Friday, June 1, 2012

5 "Strange" Portuguese Foods that I've Grown to Love (And Think You Should Try Too)

Percebes (Gooseneck Barnacles)

*Interested in learning more about Portuguese food and wine with me? Check out my An American In Portugal Tours, and my blog's new home!*

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!

Açorda (Alentejana)- "Bread Soup":

Açorda Alentejana (Bread Soup) Photo by As Minhas Receitas

Açorda de Gambas (Shrimp) Photo by: Sabores da Alma

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 .  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!

Sapateira Recheada-Stuffed Stone Crab:
Sapateira Recheada-(Stuffed Stone Crab) Photo by Papo Cheio

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.  And if you're a seafood lover in general and want to know more about sapateira and other shellfish as well as one of my favorite spots to eat them, check out my past Catavino article- "Sesimbra: A Seafood Lover's Paradise in Portugal"

Ovas-Fish egg sacs:
Salada de Ovas (Fish Egg Roe)- Photo by Cinco Quartos de Laranja,-also available in English
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.

Caracois- Portuguese Snails:
Caracois (Snails)
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 mmmm :)  You can read all about my first experience with caracois and more on the Catavino Article I did about them- "Suck it Up and do What the Portuguese do, Eat Caracois!"

Percebes- Gooseneck Barnacles:
Percebes (Gooseneck Barnacles)
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! :)


  1. Delicious article :) Being portuguese I've had it all and am big fan of it and portuguese cuisine in general. But now I'm in Slovakia and you just made me drool for it :)

  2. Hey there! It's funny how I am portuguese and haven't had the guts to try most of this dishes. And the ones I tried, I didn't like.
    You are brave :p

    Glad you like our food, I'l keep on checking your blog.

  3. You should try food from Northern Portugal, it's the best from portuguese cuisine, way better than typical food from Lisbon and Alentejo

  4. I agree with HCarvalho.

    Every tourist (i work in the industry) that really travels in Portugal will love Lisbon and the South but... North in special.

    Northern Portugal is a world apart from the rest. The climate in completely different, the landscape is crazy beautiful, vegetation is almost exotic when comparing it to souther regions, people speak differently and LIVE differently.

    Being the cradle of Portugal, the region where the country started, it is home to many of the oldest traditions and authentic particularities.

    Everyone will tell you that in the North is where you can eat the best in Portugal. And cheaper. In any restaurant you can literally feast with the best dishes for less than 20€.

    And the wines? As you must Know, a little region with 3 unique wines in the world. Port wine, Vinho Verde and Alvarinho. These 2 (Alvarinho is part of the Vinhos Verdes but is so unique that people refers to it singularly) are booming in international markets and are collecting medals in any exposition they are represented.

    Many tourists absolutely love the North because it's everything they didn't expect it to be. Range of Mountains near the sea, a blooming vegetations and shades of green split by many rivers. Cities, towns and villages everywhere you look, archaeological sites from pre-roman times are everywhere, monuments older than the country are in every single town.

    All this diversity and color gives the North a unique character and feeling that surprise any visitor. And this diversity also creates a huge panoply of foods and wines unmatched anywhere else.

  5. just one thing :) About 'Açorda Alentejana'.
    What you've got in the pictures are two types of dish. With different names as well. So there aren't two main versions of Açorda, but yes two different dishes of Alentejo :)

    The first with entire bread slice and with egg is 'Açorda'.

    The other one with the bread all mixed (in that case you've got 'Gambas' but you can have other things as well you can eat themes for example with 'carne do alguidar' (pork meat) a very typical dish) and this one it calls 'Migas' :)