I have more than a casual interest in Portugal. First of all my name, Fernando, as common a surname in Sri Lanka as Smith is in America, is a legacy of the colonial era when the Portuguese became the first Europeans to set foot on the island back in the 16th century (1505-1658 to be exact). Secondly, as a sea-faring nation, Portugal is renowned for its seafood, to which I am especially partial. Last but not least, I was enchanted by the city after spending a day there while on tour, so when a friend invited me to explore Lisbon, which I knew next to nothing about, I jumped at the opportunity.
An architecturally beautiful capital full of winding cobblestone streets, red-tile rooftops, picturesque parks and squares, and amazing vistas, afforded from the many hills, Lisbon encourages you to walk. Of course, all that walking makes you hungry, and I was equally eager to discover what the food scene offered here. Even though the Portuguese are responsible for bringing the chili pepper from South America to Asia, their own food is a study in simplicity, using fresh ingredients and basic preparations to create clean, hearty meals. But after three weeks in Sri Lanka scarfing up every kind of hot curry I could shove down my gullet, the food I found in Lisbon was just the tonic.
The typical Portuguese eatery displays their menu out front in a refrigerated window box. If you see something you like, you can go in and order it. Nine times out of ten, you are going to be eyeing some of the most amazing seafood—I’m talking gigantic crabs, langostinas, shrimp, lobster, fish, and all manner of mollusks. Sausages and meats are hanging there, too, but they take a backseat to the fruits of the sea.
Of course you’ve heard of bacalão, the salted codfish that sustained early Portuguese explorers like Vasco de Gama on their worldwide conquests, but sardines are just as popular in Portugal. We’re not talking about the tiny headless ones that come drenched in oil or mustard in those little flat tins either. The fresh sardines they serve at Zapata, a tiny eatery in medieval Bairro Alto are about 7-8 inches long, grilled with a little salt, and they go down beautifully with a salad, some potatoes, and a nice bottle of vinho verde (green wine), the slightly sparkling, local libation of choice. We also had a popular peasant dish of seafood mixed with stale bread and laced with fresh cilantro called açorda, which tastes much better than it sounds.
Of course, later on, I OD’ed on sardines at the Festas de Lisboa, a weekend celebrating Santo Antonio, their patron saint (and the saint of love and marriage), which is a huge street party in mid June. The smell of sardines, sausages, kebabs, and fatback bacon fills the air, from grills at every street corner, but the sardines are by far the most popular, simply served on a slice of bread.
Lunch in Lisbon can be a sit down affair or you can go to one of the many stand-up counters and order whatever is on display. Usually sweet and savory empadas or pastels–stuffed pastries, which I also found in Brasil—fill the glass counters. Sri Lanka is also big on these little pastries, which we call “short-eats.” Now I see where they come from. My favorite of these stand-up lunch counters lies in the center of the city (I forget the name now!) where they served these amazing pork sandwiches called Lombinho, balacão, done several ways; and also a hearty soup with cabbage and beans. All this and a beer were only 4 euros to boot!
While the Spanish have tapas, little bar snacks to be eaten with a drink, a Portuguese pub fave seems to be snails or caracóis, which I saw at more than a few bars. These small snails are cooked in their shells in a broth laced with olive oil and garlic, and arrive at your table in a bowl like cocktail peanuts. You can either suck them out or use a toothpick. The perfect match for a cold beer! (Just try not to look to closely at their little heads with the antennae sticking out).
As far as desserts go, it’s obvious from walking by any bakery or pastelaria that the Portuguese love their sweets and cakes. Of course, I had to try bolo de coco, basically a coconut macaroon, which we also have in Sri Lanka. I also tried a variety of other flour-based treats which went well with a coffee, and whose names I now forget. But there is one in particular that stuck in my mind because: 1) I’ve never had anything quite like it and 2) I had the forethought to take a picture before ravaging these goodies. I’m talking about Pasteis de Belem, basically baked egg custard in a little flaky pie shell, which have been made by a little bakery outside of Lisbon for several hundred years. While found all over town, they are done best at this particular bakery. Though the line stretching down the block on a Sunday confirmed that this is a spot well-known to tourists, I’ll give you a little tip: bypass the line and go inside, get yourself a table, and enjoy these things the civilzed way. The line is only for take-out orders.
Another dessert that I discovered in Lisbon is actually an import. I’m not sure where Carte D’Or Ice cream comes from (the carton said Spain, but I’m sure this is a multi-national), but if you ever come across the chili pepper chocolate ice cream, you must try it. Imagine a frosty spoonful of dark chocolate richness that gives way to a creeping chili burn when it melts in your mouth. Icy Hot! Chop up a few almonds for texture and you’re in business.
I generally try to stick to the local food of a country—especially when it is my first time visiting—but when in Portugal’s capital I had to, of course, try some food from the former colonies of Angola as well as Goa (on the west coast of India).
The Angolan food was prepared by a friend at her home (lucky me!). The first dish was a fish stew laced with okra and dende (palm) oil. It was eaten with fufu, which is basically manioc flour and water whipped to a cream of wheat consistency; and feijão, which are beans. Utterly delicious but also a real gut buster due to the rich dende oil and manioc, which seemed to expand in my stomach, the meal put me in a pleasant food coma.
We ate Goan food at a remarkable restaurant called Tentações de Goa, located in a back alley in Lisbon. I would have never found it on my own—that’s why it pays to have friends in other countries. While I was expecting something close to Sri Lankan food, Goan food has a flavor all its own, influenced equally by the regions local ingredients (coconuts and seafood) as well as the Portuguese. Pork vindaloo, a regional specialty, for example, originated when the Portuguese introduced a way of cooking with wine (vin) and garlic (alho or ‘aloo’). We tried that as well as the Prawn masala, a mixed vegetable dish and lamb curry—all of which were amazing. Though not spicy enough for me, it was a treat to try food from a region in India from which I’ve never eaten before, and I would glady eat Goan any day.
To wash it all down, since I’m not a fan of Port, Portugal’s most popular export, I had to try the cherry brandy, called Ginjinha. I actually didn’t like the first glass, which reminded me of cough syrup, but after several more I think it was the liquor soaked cherries that eventually won me over.
Tentacoes de Goa
Rua Sao Pedro Martir 23
(351) 218 875 824
(351) 914 814 043
Special thanks to Ana for showing me a great time in her town.