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Iberian Peninsula: Portugal

Iberian Peninsula: Portugal

Although smaller than the state of Indiana, Portugal was the seat of a great European empire, and its trading network has marked its culture and cuisine. Even before nationhood, Portugal was successively invaded by Celts, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Visigoths, Swabians, and Moors, and was influenced by these cultures. The birth of the Portuguese nation dates back to 1139, when Afonso Henriques took the title king of Portugal, after a major victory against the Moors, although the south remained under Moorish rule until 1250. Spain and Portugal signed the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, under papal auspices, dividing the New Worlds between them. The Spanish claimed the Americas, while the Portuguese acquired Brazil and the Spice Route, from Africa to Timor. Portugal's last trading colony, Macao, established in 1557, peacefully reverted to Chinese control at the end of 1999. Portuguese traders brought back to Europe a treasure of spices such as cardamom, pepper, ginger, curry, saffron, and paprika, as well as other exotic foods, such as rice and tea from Asia, coffee and long pepper from Africa, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, tropical fruits, and peanuts from Brazil. All ingredients form part of Portuguese cuisine today. As Jean Anderson notes in The Food of Portugal, the ingenious combination of Old and New World foods differentiates Portuguese cooking from Spanish (p. 10).


Portugal faces the Atlantic, whereas Spain, except for Galicia, identifies itself as Mediterranean. In the north, Minho province is a green garden of small plots and vineyards. Inland, Tràs-os-Montes is a land of stark mountain ranges and hills with a severe climate. The Douro River, rising in Spain, flows to Oporto, through steep-terraced vineyards. The three Beira provinces form the Portuguese heartland, with the highest mountains. The center of the empire, Lisbon's Estremadura province received much wealth from the colonies, as is evident in its varied cuisine. The gentle plains of Ribatejo along the banks of the Tagus provide pastureland. Alentejo, meaning "beyond the Tagus,'' is a vast expanse of cork oak, olive trees, and wheat fields along the Spanish border. The Moorish occupiers remained longest in southernmost Algarve, leaving their influences on the architecture, customs, and food. Portugal's only remaining overseas territories are the Atlantic archipelagos: Madeira and the Azores.

Portuguese Eating Habits

Although young people tend to favor international fast foods, the rest of the Portuguese still prefer slow cuisine and fresh fish and vegetables. Portuguese families are increasingly dependent on hypermarketsgiant supermarkets that function like compact department storesspringing up everywhere, but the weekly farmers' markets are still very popular. Portuguese households begin the day with a continental breakfast of coffee and milk with bread and butter, honey, or jam. The main meal takes place at lunch, with an appetizer (acepipes ) like fresh cheese or codfish balls, one coursegenerally meat and vegetablesand dessert. Country loaves, more refined rolls, or cornbread appear with every meal. A lighter supper can start with soup, one course of perhaps fish, and fruit. There is usually a midmorning break for coffee and a roll, and children take a midafternoon snack of sandwiches and milk. Most elegant teahouses, where ladies of leisure used to indulge in rich egg and sugar cakes, have closed with changing work habits, but pastry shops serve the seventeenth-century convent sweets.

Meal times. Typically, Portuguese meal hours are closer to those of the French than the Spanish: They do not share their Iberian neighbors' midafternoon repasts and siestas or midnight suppers, except on Christmas and New Year's Eve. Lunchtime is 1:00 p.m., and many workplaces still close from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. The traditional dinner hour is 8:00 p.m.

Weekly cycle. Traditional dishes like caldeirada (fish or shellfish stew) and cozido á portugesa (boiled meat and vegetables) are served in homes on weekends to allow for more time for food preparation. Portuguese families also like to eat out on weekends. Many popular restaurants offer generous half-portions, but even so, prices have soared faster than wages, and the average family is going out less.

Seasonal Cycle

With its temperate Gulf Stream climate, coastal Portugal does not suffer the extreme temperatures of inland Iberia. It rarely freezes, and fresh fruits and vegetables are available year round, although they vary with the seasons. Even sardines come in seasons, fatter and juicier from June through October. At year's end there is the matança or the killing of the pig, and the smoking of lean meat and stuffing sausages to last through the winter. Basically the Portuguese eat the same substantial meals all year. Inland, however, where summer temperatures can hover over 100°F (37°C), lighter wines are served and occasionally gaspacho, a cold tomato and cucumber soup, similar to its Spanish cousin gazpacho. There are also escabeches, cold marinated meats, for scalding summer days.

Feasts and special occasions. Religious feasts, with special foods, are still important in this Roman Catholic country. Christmas Eve supper usually features the national favorite bacalhau cozido or boiled dried codfish, with cabbage, potatoes, and hard-boiled eggs, smothered in garlic and olive oil. (Portuguese fishermen have been sailing to Newfoundland for cod since the fifteenth century, salting and drying it at sea. But in response to European fishing restrictions imposed in the 1990s, Portugal imports cod from Norway, which is more expensive.) On Christmas Day, the main course features roast turkey, and for dessert there is rabanadas, slices of bread dipped in eggs, honey, red wine, sugar, and cinnamon, and fried.

At Easter, lamb or young goat is marinated overnight in white wine, roasted, and served with baked potatoes. Lamb soup uses the lamb's heart, liver, lungs, tripe, blood, and plenty of stale bread. A popular Easter dessert is cottage cheese tarts.

Every region has a saint's festival with special foods. Lisboners pay homage to Saint Anthony with a costume parade, block parties, grilled sardines, and red wine. Oporto celebrates St. John with fireworks, street dancing, cabbage soup, and red wine. The Templar city of Tomar honors the Holy Spirit, with the Festival of Crowns, a cortege of girls, wearing tall crowns of fresh loaves of bread and paper flowers, accompanied by merrymaking and a panoply of sweets like almond cheese cakes and pumpkin tarts.

Other festive occasions include birthdays, weddings, baptisms, and first communions. These used to call for elaborate banquets, but in the early twenty-first century the menu is simpler: traditional dishes like tripe, hake filets, roast lamb, baked rice, and egg and sugar tarts.

Regional Foods and Wines

As communications have improved in this compact country, more regional dishes have acquired national status. Cozido á portugesa, the hearty Portuguese boiled dinner, with chicken, spareribs, sausages, and vegetables originates from Estremadura but is found everywhere. Other national favorites include green soup with shredded cabbage and potatoes from the Minho, fish or shellfish stew found all along the coast, baked dried codfish (the fish is first soaked in liquid before cooking) with onions and potatoes originally from Oporto, and açordas, or creamy dry bread soups from Alentejo. The national sauce of crushed tomatoes, green peppers, and onions is the universal condiment. The "national" dessert is arroz-doce rice pudding.

While Port and Madeira dessert wines have gained worldwide recognition, Portuguese table wines are beginning to attract more attention. There are some fifty officially demarcated wine-growing regions. The best reds come from the Alentejo, although those from Beira are better known. Increasingly popular is the effervescent white vinho verde or new wine, from the Minho. Excellent natural and carbonated mineral waters come from Beira and Tràs-os-Montes.

Between the Minho and Douro food culture. Minho province, blessed by rivers, fertile farmland, trellised vineyards, and a fruitful sea, is home to an exceptionally varied cuisine. From the Minho and Lima Rivers come salmon trout and lamprey. Atlantic specialties include sardines grilled on pine needles, octopus stew, and shad vinaigrette. Pork is the dominant meat, with delicacies like pork cubes marinated in vinho verde.

Oporto's unlikely favorite food is tripe. In fact, the native people are known as tripeiros or tripe-eaters because in the fourteenth century they donated all their meat to feed the navy in its defense of Lisbon against Juan I of Castile. The Portuenses were left with the innards, which they learned to use in many innovative ways.

Estremadura food culture. Naturally the richest, most cosmopolitan cuisine is found in the capital, reflecting the diverse population, who settled here from all over Portugal. Lisbon's specialties range from stuffed crab and lobster açorda to rice and turnip greens or codfish hash. Then there is café beefsteak, with cream sauce and french fries, which made its debut in popular cafés and is now a regular in many homes. Over the past decade, immigrants from the former colonies of Angola, Goa, and Macao have established new ethnic restaurants in Lisbon, which are certain to influence future eating habits.

Alentejo food culture. Portugal's least developed region, the Alentejo has produced the most imaginative dishes. Frugal housewives have ingeniously used the staple ingredients bread, olive oil, and garlic to produce outstanding dishes. Açorda á alentejana is a creamy bread puree with coriander and poached eggs. Another dry soup is migas, crumbled bread and olive oil, cooked with cubes of beef, pork, and bacon. The most astonishing combination is pork and clams, with pork loin marinated in chili saucethe flavors meld together beautifully.

Food culture of Madeira and the Azores. In 1425, Portuguese navigators discovered uninhabited, forested islands, some 350 miles off the Moroccan coast, which they called Madeira (wood in Portuguese). Realizing the islands' importance as a stopover for transatlantic shipping, Prince Henry, in the fifteenth century, sent over settlers, mostly from the Minho, to plant sugar cane and vineyards. Despite the distance, Madeira's cuisine is very Portuguese, enhanced with other influences. Fresh tuna steaks and scabbard fish are marinated in garlic and olive oil and fried, but served with fried cornmeal and even corn-on-the-cob. The local cozido includes the usual pork and vegetables, but also sweet potatoes, green pumpkin, and couscous. Madeira's fruit salad, however, is strictly local and includes papaya and passion fruit.

The nine Azores have the closest ties to the United States. In the old days, whaling crews from the Azores sailed to New England and California, many settling there with their families, who still visit the islands in summertime. Commercial whaling has stopped, but many Açoreanos live by fishing, and fish is an important part of the diet. Fish soup Azores style includes the local catch: haddock, porgy, grouper, mackerel, swordfish, eel, and squid or octopus. Dairy farming and cheese making are also important activities, and the fragrant, moist cheese from São Jorge Island is a bestseller on the mainland.

Food culture of other regions. In the wild, hilly Trásos-Montes, the pig is "king" and fed with table scraps. In the past, the prevalence of pork caused problems for the many Jewish converts. Maria de Lourdes Modesto recounts in Traditional Portuguese Cooking how the "new Christians" invented alheiras, a delicious, porkless sausage based on partridge, to escape detection by the Inquisition's spies (p. 47). Alheiras are still popular, but sometimes include pork.

Mountain folk of Upper Beira are masters with leftovers. After roasting a baby goat that is basted with white wine, the head is boiled for broth, the backbone and the heart, liver, and lungs stewed, and the cutlets are fried and always served with boiled potatoes. Beira also produces Portugal's creamiest cheese, made from longhorned sheep that feed on wild herbs in a demarcated zone of the Estrela Mountains.

The Ribatejo, with its alluvial plains, is famous for its dark full-bodied red wines and substantive dishes like stone soup made from pig's ear, chouriço (a spicy sausage), ham, and red kidney beans.

Algarve's clean beaches, sun, mild sea, and air temperatures have made it Portugal's primary tourist resort, and this situation has threatened it with a loss of identity. By avoiding international establishments, it is still possible to find original Algarve seafood dishes, like octopus with rice, tuna steaks in onion sauce, or squid stuffed with ham and chouriço.

See also Cheese ; Crustaceans and Shellfish ; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts ; Fish ; Meat, Salted ; Mollusks ; Sausage ; Slow Food ; Vegetables ; Wine .


Anderson, Jean. The Food of Portugal. Revised edition. New York: Morrow, 2001.

Modesto, Maria de Lourdes. Traditional Portuguese Cooking. Translated by Fernanda Naylor. Lisbon and São Paulo, 1989.

Modesto, Maria de Lourdes, and Afonso Praça. Festas e Comeres do Povo Português. 2 vols. Lisbon and São Paulo: Editorial Verbo, 1999.

Pedrosa, Ines, ed. "Comidas Restaurantes Pratos Tradicionais.'' In Guia O Melhor de Portugal [Guide to the best in Portugal], vol. 5. Lisbon: Expresso, 1998.

Saramago, Alfredo, ed. "Sabores Vinhos Enchidos Queijos Doces.'' In Guia O Melhor de Portugal [Guide to the best in Portugal], vol. 6. Lisbon: Expresso, 1998.

Marvine Howe

Port Wine

Originally port was a dry red table wine and came from the Upper Douro Valley some 2,000 years ago. Then in 1820, exceptionally warm weather produced unusually sweet grapes and the full, rich dessert wine that the English adored. To satisfy eager English customers, port wine producers added brandy, which stopped the fermentation early and preserved the high sugar level of the grapes, raising the alcohol level to about 20 percent. The process of producing port is now mechanized. The new wine is no longer transported in rabelos, flat-bottomed sailboats, but trucked to the port wine lodges, at Gaia across from Oporto. There it is blended and stored to mature.

The French now consume more port than the British, Pasquale Iocca of the Portuguese Trade Commission emphasizes in the Food of Portugal (Anderson, 2001). He points out that the British still favor vintage port ten to fifty years old, whereas the French prefer tawny port aged three to five years in casks.


It was the visionary Prince Henry who first brought Malvasia grapes from Crete in the fifteenth century to Madeira as the basis for the island's important wine industry. The special intense quality of Madeira wines comes mainly from the basaltic soil and mild climate. Like port, Madeira is fortified with brandy to ensure its quality during shipping, but it acquired its distinctive, slightly scorched flavor by chance. Sometime in the seventeenth century, a case of Madeira was forgotten in the hold of a ship when it reached its destination in the New World. The wine returned to Madeira considerably enriched after its lengthy sea voyage twice through the steamy tropics. Subsequently, Madeira merchants began to send their wines on long tours to enhance the sweetness and aging. Then they found they could get the same results by a process of steaming the wine at home.

Queen Catherine of Bragança, the Portuguese wife of King Charles II of England, was indirectly responsible for the popularity of Madeira wines in colonial America, according to Pasquale Iocca of the Portuguese Trade Commission. In the Food of Portugal he points out that because of Queen Catherine's influence, Madeiras were the only European wines exempted from the 1665 export ban and shipped duty-free to the English colonies. The signing of the Declaration of Independence was celebrated with glasses of Madeira, and George and Martha Washington used to drink a pint of Madeira every evening with dinner.

Madeira exports virtually halted after the island's vineyards were devastated by disease in 1852. Several English companies that were involved in producing and shipping Madeira helped to reconstitute the vineyards. By 1900, Madeiras were back better than ever, but Americans had meanwhile switched to sherry.


One of the most traditional dishes of the Azores is cozido de lagoa das furnas (boiled dinner from Furnas Lake). This lake on São Miguel Island is a volcanic crater, and the beach contains numerous caldeiras or small caverns spewing sulfur. Chunks of beef, pork, and chicken, sausages, bacon, turnips, carrots, potatoes, and red peppers, covered with cabbage leaves, are put into an aluminum pan, with the lid tightly shut. The pan is placed in a cloth bag, with a long string, and let down into a caldeira, then covered with a wood board and volcanic sand. The cozido takes about five hours to cook in the steaming groundthe ultimate in Slow Food.

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