For that reason, I find grocery stores even more interesting when I’m traveling outside my home country.
After spending a month in Portugal and cooking with local ingredients every day, I got to know the grocery store aisles pretty well. Some products are innately Portuguese, with a rich cultural history, that you may not find elsewhere in the world. Whether shopping in stores like Continente or Pingo Doce, there are walls of sausage, stacks of salted cod fillets, mouthwatering pastries, cheese wheel after cheese wheel after cheese wheel… All food you’d never find at a Publix in Atlanta or a Von’s in San Diego.
These local products are more than recipe ingredients—they’re a big part of Portuguese culture and the country’s history. Let’s walk through the aisles of a standard Portuguese grocery store and get to know the culture through its food.
Food in Portugal
The Portuguese are especially proud of their land and water since they supply the country with their favorite foods. Cheese is part of this pride since it’s made from the milk of the cows (vaca), sheep (ovelha) and goats (cabra) that graze the verdant slopes and plateaus throughout rural Portugal. Since it’s is so highly valued, grocery stores carry a large selection of local and regional cheese.
There are more than a dozen types of Portuguese cheese, ranging from creamy to “stinky,” and some of them even carry the Protected Designation of Origin indication (this protects the name of a product that is distinct to the region in which it’s produced and follows a specific traditional production process).
Pastéis de nata
This palm-sized custard tart is a Portuguese specialty that originated in a monastery in the Belém district of Lisbon. It’s said that Catholic monks at the monastery created the pastry hundreds of years ago, but they only became popular in the 19th century when the monks began selling them to the public to raise funds.
A cup-like flaky pastry forms the crust of a pastéis de nata, and it’s filled with a creamy egg custard that’s caramelized on top from the high heat of an oven. These tasty desserts can be found in pastry shops throughout the country and also inside grocery stores, where they are typically much less expensive and just as delicious.
Sure, stores all over the world sell Port, but only in Portugal can you find a wide and inexpensive selection that includes reserves, barrel-aged Port and even the styles that aren’t as well-known internationally (the four styles are ruby, tawny, white and rosé). In fact, you can buy Port in grocery stores for less than 7€ from top cellars like Ferreira, Offley, and Cruz.
The Portuguese have been making wine for centuries, but Port specifically wasn’t created until the English got involved. Around the 17th century, Englishmen wanted to send the robust wines of the Douro Valley back home in exchange for salted cod.
However, the journey from the inland valley to England is a long one that requires transportation down the Douro River and then up the Atlantic Ocean. To survive the voyage, these wines were fortified with brandy. English ships picked up the bottles from the Douro River in Oporto and people began referring to these fortified wines as “Oporto wine” and, later, “Port.”
Restaurants in Portugal don’t serve tapas (that’s a Spanish word), but the concept does span the Iberian Peninsula and is known as petiscos in Portugal.
Sausages are a favorite choice for food in Portugal, sometimes with the link being served solo and other times accompanied by Portuguese cheese on a decorative board. Grocery stores stock many options (most of which are made with pork), including alheira, farinheira (flour, or farinha, is a main ingredient), linguiça (smoke-cured pork), chouriço (similar to Spanish chorizo), and morcela (blood sausage).
Alheira carries an interesting history, dating back to the Inquisition in the 1500s. Portuguese Jews created this sausage as a deception tactic to make it appear as though they were Christians who ate pork. These sausages, though, actually contained poultry and game meat like duck and rabbit. Alheira gets its name from garlic (alho in Portuguese), traditionally one of the sausage’s principal ingredients.
Francesinha is the signature dish of Porto in Northern Portugal. It translates to “little French girl” and is basically the Portuguese version of a croque-monsieur. To make a Francesinha, you start by layering ham, steak, and sausage between two thick slices of bread. Top the sandwich with a fried egg and melted cheese, and then smother in a specialty sauce that is said to take at least a day to make.
Thankfully, you can easily make this iconic Portuguese dish at home since grocery stores stock all the ingredients you’ll need, including a jarred version of the special Francesinha sauce so you don’t need to spend 24 hours cooking it from scratch.
Traditionally caught in Portuguese waters, sardines are a countrywide favorite. Grocery stores carry them fresh and frozen. They are prepared simply: baked or on the grill and accompanied by either a savory dipping sauce or lemon wedge.
Overfishing and environmental changes have impacted the Atlantic sardine population, so sometimes the fish you see at the store might not have been caught locally and may come from more distant waters, like the Adriatic Sea, instead.
Portugal’s national canning industry has been around since the mid-1800s, and canned fish has been a part of the nation’s culinary heritage since that time.
Now you can walk into any grocery store and see shelves stacked with all types of canned fish. Options extend beyond your basic tuna and sardines in oil. You can find canned mussels, mackerel in olive oil and even octopus and squid in a tomato or garlic sauce.
Not surprisingly, canned fish has made its way to restaurants, and some devote an entire section of their menu to canned fish dishes.
If food in Portugal could be summarized by one product, it’s bacalhau (salted, dried cod). In the seafood area of every single grocery store in Portugal, you will find enormous, rock-hard fillets of bacalhau sold by the kilo.
Cod actually is not native to the waters off Portugal. Instead, it’s found in colder northern waters and was originally brought to the country in the 14th century from Portuguese fisherman who caught it off the coast of Newfoundland, which they called Terra do Bacalhau (Land of the Codfish). After they brought salted cod back to the mainland, bacalhau started to become part of the Portuguese diet.
Now, bacalhau is a staple ingredient of Portuguese culinary heritage and the base of the nation’s treasured cod recipes. In fact, the Portuguese say there are enough cod recipes for each day of the year, with preparation methods including boiled, stewed, roasted, baked, and fried.
After bacalhau is soaked in water for 24 hours to remove most of the heavy salt content, it is transformed into a variety of recipes. One of the most popular foods in Portugal is an oval fishcake called bolinhos de bacalhau (in Northern Portugal) or pastéis de bacalhau (in Central and Southern Portugal). They are eaten as snacks and appetizers and traditionally served at parties and celebratory gatherings like Christmas.
Bolinhos de bacalhau are made by combining bacalhau (of course!), mashed potatoes, onion, eggs, and parsley. Then the mixture is shaped with two spoons into an oval, very similar to the technique used to make a quenelle. The fishcakes are deep-fried until golden brown so they are crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside.
These can be found freshly made in the deli section of a grocery store, as well as frozen in packs of a dozen (beware: fresh or frozen, they sometimes contain bones).
These bite-sized salty snacks are lupini beans. They are flat, meaty, and on the larger side like a butter bean. Just like nuts are a typical American bar snack, the Portuguese love to pair tremoços with a beer or wine, oftentimes also with a small bowl of olives. In grocery stores, you can find them jarred in the bean aisle or in takeaway bags near the deli next to olives. Tremoços are so popular that you can even find street-side vendors scooping them out of a large container as a to-go snack for passersby.
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