If you’re visiting a coastal area during the summer months, then it’s easy to think Portugal might be a little bit sardine mad. You’ll never be far away from the intoxicating smell of grilled sardines on a charcoal BBQ! Hit the right towns at the right times and you’ll even find festivals dedicated to the grilled sardine. In any tourist shop you’ll never be far from seeing the image of a sardine too. You’ll find porcelain sardines, sardine plates, sardine table cloths and even magnets. Sardines, everywhere. Before I came to Portugal I only knew the tinned variety, and I wasn’t that excited about them. However, after eating them fresh, I’ve even started to appreciate the tinned variety too! Keep reading to find out all about Portuguese sardines, and how to eat them like a local in Portugal!
Traditional Grilled Sardines in Portugal
Typically, and traditionally, the grilled sardine is a deliciously simple meal. The two most common meals you’ll find are the sardine served simply. Or as a part of a much larger sardinhada. The dishes are simple, and the star of the show is obviously the grilled sardine, and the bread is there to soak up all the oils and juices of the grilled fish. If you’re in a restaurant or a churrasqueira then, sardines are typically served with bread, boiled potatoes and salad!
The sardinhada is essentially a feast or a celebration of the grilled sardine. It’s not an understatement to say there will be endless sardines to eat should you ever be invited to one! At a sardinhada, the grilled sardines will be served with rather plain boiled potatoes, a simple salad, a grilled green and red pepper salad, and bread. The bread is traditionally cornbread, but any form can and will be served! Sardinhada literally means lots of sardines, and there will be a lot of them!
How to Eat Grilled Sardines?
Now for the slightly tricky bit, and for the inexperienced, sardines are served whole. Skin on and with their insides intact. At least before I’d visited Portugal, the fish I had eaten whole, were gutted. So the first time was an experience for me. It is a rather simple affair though. So let’s work through it.
Presuming the sardine has been expertly grilled, the skin will be slightly toasted and almost caramelised. If it’s been well salted there may even be some crunchy salt left on it too. This creates a intoxicating mix of sweet, smokey and salty sensations. Underneath the skin you will find the flakey flesh of the fish. Some people will peel the skin off before eating, but many prefer to leave it on. With the flesh exposed you can gently pull the cooked flesh off the bones, leaving the spine and innards alone. Afterwards you can then flip the fish and do the same again. What should be left is your typical cartoon fish, the head, the skeleton and the tail. Now I might be about to ruin a few Portuguese practical jokes here, but the insides should be left for cats and should not be eaten. No matter what your hosts or friends tell you…
Using a knife and fork is optional, you’ll see people pick the sardines up by the head and tail and gnaw away at the middle. Similarly, you’ll see a sardine placed on a slice of bread and eaten with small nibbles, once again leaving the innards and spine alone. Afterwards the unwanted remains are pushed off the bread, and the bread will have absorbed all the delicious oils from the fish.
When and Where to Buy Fresh Sardines?
The Portuguese have a great rule as to when to buy sardines in Portugal. Simply don’t buy them during a month that ends in the letters ro. So, Portuguese sardine season is usually regarded as being between March and August, but most people will tell you to wait until at least May for the absolute best sardines. Another rule for buying fish is to avoid buying them on Mondays. Traditionally, the sailing fleets don’t fish on Sundays. So, when it comes to Monday morning, the only fish available are the leftovers from Saturday. Some people even argue that this is why Monday is the traditional day for restaurants to close, as there’s no fresh fish!
Where to Buy Sardines in Portugal?
Your local fish market will be the absolute best place to find them fresh. In the Algarve, you’ll find the biggest selection in the traditional fish markets in the towns of Olhão, and Loulé. Pretty much every coastal town has a fish market nearby so you can be assured it’s local and its fresh! Failing this, your local supermarkets with a fish counter should also have fresh sardines during the summer months! If it’s your first time in a hectic fish markets then take a look at our guide. It has everything you need to know before visiting one, and lots of translations to help you order.
How to Prepare and Cook Portuguese Sardines?
One of the appeals of sardines is how simple they are to cook, and just how amazing they taste. Once you’ve bought the sardines, it’s a case of seasoning them with coarse sea salt and grilling them on a charcoal BBQ! Of course, there are many other ways of seasoning them. Some people like to add a squeeze of lemon, olive oil, garlic and a spoon of paprika. Others will keep them simple and let the sardines speak for themselves! After you’ve seasoned them, it’s a case of grilling them for a few minutes on each side. The sardines themselves are fragile so once you’ve placed them on the grill, you’ll only want to flip them once. Otherwise you may break or tear the juicy flesh! Once they’re cooked, how you eat them is up to you!
Authentic Portuguese Grilled Sardine Recipe
There really are only three simple steps here, but it can be hard to master the grilling aspect. The locals will tell you to flip the fish once, as turning it too often can tear or break the fish open. You’ll want the flesh to be caramelised, but not burnt. Grilling a sardine might seem simple, but there is an art to it!
- Fresh Sardines
- Olive Oil
- Sea Salt
Optional: You can make a paste of spices, salt and fresh squeezed lemon. You can mix the olive oil, with sea salt, chopped garlic, chilli, paprika, and a squeeze of lemon to do this. Then cover the sardines in the paste before cooking. This will make a spicier and sweeter sardine, but it’s completely optional. Sardines are full of flavour on their own, so we like to stick with just salt!
- Lay the sardines in a tray on kitchen towel or a table cloth. You’ll want to remove any excess moisture from the skin.
- Drizzle with olive oil and cover with coarse sea salt.
- Flip the sardines carefully and cover with sea salt again.
- Refrigerate until you’re ready to start grilling. Or until your bbq is hot enough.
- Cook each side for around 3 minutes, or until the skin is crispy. Flip the sardines once only, as delicately as possible.
- Serve on a slice of fresh bread.
If you’re looking for a recipe for tinned sardines, read our recipe for Portuguese Style Sardine Spaghetti! What do you think of grilled sardines? Cultural oddity or delicious? Let us know in the comments below!