Lifestyle & Culture

Sarah Nagaty in Lisbon: Where to find ‘the real deal’ in Portuguese gastronomy

One of the nice problems to have when moving to a new country is finding time to try out the “real deal” when it comes to the most typical food and drinks of that country.

By saying the “real deal,” I mean what locals eat at home and not what is served at restaurants with signs saying “We serve traditional food here.” (Does anyone buy that, by the way?)

Usually, as expats, we get to try out the “real deal” of a country’s gastronomy when we make friends with locals and they invite us over for dinner. For example, during my stay in Britain, I got to try traditional Sunday roast in local pubs in my town. However, I got quite a different experience of the typical British Sunday roast when I was invited over by a British couple with whom I attended university.

There is a particular sensibility with which people prepare their Yorkshire pudding from scratch, for example, and wait nervously for them to come out all puffy and in shape. I also got to know about other habits associated with appreciating the meal such as pouring gravy basically all over your dish and not just on the slice of meat or bird.

Before I moved to Lisbon, I knew something about Portuguese gastronomy. I learned even more as I moved to Portugal, but I was not lucky enough to experience the domestic gastronomic culture as I got to in Britain.

I suppose that this is due to the fact that the Portuguese eat out far more than the Brits. Moreover, like people from my home country of Egypt, the Portuguese prefer to spend time outdoors rather than at home. The good news is that it is totally doable to get a real feel of the Portuguese gastronomy in small tascas (typical Portuguese restaurants) as well as in the many small, family-run diners spread across Lisbon.

My aim was not to merely try out typical Portuguese food such as codfish with cream or drink the famous cherry liqueur ginjinha in a restaurant with a high rating on TripAdvisor. I was looking for what a Portuguese grandmother would deem as the “real deal.” Again, Lisbon is one of the few cities I have visited/lived in where you could actually enjoy that without having direct access to a Portuguese grandmother.

Here are some examples of the hallmarks of Portuguese gastronomy and how I came to appreciate them in an authentic homemade style away from high ratings and famous names:

Codfish with cream (bacalhau com nata)

The Portuguese take great pride in cooking codfish more than a thousand different ways. (According to many recipe books, this figure is not even exaggerated.)

Even those who are not big on fish somehow fall in love with bacalhau com nata. It is a very common dish in Portuguese tascas. However, the best I tried was at a family-run business where a Portuguese mother personally attends to the half-dozen tables in her tasca Arco da Velha.

It is quite rich and tasty. More importantly, it did have the spirit and the flavors of a very good home-cooked meal. The layer of breadcrumbs, the tasty cheese, the fresh cream and the tender fish fillet all come together in layer upon layer of deliciousness.

TripAdvisor rating: 4.5 out of 5 (329 reviews)

Fried codfish (pataniscas de bacalhau)

Of course, this would not be a list of recommendations from Portuguese gastronomy without having codfish appear more than once. Codfish, in its many variations, is by far the most popular Portuguese meal, as mentioned before. One way the Portuguese eat bacalhau at home is to fry it. The dish is called pataniscas de bacalhau. It is commonly thought of as comfort food.

The breaded, fried fillets are usually served with rice and beans. A tasca called Restaurante Ideal is the best place to give it a try. The secret of their pataniscas lies in how similar they are to the homemade ones. Think of any breaded thing your mum fries at home compared to the professional looking ones in restaurants and cafes. Their pataniscas are simple, yet rich with flavours. It is served with a tasty rice and beans mix.

TripAdvisor rating: 4.5 out of 5 (223 reviews)

Pork and clams casserole (alentejo cozido a Alentejana)

This interesting blend of pork and clams with potatoes and coriander is another dish often served in tascas. It is originally from the Alentejo region. The pork is marinated in white wine and red pepper. The great thing about this dish is that the juicy meat of the clams naturally marinates the pork, keeping it succulent.

The blend of meat and seafood juices filters down to the bed of potatoes making for a gratifying meal rich in flavours and texture. Out of all the local tascas, Restaurante Aviz in the historic neighbourhood of Mouraria is my husband’s absolute favourite place to enjoy his cozido.

In his words:

“They keep it simple. They do not mess about and home-cook it to perfection.”

TripAdvisor rating: 4.5 out of 5 (42 reviews)

Sweet rice pudding (arroz doce)

Where I come from, we make exquisite rice pudding. It is so good, it was difficult for me to appreciate other ways of making rice pudding anywhere else. At first, I was not a big fan of the ones I tried in Lisbon because a) they were watery for my taste, and b) I found them too sweet.

O Mondego completely changed my mind, though. O Mondego is another family run tasca where I tried my favourite arroz doce in Lisbon. I do not know what it is about arroz doce, but it is the kind of thing you can easily tell if it was mass produced or not.

The family running O Mondego makes very few pudding cups every day. You will have them fresh, and it will feel like they have been made especially for you.

TripAdvisor rating: 4.5 out of 5 (43 reviews)

Sour cherries liqueur (Ginjinha)

While this traditional Portuguese liqueur is not something people tend to have homemade, I got to find out that whatever we are consuming in Lisbon is not the “real deal.” The liqueur is made with sour cherries infused in Portuguese brandy aguardente and sugar. Joao, my friend whose family is involved with ginjinha making in the region of the Alentejo, explained to me how ginjinha tastes so much better outside Lisbon and that whatever we are drinking in Lisbon is too sweet and not as well-made.

It also tends to be more commercial. Óbidos, a town an hour-and-a-half away from Lisbon, is believed to be the place for the best ginjinha. It tastes stronger, deeper and fresher there with a deep cherry taste. Moreover, it is traditionally served in delicious chocolate cups which you eat after drinking a few shots of ginjinha.

There is something particularly intriguing about experiencing what locals eat and how they eat it when immersing yourself in a new culture. It creates a sense of integration along with a great buzz from discovering novel ways of preparing food. Finding out how people go about their food can be a window into understanding how they go about life. Luckily, in a city like Lisbon, it is not a challenge to embark upon such an experience.

And as the Portuguese say ‘Bom Apetite’!

About the author:

Sarah Nagaty is a PhD researcher of cultural studies in Lisbon. She’s lived in Portugal for two years.

As a student of cultural studies, Sarah is drawn to what connects people from different backgrounds to new cultures and places, how they relate to their new surroundings and what kind of activities they could engage with in their new hometowns.

See all of Sarah’s Dispatches posts here.

See Dispatches’s Lisbon story archive here.

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