have 300 ways to prepare this prosciutto of the sea, which is for the best considering the average resident eats it two to three times a week. It is occasionally baked with cream and potatoes or served in a cold salad of chickpeas, but many visitors to Portugal wonder why they eat the preserved fish when fresh cod is so readily available in the country. It is just because that is just how most Portuguese residents were raised. The fishing industry of the country was booming long before the age of refrigeration, so thus they needed a way to keep fish. It was the unique taste of salt cod that made it so popular and a continued staple in not just Portuguese homes, but its restaurants as well.
If there was any dish that could rival bacalhau as Portugal's national dish, it would be the soulful green caldo verde. Although, caldo verde originated in Portugal's northern Minho province, it has reached its peak popularity in the nightclubs of Lisbon. Visitors are likely to find it in fado clubs, which play a traditional form of musical expression that is laden with longing and lament, but caldo verde has also pervaded Lisbon restaurants as well. Traditional caldo verde is a broth-y mix of cabbage, onions, olive oil, kale and thinly sliced potatoes that is given a dash of striking red colour with the addition of chourico sausage. It is the ultimate in Portuguese comfort food, which explains why it has become so popular in the powerfully sad fado clubs in Lisbon.
Nothing purveys the quintessential heartiness of Portuguese cuisine better than francesinha. This alluring delight is the signature dish of Porto, and for the hungry traveller there is no better way to fill up. The main portion of the dish is comprised of two thick slices of bread that are interspersed by steak, ham, sausage and chorizo, not unlike a sandwich. However, francesinha goes above and beyond the average sandwich by covering the meat and bread in melted Edam cheese, drizzling it in a spicy (and secret) tomato-based sauce then crowning it with a fried egg. This Porto classic is so popular within Portugal that it has even gathered its very own fan club that detail and vote on the best places that serve up this powerful mega-sandwich. Its popularity comes with good reason, just one taste or even a look at its ingredients and diners worldwide are sure to want one.
Most countries enjoy having bread with soup, but the Portuguese enjoy making soup with bread. Acorda is the love child that comes from actually incorporating the bread into soup in Portugal and not just serving it on the side. There are two main versions of acorda, both look distinctly different, but taste just as wonderful. In Lisbon, the bread in the acroda is thoroughly mushed up and cooked with shrimp, other seafood and an assortment of savoury spices. While it tastes like heaven, it has a rather unfortunate appearance of looking like something one would find outside of a bar on free beer Fridays. Alternatively, there is the infinitely more visually appealing Alentejana version of acorda served in southern Portugal that gently coddles the bread in a broth of olive oil and garlic before topping it with a poached egg.
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