"I never beheld eaters or eateresses... lay about their food with greater intrepidity." William Beckford, on visiting Portugal, 1757. We get a lot of questions on Portugal… the weather, the culture, the language, Fado and, of course, the food. Food defines a nation. Italy has pasta. England has fish and chips. Chicago has deep-dish pizza. So, what's Portugal's food?
Like any major European culture, Portugal's cuisine is not frozen in time and place. It grows, evolves and embraces the best of 800 years of flavors and cooking techniques. So let's start at the beginning: The simple, tasty and mysterious Petisco. "Petiscos" refers to small delicacies and are sometimes confused with "tapas'" from the country next door. Instead, think of a savory tidbit. The word itself means "tasty foods."
Petiscos are sometimes eaten between meals, as a snack or sample, and are more about quality than quantity. Petiscos are eaten in company with others. Hence, they are sometimes called "social" foods. A Tasty Tour of Portugal's Petiscos To get the full experience of Portugal's Petiscos, we will take a tasty trip from north to south, on the mainland and through the islands. One of the staple Portuguese meals is "bacalhau"--a dried, salted cod. Two favorite Petiscos use cod in a different way. One is cod fritters or Pastéis de Bacalhau. The other is e Pataniscas de Bacalhau--cod pancakes--that are served with beans. Another countrywide favorite is grilled sardines. Marinated sardines are a common Petisco nationwide. Rissóis de Camarão, or Shrimp Turnovers that are fried and creamy, are another common Petiscos, along with Chouriço Assado (a grilled and spicy Portuguese sausage) and Camarão com Piri-Piri, grilled shrimp in - Piri-Piri pepper.
In northern Portugal "broa" is served along with the simplest meals. It is a rich, dark cornbread. Also common in the north are Presuntos, or smoked ham, and handmade sausages. Roasted tripe is also common, served with beans. The Centro de Portugal Region, between Porto and Lisbon, is home to platters of octopus rice and "chanfana" – goat meat stewed with wine. All of Portugal produces outstanding artisan cheeses, but the country's crowning jewel is the rich sheep's cheese known as "Queijo da Serra", from this region's Estrela Mountains. Other great cheeses that turn up in Petiscos are from Sabugal and Rabaçal. The wide-open Alentejo region and the coastal Algarve region each have distinct Petiscos. "Migas" or breadcrumbs, rich sausages and dark hams are popular in the Alentejo.
The Algarve specializes in spicy, grilled seafood, and marinated carrots are another popular dish. On Portugal's Madeira Island, a favorite dish is "Milho Frito," which is fried cubes of polenta. In the Azores, limpets (a shellfish) and croques (a small mollusk unique to the Azores) are local specialties. Chili peppers and paprika are local sources of pride, and fine beef – from the cattle grazing on the islands – is often served grilled or roasted in a wine sauce. Fresh cheese, corn bread, and chicharros (a small fish) in an onion sauce are favorite starters. Gotta go have lunch!