A Gastronomical Journey Through Lisbon

14 Nov

Portugal is perhaps Europe’s best kept secret. Not as hyped up and touristy as neighbouring Spain, it has a vintage charm that is hard to resist. Last December, my friend and travel companion Jen (who is also a blogger and great photographer!) and I decided to go on a 4-day trip to Lisbon via Madrid. We also undertook a day trip to the ancient city of Sintra, that has been described by Byron as ‘Glorious Eden.’

Prior to this trip, my conception of Portuguese cuisine was limited to Nando’s flame-grilled peri peri chicken (shameful, I know), which I was fairly certain did not ‘really’ represent Portuguese food. I was, therefore, both curious and excited to explore more of what Portugal had to offer gastronomically.
The first meal we had in Lisbon was a delicious dinner near Rossio where I ordered a caril de camarao (prawn curry) with a hint of coconut, laced with cream. Jen ordered bacalhau (baked cod with potatoes) that both looked and tasted delicious. I was rather intrigued by the idea of having curry in Portugal and wondered if this was an influence from Goa, a former Portuguese colony in South India.  The influence of Portuguese flavours and ingredients on Goan cuisine is a known fact and reflective of the export of cultural practices across colonial empires. What did strike me as interesting, although perhaps not surprising is observing and experiencing the incorporation of Goan recipes into Portuguese cuisine. Although, it remains a question whether the Portuguese brought culinary influences back with them to the home country or whether Goan immigrants to Portugal inspired the use of such recipes in restaurants and homes. Perhaps it is a bit of both.

Prawn Curry - Photo Courtesy: Jen Huang

Bacalhau – Photo Courtesy: Jen Huang


The following day, Jen and I wandered along one of the streets near the Palacio de Sao Bento and chanced upon what turned out to be a delightful culinary experience.  We came across a small, intimate restaurant Erva Doce but we were convinced that since it was a hole in the wall sort of an establishment, we would not be able to figure out the menu due to our limited Portuguese skills. I immediately pulled out my Portuguese phrasebook and as we were trying to decipher the menu, the owner came out and speaking in immaculate English surprised us with a description of the daily specials. We decided to check it out. Jen and I both ordered a picanha na brasa com batatas fritas y arroz a tender beef steak (served with french fries and rice). It is perhaps the simplest beef steak I have tasted, lightly seasoned with salt and pepper and with a slice of orange on top gave it a hint of citrus. No fancy sauces or complex seasonings, just simply beef and french fries, a version of meat and potatoes that is just what the doctor ordered on a balmy winter afternoon in Lisbon.

Next, we spent the afternoon exploring the chic and trendy neighbourhood of Bairro Alto. As recommended by Time Out Lisbon as the one of the best miradouros (lookout points), we went to the rooftop cafe of Hotel Bairro Alto with a gorgeous view overlooking Lisbon and the Tagus River. I ordered a deliciously frothy cappuccino with shaved cocoa, nothing quite like I have had before. They also offer a selection of wines and snacks, which are a bit on the pricey side but the view and ambience are worth it.

The following day, we took the train to Sintra. After a trip to the breathtaking Pena Palace in the morning we were famished by the time we reached the town center in the afternoon.

We had lunch at Adega Das Caves, where we both ordered frango piri piri with rice and french fries. Move aside Nando’s, this is the real deal. Although, the Portuguese don’t consider this variation of flame-grilled chicken to be genuine Portuguese cuisine, it is widely served on menus in Lisbon as well as Sintra since it is easy to prepare and quick to eat. I was also quite curious to learn more about the composition and origins of the peri-peri or rather piri-piri sauce in Portuguese. Upon doing some research, I discovered some interesting facts:

“The peppers were originally brought back on Columbus’s voyage to the Americas. Most people believe that the Portuguese took the chillies to their colonies of Mozambique and Angola, where they were christened a Swahili word that means ‘pepper-pepper,’ and naturally cross-pollinated. Eventually, one of the varieties made its way to Portugal, where, for some reason, it retained its African name.” – Dave DeWitt, author of The Chile Pepper Encyclopedia.

Our final food destination in Sintra was Casa da Piriquita that served the local traditional specialty queijada cheesecake whose origin can be traced to the XIII century.  The cheesecake was unlike the American version. It resembled a cupcake in appearance, wasn’t creamy but had more of a thicker textured filling infused with cinnamon. I am not a huge fan of desserts in general and this was certainly not mind-blowing.

The best part about our culinary experiences was the price tag attached to most meals in Lisbon. We did not seek out fancy restaurants and neither did we resort to fast food chains as budget travelers are often tempted to do. Instead we opted for trying out cosy, family run restaurants serving authentic and affordable Portuguese cuisine. All the meals described above cost under € 10 (including drinks and tip).

I hope to be able to explore other cities in Portugal in the near future and experience the regional variations in the cuisine. For the time being I hope this leaves you convinced to plan your next vacation to Lisbon!

– Rida

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One Response to “A Gastronomical Journey Through Lisbon”

  1. Carol April 16, 2014 at 7:01 PM #

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    I have a blog based on the same subjects you discuss and would really like to have you share some stories/information.
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