It’s a question that’s often raised. Does Portugal have a national dish and what is it? Well if you look around the web, in old cooking books, or even on Facebook you’ll find multiple answers. There really doesn’t seem to be a clear answer. Harder still, in modern times, Portugal hasn’t promoted one singular dish to represent its culinary heart. Similarly, it also depends who you ask, and where in Portugal they are from.
What is the National Dish of Portugal?
To visitors to the big cities, or popular tourist destinations, you might assume that Pastel de Nata deserves the title. Or even the humble grilled sardine, or its many tinned variants. Head along the coast and fresh seafood must surely take the title. Inland, there’s a world of grilled meats, preserved sausages, and what about the famed Black Pork (Porco Preto) from Alentejo. Head north and you’ll find roasted suckling pig, goat stews, and an incredible variety of cheeses. Like many countries, Portugal’s culinary heritage is immensely varied.
So, how do you decide something as tricky as the national dish of Portugal? Do you listen to famous chefs, the modern food bloggers, tourist boards, the menus of the most popular restaurants? Or perhaps, how about members of the public?
Seven Wonders of Portuguese Gastronomy – Sete Maravilhas da Gastronomia Portuguesa
Well, in 2011 an organisation did just that. Sete Maravilhas de Portugal is an organisation funded by the Ministry of Culture which was given the tricky task of coming up with a list of the seven wonders of Portuguese gastronomy. No simple task. Of course, something as historic and monumental would need some restrictions on what dishes could be placed on the list. First, they came up with a list of criteria that the dishes would have to meet to be considered a wonder of Portuguese gastronomy.
- The dish would need to represent genuine Portuguese values.
- The dish would need to have a documented history of at least 50 years
- Would traditionally have been made within Portugal
- Produced with raw materials available within Portugal
- Would represent the eating habits of at least one region of Portugal
- Represent the diversity of each of Portugal’s regions
Although not simple, the criteria were chosen so the dishes would represent Portuguese culinary heritage, history, and traditional food production. Following this, a list of 70 dishes that fit the criteria were selected for a national vote. A staggering 899,069 people would vote, which to us seems like a pretty good indication of a national dish for Portugal. One of the biggest surprises, well bacalhau, so often touted as Portugal’s national dish, would not make the final list of seven. So, if bacalhau didn’t make the list what dishes did?
What are the Seven Wonders of Portuguese Gastronomy?
Alheiras de Mirandela
Alheira is perhaps unique in the ‘sausage’ world in that traditionally it was not made of Pork. Folklore suggests it was created by outcasted Jews to fit in with their Christian communities. In the north of Portugal, it was popular to hang and smoke sausages in your home, however these sausages would typically be made of pork. So as not to arouse suspicion, the local Jewish community created Alheira. Filling the sausage instead with poultry, garlic and bread, before hanging them in their homes.
The most famous and regarded as the highest quality of Alheira is Alheiras de Mirandela which can only be produced in that region. It can be grilled, or fried, and is often served with potatoes or eggs.
Queijo Serra da Estrela
Queijo Serra da Estrela is type of cheese made with milk from sheep in the Serra da Estrella region of Portugal. Traditionally, the sheep in the region roam free and their diet is what they can graze in the wild. With their shepherd’s paying careful attention to what they’re grazing, as it’s said certain plants can change the flavour of the cheese. Queijo Serra da Estrela certainly ticks the box for historical and traditional production!
So how does Queijo Serra da Estrela taste? It’s often described as having an intense aroma, while being slightly spicy and salty. Depending on if its aged or not, it can be semi-soft almost buttery (the traditional form), or semi hard and brownish in colour (cured Serra da Estrela). Luckily you don’t need to travel far to taste the cheese, you’ll be able to find the traditional ‘bulging’ wheels at most supermarkets in Portugal.
Caldo Verde – Portuguese Kale Soup
Caldo Verde is one of our favourite soups available in Portugal. It’s a soup famous for its thin strips of kale or sometimes other collard greens. Its base is typical of many traditional soups in Portugal, onions, garlic, and potatoes. Caldo Verde then adds collard greens, and a topping of some fresh fried chouriço – another preserved Portuguese sausage similar to the more famous chorizo. It’s traditionally served with broa de milho a crumbly type of corn bread. It’s now a popular dish both abroad and across Portugal.
Sardinha Assada – Grilled Sardines
It’s hard to go anywhere along the coast in Portugal during the summer and not smell sardines grilling. It’s deliciously simple, the fresh sardines are first coated in salt, then grilled on a charcoal barbecue. The result should be some crispy almost caramilsed skin, and flaky flesh. Unusual to many, is the fact the sardines are typically served whole, and with their insides intact. You simply pick the flesh off, leaving the skeleton and innards behind.
Grilled sardines are usually served simply with bread, or part of a larger sardinhada. More of a continuous feast, and continuous party until everyone has eaten far too many. At a sardinhada, grilled sardines will be accompanied with boiled potatoes, salad, and a grilled pepper salad.
Arroz de Marisco – Seafood Rice
If you want your seafood, a little more special and a bit more involved then seeking out a traditional Arroz de Marisco is a must do activity. This isn’t just simply seafood and rice. First a broth is made from the chosen seafood – usually at least prawns, but you’ll find an array of clams, mussels, crab and even lobster is added. The broth, and its incredible aroma is then used to cook the Portuguese short grain rice. Spoonful’s of it are added constantly, to ensure a rich and velvety texture. Once the rice is cooked, the seafood is added back into the rice, where its mixed with more broth and served straight away. Traditionally it will be served in a boiling clay pot, many restaurants still do this.
Leitão da Bairrada – Roasted Suckling Pig
Leitão da Bairrada is perhaps the quintessential meat from the north of Portugal. What’s Leitão? Leitão is suckling pig, it’s said to be at its best between 4-6 weeks old. A point when it’s still suckling, and its diet is entirely milk. This results in exceptionally succulent and fatty meat. The best, and original comes from the Bairrada region, and gives its name to Leitão da Bairrada. Its most traditional form is Leitão assado. It’s simply roasted with salt and a paste of handpicked variety of herbs of the chef’s choosing. Usually a combination of pepper, garlic and bay leaves. Sandes de Leitão is a simple sandwich made from Leitão. The roasted pork will be in chunks, almost falling apart. Served in a simple, fluffy white roll with a peppery sauce.
Pastel de Belém
Saving the dessert for last, the final gastronomical wonder of Portugal is Pastel de Belém. Okay, it’s not exactly dessert and you can and should eat them at any time of the day! At its most common, it’s widely known as a Pastel de Nata.
What is it? It is one of the classics of any pastelaria (part bakery, part café, part bar) and what many people think of when they think about Portuguese food. It’s a custard tart, made with a flaky pastry that’s baked. The result should be a crispy outside and a smooth but slightly firm custard center. What’s the difference between a Pastel de Belém and a Pastel de Nata? Simply, Pasteis de Belém is the original, and the only café that can sell Pastéis de Belém is the original café also called Pastéis de Belém in Lisbon. Debate will rage, whether you need to taste the original to appreciate the heritage, or if any of the other excellent cafés and factories can make a good or better alternative!
Other Finalists and National Dishes of Portugal
With only seven selections making the final list, there are a lot of other dishes that missed out. Despite bacalhau not making the final seven, five bacalhau recipes were included in the initial list. Pastel de bacalhau and Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá were considered finalists and voted on by the public, with Açorda de bacalhau, Bacalhau à Brás, and Bacalhau à Zé do Pipo eliminated before that.
What is the National Dish of Portugal?
The reality is that Portugal does not have a single dish that could easily be considered its national dish. In fact, it would be tricky for each region to have one dish to represent it! As voted by the public of Portugal, you could perhaps say it has seven national dishes. Alherias de Mirandela, Caldo Verde, Queijo Serra da Estrela, Sardinha Assada, Arroz de Marisco, Leitão da Bairrada, and Pastel de Belém. However, it’s safe to say many people would not agree with this list. For us, we think it’s a sin that simple foods like the Bifana, and more modern creations like the Francesinha weren’t considered. Traditional? Maybe not, loved by both tourists and locals? Absolutely! Not to mention, where was the piri-piri chicken?
What do you think deserves the title of the national dish of Portugal? Is there a favourite food not mentioned in the post? Let us know in the comments!