This has to make the list if for no other reason than it’s often one of the first questions we get about living in another country: “How’s the food?” I guess that’s understandable since pretty much every human being alive enjoys eating.
It isn’t often one hears the phrase “Portuguese cuisine” when talking about worldwide culinary delights. In the US, there are tons of Chinese restaurants (like Panda Express, to name one of America’s top shelf Asian culinary experiences), Japanese (Teriyaki Express), Italian (Pizza Hut), French (any place with french fries of course), German (Hot Dog on a Stick), Mexican (Taco Bell), and Indian cuisine (Curry whatever), among others. Ok, I know there are plenty of ethnic restaurants aside from fast food. But there are about 250,000 fast food restaurants in the US, which account for approximately 40% of the entire restaurant total (by number of locations). Unfortunately, these also account for 875% of the total calorie dispensation, a statistic I just made up, but is probably true. As an aside, I did a search on “Portuguese fast food” in Google, and got McDonalds and Burger King. Apparently there are no native Portuguese fast food chains, for which they deserve a big medal. Actually there are plenty of fast food eateries inside the many malls in Portugal, but in addition to Pizza Hut and McDonalds, they tend to feature fish, kabobs from the Middle East, or steak and eggs. I like the way they serve your food on actual plates with metal silverware.
Okay, I got a little off track here. The point is I don’t recall ever seeing a restaurant billing itself as specializing in Portuguese cuisine. I did see one named “Port and Geese” once, but I think they served stout wine and goose. I just made that up too.
The lack of culinary famousness seems appropriate for a country like Portugal, because much of the appeal for this innocuous little place is its unassuming and out-of-the-way location and humble attitude. Whenever you see a list of countries in Europe rating things like economic indicators and the like, as often as not Portugal doesn’t even make the list. It’s one of the reasons the people here are so humble and self-deprecating. They feel like their country is not big or important enough to be paid attention to, at least any more. Hundreds of years ago they sailed the seven seas and were a world power. But no more, and they take their place at the back of the classroom with resigned acceptance.
So its no surprise that their cuisine mirrors that philosophic approach. They have no foods like souffle’, or pizza, or lutefisk, or tacos, or hamburgers, or bratwurst, or borscht, all of which immediately bring to mind a country from which it is famous.
But you don’t need something famous in order to savor the food here. While the cuisine varies somewhat in the assorted regions of the country, seafood dominates everywhere. A testimony to its deliciousness is the fact that Carolyn is a very reluctant seafood eater, but even she has enjoyed some of the dishes we’ve sampled from the sea. When we eat out with our Portuguese friends (and almost always let them order), we are often treated to a series of tapas that consist of clams, shrimp, octopus, squid, mussels and more, and they are always delectable. I’m also learning how best to barbecue rabalo (sea bass) at home. We haven’t had the courage or inclination to take one of the big flats of salted cod (“bacalhau”) home yet. It’s a lot of work to turn that into something edible, so we’ve settled for the way we’ve (sort of) gotten used to the smell of it in the store. It hardly fazes us at all anymore, although we still get stares at the nose plugs. Sardines are also a big deal here, but those aren’t on the top of our most-favored list. Something’s fishy about those little tins.
I’ve heard multiple Portuguese comment that they eat dinner late, compared to the US: as late as 9:00 or beyond. To a person, they’ve lamented that it’s not very healthy for them, but they do it anyway. We’ve entered empty restaurants at 7:00 PM, only to leave a couple hours later with it completely full (along with our stomachs). Typically, they stay in the restaurant for 2-3 hours at a time. After the meal has been served, you have to hail the server in order to get your check. And they don’t expect tips. Sure, you round it off or leave a few euros at dinner, but that’s it. Unlike the propaganda promoted in the US, where they pretend “tips” stands for “To Insure Prompt Service,” you get just as good if not better wait service here. The tip culture has simply been fostered by American restaurants who then feel free to pay their employees next to nothing. One more thing to like about Portugal, and I think Europe in general. That said, I almost always tip 20% in the US, even though I remember when 10% was all that was expected. The only way to convert the US culture to the European system is if everyone stopped tipping, and that ain’t gonna happen.
All the big grocery stores have robust seafood and meat counters. Customers mill about in front of them after taking the obligatory ticket, waiting for their number to be shouted out. On weekends, the crowd swells to the point that it looks like they’re queuing up for tickets to a Madonna concert, who happens to be moving to Portugal herself, so I’m sure there will be a concert sometime, except without the fish.
The seafood on display is varied and always interesting. Sometimes it looks like what would be found at the bottom of the tanks if an entire aquarium were suddenly emptied of water… a few hours later anyway, once all the flopping around was over. I’ve seen eels with teeth that would do a dinosaur proud, as well as stingrays, octopuses (yes, that’s the correct pluralization), and body parts of skin divers. Just kiddin’ about the skin divers, although the way the butchers wield their cleavers, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a part of a pinky amidst the meat someday.
Unlike in the US, where most meat is prepackaged for quick pick-up, the majority of meat here is delivered through a butcher’s hands. Chicken, pork, and beef are the three carne staples. They also have a lot of sausage-y things, although to be honest, they’re a little too dry and sometimes oddly flavored for our palates. Plus some of them look like they were pulled right out of a pig, left to dry, and then put in a bag.
There is little grocery space devoted to organic produce, I think because most everything is more or less organic already. There is a decided lack of mega-corporate food production, which results in healthier produce. It’s also crazily inexpensive.
Milk, orange juice, and eggs are not refrigerated in the store. We regularly buy eggs with dark shells which deliver orange yolks. We recently read that the darker the yoke, the more nutritious it is. I was going to tell a yoke right there, but decided against it.
In summary, we love the food here, even if it doesn’t have any notable international culinary famousness.
Just remember, you are what you eat.