Portuguese Dishes Explained

The Western Algarve serves a whole variety of national and international cuisine and it is useful to know a bit about the local dished dishes!

Relatively little is known about Portuguese gastronomy. Too often their cuisine is dismissed as being based around 1000 dried cod recipes and sweet egg custard but in reality it is a region of hidden delights.

This guide will help you to come to enjoy or rediscover the local food.   The most distinctive feature of Portuguese cuisine comes from the sea so if you love fresh fish and a tasty tomato salad, you’ll be satisfied for simplicity is the soul of this cuisine.  Regional food can be heavy and yet tasty.  There is also a wide choice of cakes and pastries, many using the local ingredients such as carob and almond. The Portuguese also make excellent quality olive oil which plays a major part in everyday cooking.  Being a country of wine lovers and producers, we have added a section on discovering Portuguese wines, Port and Madeira wines at the end of our guide.

If you want to discover Portuguese food then we suggest taking a break from what you are familiar with and venture out into the perhaps unknown.  We are certain that you will not regret it.

Any uninviting looking restaurant in Portugal does by no means signify that the restaurant is not good. Often the contrary is true!  However, in order to avoid ending up with something unappealing, it is wise to have an idea of what to order and what to expect.


Small and simple restaurants where the taste of the locally caught fish, just grilled on charcoal and drizzled with a olive oil is a must.  Sargo and robalo (sea bream and bass) are on top of the list, followed by Mackerel, Grouper, Red Snapper and many others.  It really is a question of taste.

Other popular fish include the Scabbard fish, delicious when grilled (peixe Espada, not to be confused with Sword fish, Peixe Espadarte) and of course… Sardines!  Please note however, that sardines only run during the summer months.  If a restaurant has sardines on the menu during the ‘off season’, there’s a good chance that they have been frozen.  Oh yes, by the way, this would not be a good guide if we did not point out how to eat freshly grilled sardines!  Ready?

  1. Rule number one is not to eat sardines with a knife and fork! That is your fast track way to getting a mouth full of tiny bones and very little enjoyment!
  2. First place a slice of Portuguese bread on your plate.
  3. Pick up a freshly grilled sardine by its tail and place it on top of the bread. Gently peel off the crisp salty skin, then, with your fingers, pinch the flesh off the back bone and eat..
  4. Turn the sardine over and repeat, always placing the sardine on your bread first.
  5. Accompany the sardines with boiled potatoes tossed in olive oil, crushed garlic and oregano and a salad of lettuce, tomatoes, onions and grilled peppers with a drizzle of olive oil, (you may use a fork for this!)
  6. Then ask for your bread to be grilled with all those fabulous omega 3 fish oils soaked into it and enjoy the last, and some say the best part of your sardine extravaganza!

When is enough sardines enough?  Well it is entirely up to you but a good restaurant will carry on serving sardines until you say stop!  It is worthwhile noting that a good ‘sardine shack’ will only bring out the sardines as they are grilled.  This way they will always be hot with a crisp skin when served.  As with the locals, be sure to wash the sardines down with plenty of cheap red wine or a vinho verde wine.

If you are going to enjoy the local cuisine then you must try a ‘Cataplana’.  This is served in the traditional copper Cataplana dish, a clam shaped pot which conserves all those lovely flavours of the cataplana cooking.  The general favourite is Clams Cataplana and most restaurants cook this for 2 people to share.  Imagine a rich base of onions, peppers, garlic, chourizo, herbs, wine and olive oil.  Add a few handfuls of clams which are then steamed in all those delicious juices.  Then the whole pot is brought to your table for you to savour and enjoy.

Fried baby squid ‘lulinhas fritas’ is another regional speciality.  Simply fried in olive oil with plenty of garlic, peppercorns, bay leaf and a splash of wine, these baby squid are succulent and tender and should be accompanied with plain boiled rice and a crisp green salad.

No restaurant guide in Portugal would be complete without mentioning the famous dried cod or ‘bacalhau’.  There are many ways of making this rather unattractive seeming dried piece of smelly leather into a delectable dish.  The most common one  is ‘bacalhau à brás’ which is rather like a kedgeree with lots of onions, egg and chopped parsley; wonderful with a green salad, some rustic bread and a glass of robust Portuguese red wine!

Sagres is famous for its Gooseneck barnacles ‘perceves’.  So famous that they even have a festival to celebrate the season.

Fishermen precariously climb down sea-sculpted cliffs using ropes in order to pluck the perceves from the rocks 100 meters below.

These Barnacles that resemble mini elephant’s feet are simply steamed and served with hunks of bread.  Do not be put off by their appearance; try one to taste that wild clean Atlantic sea you’re overlooking.  A fantastic source of iron by the way!


One cannot visit Portugal without eating chicken piri-piri. What many don’t realize is that the delightfully hot and spicy piri-piri chili is in fact an Algarvian specialty. So make the most of your visit to the region. Eat lots of piri-piri chicken, prawns and other local dishes fried in piri-piri  because you won’t readily find them in other regions of the country, let alone abroad!

So the piri-piri: how hot is hot?  Same as the length of a piece of string but the Portuguese do not like over spiced food so do not be alarmed.  One can go mild or mad.  It just depends on the amount used and whatever your taste buds hanker for!  Monchique is renowned for its chicken piri-piri but many a restaurant across the Algarve will have this dish on its menu.  By the way, piri-piri can be bought in most local supermarkets and makes a great gift!

Another classic in Portugal is the bifana which is more a sandwich than a meal.  Although bifanas shouldn’t really be in a restaurant guide they are so typical, delicious, simple and cheap that they are well worth a mention. Bifanas are slices of pork fried in olive oil and garlic, sandwiched in soft Portuguese bread. One then adds mustard and of course a few drops of piri-piri sauce.  Some say bifanas are the best way to cure a hang-over if ordered with a beer!  The quality of bifanas, like with every dish, varies of course from restaurant to restaurant but when you find your perfect one you won’t forget it!

For meat lovers there will be no disappointment as the province of the Alentejo specialises in black pork.  Some say it rivals a filet steak!  ‘Cozido à Portuguesa’ is a typical example of a Portuguese casserole: a mix of meats with vegetables and chourizo sausage, all cooked in a delicious broth.  Charcoal grill restaurants line the cobble-stoned streets cooking up spare ribs, chicken piri-piri or marinated pork chops, all filling the air with notions of a lunch-time feast!


We will round up our brief dip into Algarvian Portuguese cuisine with a mention of the sweeter side.  February sees the almond trees blossom which give way to hundreds of almonds that turn up in an enormous variety of sugared sweets.  Little almond cakes resembling ‘petit-fours’, molded into all sorts of animal and fruit shapes delight the taste-buds of marzipan lovers.  The ‘Dom Rodrigo’, which originated in Lagos,  is made from ‘thread eggs’ bound together with cinnamon syrup and brown sugar.  Dom Rodrigos come wrapped in brightly coloured foils and give an immediate sugar rush!  Try one with a strong black expresso coffee (bica) or a glass of chilled Almond liqueur with a squeeze of lemon.

One final mention is the ‘pasteis de nata’, the Portuguese custard tart: crisp layers of filo pastry filled with a delicious smooth custard cream, sometimes sprinkled with cinnamon.  The pastéis de nata were created before the 18th century by monks.  Large quantities of egg whites were used to starch their clothes so it became common to use the leftover egg yolks to make pastries and cakes.  To secure revenue during hard times, the monks started to sell ‘pastéis de nata’ to a sugar refinery whose owners then went on to open the now famous ‘Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém’.  In 2006 an English newspaper ranked the pastéis de nata as the 15th tastiest delicacy in the world!  Needless to say no visit to Portugal would be complete without trying one!

Trying the excellent coffee in Portugal is also a MUST!

 Café or” bica”: a basic espresso, strongest in flavour.
Café cheio: a long espresso, not as strong but with the same amount of caffeine.
Café Pingado: espresso with a drop  (pingo) of milk.
Meia de Leite:  Portuguese version of a latté or cappuccino and comes in a large teacup.
Galão:  the lightest style of Portuguese coffee, with only a touch of espresso and the rest filled with hot/foamed milk served in a tall glass.

Many places also give you a choice whether you want it com machina – made with the coffee machine, or sem machina,  brewed in a pitcher and is a bit softer in taste.

A few tips when out eating:

Many restaurants and shops still operate on cash only basis, so make sure you always have cash on hand.

Tips:  really up to you, but 10% – 15% is the norm.  The Algarve does have a slower pace of life.  This can, in turn, affect the service in some restaurants.  However with this in mind, sit back, relax and enjoy your surroundings!

Children:  like in most Latin countries, children are made welcome and many restaurants have children’s menus too.  When dining out with children we would suggest that you take along some toys or colouring pencils with you.  Most restaurants will serve the children’s food first if you ask them.   Baby food can also be heated up for you and many establishments have high chairs.

Cover charge:  no sooner have you sat down then you will generally find a basket of bread and various nibbles served to your table.  You are charged for this but you can also refuse it with no offence!  These nibbles can add up so if you are on a budget then take care!

 Fish by the weight:  most fresh fish restaurants sell fish by the weight in kilograms so it is advisable to keep this in mind.  You can ask for the price of the fish or a slice of it before ordering.   This, once again, is good practise if you are on a budget.

Special occasion:  if someone in your party is celebrating a special occasion then please do not be afraid to let this be known to your waiting staff!  The Portuguese love to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ and usually the rest of the restaurant will join in too!

Wheelchair accessibility:  all the restaurants in this guide clearly state if they are accessible for babies in prams/pushchairs and wheelchair users.

Whichever part of the Algarve you choose, you will find friendly, welcoming people, superb local wines at affordable prices and delicious food all closely bound to the nature that surrounds this part of Portugal.