Portuguese cuisine

Author: Leonid Gelibterman

Portuguese cuisine

Our planet is a thing of beauty. It may lack some things, perhaps many things, but its beauty is always abundant, and this abundance is an inexhaustible wonder of nature.

José Saramago,
Nobel Prize winner in literature, 1998.

Portuguese cuisine is true folk poetry. The great variety of traditions and regional nuances in the country reveal themselves in the kitchen. Not surprisingly, the shortlist of best dishes selected at the special Seven Wonders of Portuguese Gastronomy culinary contest and worthy of presenting national cuisine includes dishes from different parts of the country. Code de Vino author Leonid Gelibterman tells more about Portuguese cuisine, its delicacies and wine pairings.


People have been living on the Douro river banks since the 4th–3rd centuries BC, in particular, the area of the Ribeira embankment in modern Porto was inhabited since the Bronze Age. Then the Greeks and Romans came and built settlements here. The Roman settlements of Portus (portus—»harbor,» «easy passage») and Cale (from the Greek καλός—»beautiful») were located on the northern river bank.

Over time, the settlements merged and formed the city of Portucale. But the ending letters of the name were lost through the centuries and revolving dialects (for example, the Moors used to call the city Bortcal), and only «Porto» remained. By the second half of the 11th century, Portucale (or Portugal) covered the land between the Minho and Mondego rivers

In 1143, Count Afonso Henriques proclaimed himself First King of Portugal, and in 1249, the army of King Afonco III took the last city in Algarve over from the Moors, which established the present-day country’s borders. The golden age of Portugal was during the Age of Discovery. Prince Henry the Navigator, son of King John I, who started a school for navigation in Sagres, is considered a pioneer of maritime navigation.

Portuguese caravels would leave Lagos and Sagres with the red cross symbol of the Order of Christ on their sails to travel the oceans and seas. During the rule of King Manuel I (1495–1521) Portugal became a global empire.

Today, the population of Portugal is around 11 million. Lisbon (Lisboa) is the capital, with the population of Greater Lisbon reaching about 3 million. Portuguese is the 6th most widely-spread language in the world, spoken by 200 million people in 8 countries.

Traditional boats on the Douro River in Porto

Traditional boats on the Douro River in Porto

Portuguese cuisine

The Portuguese are among the few European nations who eagerly imported new products and included them in their diet. In 1680, the book Culinary Art (Аrte de Сozinha) by Domingos Rodrigues was published and became the foundation of Portuguese cuisine. 100 years later, another bestseller was released: Fashionable Chef by Luc Rigaut.

The Portuguese prefer to start their lunch with the main course. They also favor vegetable salads (tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, lettuce, carrot) with local olive oil. The main dish of a Portuguese lunch is meat-centered.

Breakfast is known as «pequeno almoço» in Portuguese, which means «little lunch.» It lasts from 7 to 8 AM and includes coffee (tea), pastries, bread, muesli, jam and butter.

Sardinha assada

Sardinha assada

Lunch is called «almoço» and is served between 12:30 and 3 PM. It includes soup, meat or fish with rice, potatoes or vegetables, dessert and coffee. Salad is served with the main course. For lunch, they serve «caldo verde,» a classic Portuguese soup of pureed potatoes and onions with shredded green cabbage and pieces of smoked pork sausage served with bread and corn, and paired with red wine.

The afternoon snack «lanche» includes having tea or coffee at 4–5 PM, where assorted snacks, sandwiches pastries are served.

Dinner is known as «jantar» and is usually enjoyed between 7:30 and 10:00 PM. Cafes and restaurants where traditional Fado music is performed are an exception because the show starts at around 10:00 PM. The food is usually the same as for lunch only larger portions.


Fish and seafood

Fish and seafood are at center stage in Portuguese cuisine. Lobsters from Peniche, crayfish from Cascais, percebes from the Berlengas Archipelago and Sagres, shellfish from Ria Formosa… and we can’t forget swordfish.

Arroz de marisco

Arroz de marisco

But the title of Portugal’s true national dish must go to Bacalhau, or air-dried cod served with boiled potatoes. People say there are 365 recipes based around it. Fried patties called «pastéis de bacalhau» are made from a mix of cod, tomatoes, onion and parsley.


Cutlets Pastais di Bacagliau

Cutlets Pastais di Bacagliau

Sardines are everywhere, and grilled «sardinhas assadas» are especially good. In general, the Portuguese lead in Europe in terms of fish consumption volume per capita. Terceira island (the Azores) is considered a fish paradise. Besides fish, the Portuguese also enjoy other seafood, including Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato shellfish named after poet Raimundo António de Bulhão Pato. This dish pairs well with white wine.

Amway Joas-Abulyan-Patus Mollusks

Amway Joas-Abulyan-Patus Mollusks

Local cuisine is also famous for its special octopus recipes.


Caldo verde

Caldo verde

Seven wonders of Portuguese cuisine

In 2011, a national contest was held to select seven of the best, most iconic Portuguese dishes.

Alheiras de Mirandela — sausage from the city of Mirandela.

Queijo Serra da Estrela — Serra da Estrela cheese.

Caldo verde —»green soup» named for its finely shredded cabbage. It also includes potato mash, onion, and pieces of smoked pork sausage with paprika.

Sardinha assada — grilled sardines.

Arroz de marisco — rice with seafood.

Leitão da Bairrada — roasted suckling pig Bairrada style.

Pastél de Belém — dessert, puff pastry with custard. Served either cold or hot.



Portugal is well-known for its cheeses, known locally as «queijo.» It is no coincidence that the Portuguese have a saying that «wine and cheese taste like a kiss» (vinho e queijo sabe a beijo). Twelve Portuguese cheeses are included in the DOP category (Denominações de Origem Protegida, or «Protected Designation of Origin»).

Serra da Estrela DOP is among the most famous sheep milk cheeses. This is a mountain cheese, as since the 12th century it has been produced in the area adjacent to Serra da Estrela, the highest mountains in Portugal. Milk from Bordaleira and Churra Mondegueira sheep is used to make this semi-soft cheese with an edible crust. If the cheese ages for at least 120 days, it is considered Serra da Estrela Velho, meaning «aged.»

Queijo Serra da Estrela

Queijo Serra da Estrela

Queijo Amarelo da Beira Baixa DOP is a semi-hard aged cheese with a yellow crust produced in the Beira Baixa region. This strong cheese is made from raw sheep milk or a mixture of sheep and goat milk. Castelo Branco DOP is a sheep milk cheese with a strong smell also made in Beira Baixa. It is quite soft, elastic inside and becomes more piquant with age.

Portuguese cheese dictionary

Portuguese cheese dictionary
Cabra — goat
Curado, Velho — aged
Leite — milk
Ovelha — sheep
Queijo — cheese
Queijo fresco — fresh, young cheese
Vaca — cow

A soft and springy sheep milk cheese called Azeitão DOP is produced near Lisbon. Serpa DOP is a gourmet sheep milk cheese with a red crust. Terrincho DOP and Terrincho Velho DOP are made from the milk of sheep with the same name. Alentejo is also home to a small village called Nisa, the homeland of the Nisa DOP sheep milk cheese. The bright orange crust of this semi-hard cheese hides a strong taste.

Portuguese goat milk cheeses are usually made with added sheep milk. For example, the soft Cabreiro de Castelo Branco DOP goat cheese from Beira Baixa. Queijo de Cabra Serrano Transmontano DOP is a hard cheese from untreated goat milk. Évora DOP is a goat milk cheese from Alentejo available as several different types. The semi-hard Rabaçal DOP has an excellent reputation as well.

Cow milk cheeses, such as São Jorge cheese produced on the São Jorge island of the Azores, are vibrant with a slightly spicy flavor. It is Portugual’s most popular cheese and its minimum aging period is 4 months. Grated São Jorge is often used for cooking. The Brazilian Queijo do Sertão is also a domestic favorite. Fresh cheeses (typically made from cow’s milk) are often served as appetizers and added to salads and desserts.

Portugal also has a great variety of mushrooms and feature them in many local dishes.


Olive oil

Portuguese olive oil is exported to many countries around the world, including Russia. Yet there is also a deficit of olive oil in Portugal and the country imports a large amount for domestic consumption. Azeite Virgem Extra is worthy of special attention. There are several controlled apellations for olive oil in Portugal. The Alentejo region produces two-thirds of all Portuguese olive oil. The Trás-os-Montes and Alentejo region even offers special tourist routes known as «olive oil paths.»

Varieties of the Azeites de Trás-os-Montes DOP region include Verdeal, Madural, Cobrançosa and Negrinha do Freixo. The outstanding Casa Agricola Roboredo Madeira winery also makes CARM olive oil.

The Azeites da Beira Interior DOP region is home to the Cobrançosa, Galega and Carrasquenha varieties.

The Azeites do Ribatejo DOP region (Ribatejo) and Quinta Vale de Lobos winery produce olive oil under its own brand with the Galega and Cobrançosa varieties.

The following varieties are grown in the Azeites do Norte Alentejano DOP subregion: Galega, Cobrançosa, Carrasquenha, Blanqueta, Azeiteira and Redondil.

The Azeites do Alentejo Interior DOP region is famous for its Galega, Cobrançosa and Cordovil de Serpa varieties.

Azeites de Moura DOP is home to the outstanding producer Herdade do Esporão, which uses Verdal, Cordovil and Galega.

Olive oil


As regards desserts, the Portuguese can easily be called a nation of sweet tooths. They enjoy a number of egg-based desserts, including Dom Rodrigos from southern Portugal and Papos-de-Anjo made from egg yolks, Morgadinhos de Amêndoa marzipan cake, and Ovos Moles shortbread biscuits from Aveiro. Hot pastry offerings include Pastél de Belem and Pastél de Nata with icing and cinnamon, as well as monastery sweets Toucinho-do-céu or Barrigas-de-freira biscuits.

As for fruits, pineapples from the Azores and bananas from Madeira are of outstanding quality.

Pastél de Belem

Pastél de Belem

Non-alcoholic drinks

Non-alcoholic drinks in Portugal (besides juices) mostly include tea (chá) and coffee (café). A cup of espresso is called «bica» in Lisbon, while in Porto it is known as «cimbalino.» The Portuguese love their coffee and drink it served in several different ways. They prefer it strong. In 2012, USA Today ranked Lisbon the fifth largest coffee-drinking city in the world. Visitors can enjoy a cup at such legendary Lisbon spots as Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcántara or A Brasileira.

The Portuguese were among the first nations in Europe to start drinking tea thanks to their colonies in China. The Portuguese mainly drink small amounts of black tea.


Portuguese cuisine and wine

Portuguese cuisine and wine

The Phoenicians were the first to bring grape vines to the current territory of Portugal in 600 BC. Today, Portugal supports 243,000 hectares of vineyards, 300,000 winegrowers, 1,000 registered winemakers and over 340 grape varieties. Port and Madeira are the most well-known Portuguese wines.

Port wine gets its name from the city of Porto, one of the main ports in Portugal and the second largest city in the country. It is mostly thanks to famous magnate and winemaker Count Vorontsov that Russia had the chance to ever taste Port wine; Vorontsov was a big fan of genuine Port wines. In the 19th century, Port wines were lovingly given the nicknamed «Lissabonchik» in Russian. According to the Nizhegorodskaya Yarmarka 1851 («The Nizhny Novgorod Fair 1851») publication, Lisbon’s wine sales share made up nearly 8% of total wine sales, surpassed only by champagne.

High-quality Port was enjoyed primarily among the upper class. A knowledge of Port styles and brands was considered a mark of erudition. Traditionally, white Ports were paired with soups, and red Ports with beef. At the table of Nicholas II, Port was served after bouillon or soup. In Portugal, a classic pairing for Port are Figos Recheados, or sun-dried figs stuffed with almonds and chocolate.

Portuguese cuisine and wine

The second great Portuguese wine is Madeira. This wine is over five centuries old and was named after the island of Madeira in the Atlantic Ocean. Madeira wines were a favorite among Shakespeare characters, and in 1776, Madeira was chosen for the famous toast at the signing of the American Declaration of Independence and inauguration of President George Washington. In Russia, Madeira wines were known at the court of Peter the Great, but direct regular supplies of this wine to Russia were only started after 1798 upon the signing of the first Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation between Russia and Portugal.

In 1821, merchant Peter Yeliseyev spent several months on the island studying winemaking technology. His first shipment of Madeira wine to Petersburg caused a huge sensation. The Yeliseyevs eventually expanded their business and acquired their own wine cellars on Madeira. Madeira was adored by Alexander Pushkin, who praised the wine with the lines: «My cellar is happy to receive gold-colored Madeira» (1824). In the 19th century, Russia was the main Madeira market. Between 1830 and 1840, Russia bought 2,000 barrels of wine annually. In 1899, 770,840 liters of wine were shipped from the island. There was even a popular song at the time with the lyrics:

Everything has its measure,

Everything has its end,

So hail to Madeira,

The joy of our hearts!

Madeira was so popular in Russia that it had numerous counterfeits, both skilled and poor substitutes. In 1891, Nasha Pischa («Our Food») magazine wrote: «Madeira goes well after a fish soup, especially if the wine was not made in Russia, but is actually from Madeira island.»

Dry and semi-dry Madeira, as well as Madeira from Sercial and Verdelho grapes are generally acknowledged as aperitifs, and also go well with mayo-based appetizers, marinated game and Indian dishes. Dry Madeira from Sercial grapes is paired with sushi. Semi-sweet and sweet Madeira, as well as Madeira from Bual (Boal) and Malvasia grapes are good as a digestif with fresh tropical fruits, milk chocolate, pastries and kurabie biscuits.

Beer (cerveja) is also popular among the Portuguese. There are many international brands, as well as local breweries. Dark lagers such as Sagres Dark or Cristal Preta, as well as golden lagers, are sold everywhere. On Madeira island, dark lagers can be mixed with wine and chocolate to make a drink called «goat’s leg.» Salted lupin seeds (tremoços) and peanuts (amendoins) are common beer snacks.


The most famous domestic cookware item comes from the Algarve province in southern Portugal: a deep cataplanas pan made from copper or the highest quality stainless steel for cooking. Cataplana is a must-have instrument in Portuguese cuisine and can be used for cooking fish, shellfish, vegetables or meat with various techniques.

Eateries in Portugal

Pousadas, Casas de fado and Аdegas típicas — small restaurants where you can eat, drink and listen to Fado music.

Café — a coffee shop and a bar. You can also order snacks here.

Cervejaria — a beer house with seafood snacks.

Сomida a quilo, Buffet — restaurants open during lunch time offering salads, meat, vegetables and fruits. Payment depends on portion weight.

Confeitaria — a confectionery where coffee, tea and other drinks are served.

Estalagem — a type of small hotel in the countryside where regional dishes are served.

Marisqueira — seafood restaurants.

Restaurante — restaurants. Depending on their service level, they are divided into de luxo (lux), de primeira (first), de segunda (second) and de terceira classe (third class), although even the last class can offer simple yet amazingly delicious traditional food.



About the author

Leonid GelibtermanLeonid Gelibterman is the chairman of the Moscow (national) branch of the International Wine&Food Society (IWFS), and the chairman of the committee of promotion of IWFS in Europe and Africa. International arbiter of wines and hard liquors. Chevallier of the French Association of Gastronomy Chaine des Rotisseurs. Accredited tutor on sherry wine (Spain). President of the International Center of Wine and Gastronomy. Vice President of the Federation of Restaurateurs and Hoteliers of Russia. Member of the expert council on gastronomic tourism of the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

Author of Wine ABC, The Big Book of the Traveling Gourmet, and more than 150 articles and interviews on alcohol, food, tourism and management for media outlets in Russia, Bulgaria, Great Britain, Germany, Greece, Georgia, Israel, Spain, Latvia, Mexico, Portugal, Senegal, Serbia, USA, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Chile and Estonia.

Professor and author of the «Enogastronomic etiquette and protocol» course for the Executive MBA program at the Institute of Business and Administration of the Academy of National Economy at the State University of Management and School of Business and International Relations of MGIMO.