I wouldn’t say there are many “strange” things in Portuguese cuisine. And by strange, I mean something that isn’t normally found or eaten in your own native country. In general, I actually find Portuguese cuisine to be one of the most “likeable” cuisines, because just as in the much-loved Italian cuisine, they use a lot of simple, fresh, locally sourced ingredients. And for the most part, every dish that has been put in front of me during my time in Portugal has looked delicious and made me instantly want to eat it.
However, there have been a small handful of Portuguese foods and dishes that I definitely found, and still think are strange. And it’s even more difficult for someone like me with a culinary background to get weirded out by something. But these were foods that I either never knew existed or the combination did not look appetizing. Though ironically, they are some of the most nationally known and loved foods in Portugal! But since my parents raised me with the good manners of eating everything on my plate, even if I didn’t like it, I knew I had to try these things regardless of what I thought.
Though now I’m glad I did, because then I understood why these foods are so popular here- they are indeed, really tasty! Granted, the soft texture of these foods in particular was not very appealing to me at first, but once I stopped focusing on that and more on how delicious they tasted, I was able to let go and truly enjoy and appreciate what I was eating.
It’s true, we’re all programmed to turn up our nose at things that look strange or unappetizing to us, it’s natural. Would you believe that most Portuguese I’ve asked have never even heard of the classic American peanut-butter and jelly sandwich? And even funnier is that after I explained what it is, most of them still found it strange and and wouldn’t want to try it! The same way they found it funny and surprising when they heard my reaction to their beloved foods. So bottom line, if we get over these cultural or personal hangups, as I eventually did, we’ll be able to enjoy so many more things that one would have never imagined to be delicious!
Below are five popular Portuguese foods and dishes that I found very strange in the beginning but now love. I’ve ordered them on a scale of “least to most strange” So, on your next trip here, I encourage you all to give these foods a chance and try them like I did, as you never know just what might become your next favorite food!
The only bread I normally associate with soup are the croutons you sprinkle on top, so when I found out that bread was the main ingredient of this traditional Portuguese main dish, my first question was “why?” Well, with the historically poor background of rural areas, one had to make sure you never wasted anything, so this was a way to use up old, stale bread. Traditionally, the bread is soaked to some degree of softness, then either broken up and/or cooked with chopped garlic and fresh cilantro.
There are two main versions of açorda. In the greater Lisbon and northern regions, they make Açorda de Gambas, where the bread is heavily soaked and mushed up, then cooked with shrimp. Despite its great flavor, I’m not a big fan of this version (pictured second) because the look and texture reminds me too much of…er…vomit . But I do love the Açorda Alentejana version (pictured first), which resembles more of a soup without cooking the bread. Only a hot broth of garlic, olive oil and tons of fresh cilantro is poured over it and topped with a poached egg. Many people also add bacalhau (saltcod) or other fish to it for a heartier meal. Açorda Alentejana is so popular here that it was nominated as one of the 7 Maravilhas da Gastronomia (7 Wonders of Gastronomy-hmm a future post?) and even though it didn’t win, you don’t want miss out on trying this!
Let’s get this straight- I love stone crab, in fact I loved it even before I moved to Portugal. But I never had anything more than the claws, which can sometimes cost you a small fortune to get in the US. Here in Portugal though, on the coast, sapateira is about as common and readily available as any regular fish, and much more affordable! But get ready to eat the whole thing, which includes the shell of the body stuffed with its roe and insides. Yes I know what you’re thinking, that really doesn’t sound lovely, and I made a face too when I saw it the first time…..but oh my god is it delicious!!! This has become my favorite part of the stone crab now, because the flavor is so rich compared to the claws and legs, and when spread over some warm toasted bread and butter it’s just heavenly Personally I prefer this stone crab stuffing plain, but most people mix it with a variation of the typical ingredients found in a classic potato salad, like mustard, mayo, pickles, egg, onion, parsley etc, even beer!
You can find sapateira recheada on the menu of any marisqueira-seafood restaurant, all along the coast, but note: it’s a common belief here that stone crab and most shellfish are only best eaten “in the months with an ‘r’” (September-April) so try to save this for a treat in the colder months.
These not-so-luxurious fish eggs typically come from pescada (hake) or bacalhau (saltcod) and honestly, if you saw these whole- raw or cooked, they look absolutely disgusting. But when sliced up and made into a cold salad mixed with onion, tomato, bell peppers, olive oil, vinegar and fresh cilantro (as pictured above), they are much more pleasing to the eye and very tasty. Many Portuguese also recommend eating plain, boiled ovas when you’re sick, particularly if you have tummy problems, because they are mild and easy to digest. You can find salada de ovas served at many fish and seafood restaurants as an entrada-appetizer.
Snails, either you love em’ or hate em’, but most Portuguese absolutely love this seasonal late spring/summertime bar munchie. Unlike the French escargots, caracois à portuguesa are much smaller- normally about the size of a dime and are slow-cooked in a delicious broth of olive oil, garlic, onion, oregano, bay leaf, salt and pepper and sometimes a pinch of piri-piri for a slight kick. They are best enjoyed with a cold glass of Portuguese draft beer and a basket of bread to mop up all of that finger-licking broth.
Utterly strange, not even edible looking and more expensive than most seafood….who in their right mind would want to eat these things?? Yup, exactly what I said at first, but plenty of people eat them here, including me now! Goose or goose-neck barnacles can be found growing on the rocky cliffs all along the northwest Atlantic coast but are most appreciated in Spain and Portugal. Due to the dangerous area they grow in, they are a lot of trouble to collect- hence the hefty price. Just a tiny appetizer plate of them at your local marisqueira here can cost around €8-10. And they’re not that easy to eat either, since you have to take off the rubbery outer layer first, which can get a bit messy as you might get squirted by their red juice if you’re not too careful! You can check out exactly how percebes are harvested and eaten in the video below from Gordon Ramsay’s show The F Word, when he went to Galicia, Spain (just above the northern border of Portugal) and you’ll see that he agrees with me that although percebes look totally unappetizing, they really are delicious. In my opinion, I would describe them as having the cleanest, most pure, unadulterated flavor of the ocean- refreshing!
Happy Adventurous Eating in Portugal!