The Portuguese food scene is evolving quickly, but with one foot set firmly in tradition. Lisbon’s passion for seafood and sweet treats is explored through a whirlwind tour of its lesser-known culinary attractions. By Somdutta Sarkar
Portugal has risen through the ranks of tourism hotspots gradually, and then all of a sudden. From hosting the UEFA European Football Championship in 2004 to winning the Championship in 2016, it has been attracting more and more foreign tourists every year, with the number exceeding 12 million recently. Winning the Eurovision title two years ago and hosting last year’s edition of the contest also helped capture global attention for lesser-known areas like Madeira, Azores and Sintra. Now that Lisbon has been named home of the Web Summit for the next 10 years, all roads well and truly lead to this part of the Iberian Peninsula.
I found myself in the Portuguese capital a couple of months ago for a conference. A friend picked me up from the airport and showed me around, meaning that we drew up a list of local dishes I wanted to try during my brief stay—with a little help from my trusted travel guide apps—and then went about town sampling them like men on a (delicious) mission. Portuguese cuisine varies across the country, but in Lisbon, you get to try the best of both worlds—the traditional, with its focus on hearty fare filled with rice and stews and a newer, more diverse palette influenced by world cuisines. Both are big on seafood, which comes as no surprise considering the country’s enviable location on the Atlantic.
Fun fact: on the seafood platter, the sardine is something of a national symbol in Portugal. The grilled sardine is a national dish and at O Mundo Fantastico da Sardinha Portuguesa, you can buy stylised cans of sardines with your year of birth engraved on the can.
On the top of our list of authentic dishes to try in Lisbon, once you have made your way through petiscos (the Portuguese equivalent of tapas), there is another highly treasured dish—the codfish, locally known as bacalhau. Salted, shredded, baked, grilled, fried, or dried, bacalhau is served in a number of ways—legend chalks up this number at 365. A cult favourite is the bacalhau à brás, shredded salt cod with thinly chopped potatoes, onions and eggs. The Portuguese are fond of adding eggs to their mains. So much so, that many restaurant menus will have a separate section called ovos. Think steaks served with fried eggs on top.
A great place to try the bacalhau à brás? Tapisco in Bairro Alto is a hidden gem, where you can watch the chefs rustle up your order from the freshest produce at their spotless stations. We spent around 15 minutes here enthralled by the sight of meaty chunks of tuna being lovingly sliced and octopuses being slow-cooked.
When it comes to eating your way through Lisbon, no trip is complete without a visit to the Time Out Market at the Mercado da Ribeira. A modernised food hall created by Time Out Portugal, this is a one-stop destination for the best of Lisbon’s food and drinks. You have the option of trying out everything—from an octopus burger to duck rice and both are recommended highly. The arroz de pato, traditionally from the Alentejo region, is a recurring dish that shares a kinship with the Spanish paella (and indeed, the biryani). The fine, but oh-so-essential, difference here is made by the addition of chouriço (chorizo) and duck fat.
Once you have had your fill of rice and fish and meat and potatoes, it is time to move on to dessert and Lisbon has a delicious variety to offer. The reigning queen of Portuguese sweets is the pastel de nata (the literal translation ‘cream pastries’ doesn’t do justice to these melt-in-your-mouth tartlets filled with egg custard), more of an all-day snack than a dessert. It is common practice to buy these in packs of six and easy to lose track of how many you have eaten. The coffee shops in Saldanha proclaim, “The world needs nata!” and I couldn’t agree more.
Where to get your fill of this confection? The de-facto destination is Pastéis de Belém, an age-old pastelaria in the iconic tourist-thronged area of Belém that churns out thousands of custard tarts every day, following what they refer to as an ‘ancient recipe from the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Jerónimos Monastery)’. But the best pastel de nata is nowadays credited to Manteigaria in Baixa-Chiado, with another outlet in the Time Out Market. What separates these two institutions is the flavour of their pastry; Belém’s pastéis do a subtle nata flavour, while Manteigaria’s pastéis are more rich and intense. Either way, you can’t go wrong!
The other side of the Portuguese food scene is one that is quickly expanding to cater to the varying palates of overseas visitors. LX Factory, a grungy industrial complex turned into a hip arts quarter in the Alcântara neighbourhood, is one such case where hamburguerias, pizzerias, gelaterias and sushi places vie for space with restaurants serving Portuguese and Spanish fare, each trying to up their game. The Sushi Factory, for instance, does combinados (sushi and sashimi platters) and all-you-can-eat menus that throw up some surprises—imagine bright yellow sushi rolls with a red jelly-like centre that looks and tastes like savoury candy.
There is another less glossy but equally intriguing chapter of the story not told as often. Lisbon’s thriving underground landscape of secret Chinese restaurants is one hardly ever found in travel guides. I found out about them when a German colleague—who had spent some time in Lisbon—invited me to join her for dinner at the Chinês clandestinos. Tucked away in the narrow graffiti-laden streets off Martim Moniz, these are nameless, barely-legal kitchens run by Chinese emigrants out of their residential quarters, identifiable by nothing more than street addresses and the tantalising smell of food wafting down from the upper floors of apartment buildings.
Nonetheless, the food served here in cheap tableware on rickety tables is above par. The variety of dishes manages to preserve the authenticity of Chinese fare, the menus run into several pages and prices are cheap even by Lisbonese standards. We ordered the sizzling seafood and mixed hot irons, sticky rice, dumplings and Chinese beer and came away warm and fulfilled after what had been a long, tiring day.
The Chinês clandestinos are usually packed on weekends and the diners come from all over the world, gathered here in the unlikeliest of places in their pursuit of local flavours and a good time. It’s almost like being part of a secret tribe, with membership open and out there for you to find. Just carry cash and know where you’re headed, or bring along someone who does—only if you are up for a punk experience in Lisbon.
If not, the city has much more to offer to its 21-million-strong tourist population and its tantalising food trail is made even better by an impressive repertoire of cherry liqueurs and bitter almonds, sangrias and port wines, beers and bica—all of which make drinking one’s way through Lisbon an equally exciting adventure.
GETTING THERE & AROUND
Fly to Lisbon with Emirates or Lufthansa from major Indian cities. With no direct connections, flights take around 13 hours with one short stopover in Dubai or Frankfurt. The metro is the easiest, fastest and most popular mode of transport in Lisbon, followed by buses and trams. Some of the historical parts of the city can be reached by funiculars. Cab services like Uber and Taxify are also available.
WHERE TO STAY
Four Seasons Hotel Ritz: A city landmark, the Ritz has its own collection of Portuguese art displayed around the hotel and an app to guide visitors through their history. From INR 48,200.
Olissippo Lapa Palace: Set amidst sub-tropical gardens overlooking the River Tagus, the Lapa Palace offers luxurious rooms in a variety of styles from Neo-Classic to Art Deco. From INR 29,500.
Valverde Hotel: Located in the city centre, the Valverde is a small but stylish hotel inspired by the town houses of London and New York. From INR 23,700.