Cuisine in Portugal is characterized by rich, filling, and full-flavored dishes and is an example of Mediterranean cuisine. Mutual influence between Portuguese and Spanish cuisine is common. The influence of Portugal’s former colonial possessions is also noted, especially in the wide variety of spices used. These spices include piri piri (small, fiery chili peppers) and black pepper, as well as cinnamon, vanilla, and saffron. Olive oil is one of the bases of Portuguese cuisine both for cooking and flavoring meals. Garlic is widely used, as are herbs such as coriander and parsley.
Breakfast is traditionally just coffee and a bread roll. Lunch, often lasting over an hour is served between noon and 2 o’clock or between 1 and 3 o’clock, and dinner is generally served late, around or after 8 o’clock.
There are three main courses; lunch and dinner usually include soup. A common soup is caldo verde with potato, shredded cabbage, and chunks of chouriço sausage. Among fish recipes, bacalhau (cod) dishes are pervasive. The most typical desserts are rice pudding (decorated with cinnamon) and caramel custard, but they also often include a variety of cheeses. The most common varieties are made from sheep or goat’s milk, and include the queijo da serra from the region of Serra da Estrela. Many of the country’s typical pastries were created by nuns in the 18th century, which they sold as a means of supplementing their incomes. Many of their creations, often with a high content of eggs and sugar in the composition, have related names like barriga de freira (nun’s belly), papos de anjo (angel’s chests), and toucinho do céu (bacon from heaven). A popular pastry is the pastel de nata, a small custard tart sprinkled with cinnamon.
Fish and Seafood
Portugal is a seafaring nation with a well-developed fishing industry and this is reflected in the amount of fish and seafood eaten. The country has Europe’s highest fish consumption per capita and is among the top four in the world for this indicator. Fish is served grilled, boiled (including poached and simmered), fried or deep-fried, stewed (often in clay pot cooking) or even roasted. Foremost amongst these is bacalhau (cod), which is the type of fish most consumed in Portugal. It is said that there are more than 365 ways to cook cod, one for every day of the year. Cod is almost always used dried and salted because the Portuguese fishing tradition in the North Atlantic developed before the invention of refrigeration – therefore it needs to be soaked in water or sometimes milk before cooking. The simpler fish dishes are often flavoured with virgin olive oil and white wine vinegar.
Portugal has been fishing and trading cod since the 15th century and this cod trade has almost epic contours. Also popular are fresh sardines (especially when grilled as sardinhas assadas), octopus, squid, cuttlefish, crabs, shrimp and prawns, lobster, spiny lobster, and many other crustaceans such as barnacles and goose barnacles, hake, horse mackerel (scad), lamprey, sea bass, scabbard (especially in Madeira) and a great variety of other fish and shellfish and molluscs, such as clams, mussels, oysters, periwinkles, and scallops. Caldeirada is a stew consisting of a variety of fish and shellfish with potatoes, tomato and onion.
Sardines used to be preserved in brine for sale in rural areas. Later, sardine canneries developed all along the Portuguese coast. Ray fish is dried in the sun in Northern Portugal. Canned tuna is widely available in Continental Portugal. Tuna used to be plentiful in the waters of the Algarve. They were trapped in fixed nets when they passed the Portuguese southern coast to spawn in the Mediterranean, and again when they returned to the Atlantic. Fresh tuna, however, is usually eaten in Madeira and the Algarve, where tuna steaks are an important item in local cuisine. Canned sardines or tuna, served with boiled potatoes and eggs, constitute a convenient meal when there is not time to prepare anything more elaborate.
Meat and Poultry
Eating meat and poultry on a daily basis was historically a privilege of the upper classes. Meat was a staple at a nobleman’s table during the Middle Ages. A common Portuguese dish, mainly eaten in winter, is the cozido à Portuguesa, which somewhat parallels the French pot au feu, the Spanish cocido, the New England boiled dinner or the Costa Rican casado. Its composition depends on the cook’s imagination and budget. A really lavish cozido may take beef, pork, salt pork, several types of enchidos (such as cured chouriço, morcela and chouriço de sangue, linguiça, farinheira, etc.), pig’s feet, cured ham, potatoes, carrots, turnips, chickpeas, cabbage and rice. This would be originally a favourite food of the affluent farmer, which later reached the tables of the urban bourgeoisie and typical restaurants.