(CNN): Portuguese cuisine rarely travels well. The cooking of mainland Europe’s westernmost country is deeply rooted in the freshest local ingredients.
Superlative seafood, sun-ripened fruit, lamb raised on flower-speckled meadows, free-range pigs gorging on acorns beneath oak forests. Without them, it just doesn’t taste the same.
So while diners worldwide crowd Italian trattorias, French bistros and Spanish tapas bars, Portuguese restaurants abroad generally cater to melancholy emigrants seeking in vain to matar saudades (kill their longing) for mom’s home-cooked food.
Things are changing, though. The success of Portuguese chefs like George Mendes in New York and Nuno Mendes (no relation) in London is generating a global buzz about the cooking of their homeland.
Regular visitors have long been in on the secret, but here are 20 reasons why Portugal should be on every foodie traveler’s list.
- Piscivore perfection
In Europe, only Icelanders eat more fish than the Portuguese. Superstar chef Ferran Adria says seafood from Portugal’s Atlantic waters is the world’s best – and he’s Spanish.
Markets glimmer with a startling variety, from baby cuttlefish to U-boat-sized tuna. If your food heaven is fresh seabass expertly barbequed with a hint of lemon, garlic and olive oil, this is the place.
Best eaten by the sea in restaurants like Sao Roque in Lagos, Restinga in Alvor, Furnas in Ericeira, Azenhas do Mar or Restaurante da Adraga west of Sintra, Ribamar in Sesimbra, or Doca do Cavacas on Madeira island.
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- Liquid gold
Drive the backroads of the Alentejo, Beira Interior and Tras-os-Montes regions and you’ll weave through endless olive groves. Olive oil is the basis of Portuguese cooking, whether it’s used to slow-cook salt-cod, dribbled into soups or simply soaked up with hot-from-the-oven bread.
Exports have quadrupled over the past decade as the world wakes up to the quality of Portugal’s liquid gold, either from big-time producers like Gallo and Oliveira da Serra, or hand-crafted, single-farm oils.
The latest prize: a gold medal for Olmais Organic oil at the World’s Best Olive Oils awards in New York.
- The national boiled dinner
Portugal’s cooking is rigorously regional: meaty and robust in the north, Mediterranean in the south. Yet one dish unites the country: cozido.
Best eaten as a big family lunch, this is a boiled one-pot featuring a hunk of beef, various piggy bits, sometimes chicken, always cabbage, potatoes, carrots, turnips and an array of sausage, including paprika-spiced chourico and cumin-flavored blood pudding.
There are regional variations: in the Algarve they add chickpeas and mint; expect lamb and pumpkin in the Alentejo, sweet potatoes on Madeira. In the Azores islands, cozido is slow-cooked by volcano in underground pits.
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- Lisbon’s gourmet awakening
A new generation of chefs is shaking up the capital’s restaurant scene with ultra-modern takes on gastronomic tradition. Leading the charge is Jose Avillez. His Belcanto restaurant facing the Sao Carlos theater won a second Michelin star in 2014.
Its menu features braised red mullet with liver sauce, clams and cornmeal; oxtail with foie gras, chickpeas and creamy sheep cheese.
Rivals include Henrique Sa Pessoa’s new Alma restaurant, just round the corner and wowing diners with the likes of hake with burnt leek and hazelnuts; or Joao Rodrigues, voted chef-of-the-year with his riverside Feitoria. Sa Pessoa and other celebrity chefs offer cheap and cheerful alternatives at the Ribeira market food hall.
- King cod
They say Portugal has 365 recipes for cooking salt cod. In fact, there are many more.
Bacalhau is served “a bras” with scrambled eggs, olives and fries; as fish cakes (pasteis de bacalhau) alongside black-eyed-peas; barbequed, oven-baked or simply boiled with cabbage and carrots, then drizzled in olive oil.
Crumbled with cornbread in the university city of Coimbra, baked under mayonnaise Ze-do-Pipo-style in Porto, chopped into a favorite Lisbon salad with chickpeas and onion, bacalhau is always close to the Portuguese soul.
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- Say Queijo
Why Portugal’s cheeses are not better known is a mystery. True, amarelo da Beira Baixa – a herby goat-and-sheep-milk mix, was judged the world’s greatest in a tasting organized by Wine Spectator and Vanity Fair a few years back.
Yet creamy Serra da Estrela from the milk of ewes raised in Portugal’s loftiest mountain range; hard, pungent cow’s-milk cheeses made on the precipitous mid-Atlantic slopes of Sao Jorge island; or peppery Terrincho produced in remote Tras-os-Montes, remain largely unknown.
Such dairy delights may be served as appetizers or after a meal with red wine or port, sometimes accompanied with quince jam (marmelada).
- Porto’s tasty trinity
In the 15th century, patriotic Porto donated all its meat to Prince Henry the Navigator to feed his soldiers when they sailed off to do battle in Morocco.
Left with just offal, they concocted a dish which remains the city’s signature: tripas a moda do Porto. It’s not for the faint-hearted: a stew of butter beans, calves’ feet, pigs’ ears and peppery chourico as well as the tripe – the chewy white lining of cow’s stomach.
Ever since, inhabitants of Portugal’s second city have been known as tripeiros – tripe-eaters. Porto’s other best-known dishes: slices of deep-fried octopus and monster meat sandwiches smothered in spicy sauce and named francesinhas – or little French girls.
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- Going with the grain
The Portuguese are Europe’s biggest rice-eaters, outpacing Spaniards and Italians, but while paella and risotto are globally ubiquitous, Portugal’s arroz dishes are unjustly neglected.
Arroz de marisco is sumptuous: sloppy rice cooked in a garlicky, cilantro-infused tomato sauce fortified with a multitude of shellfish, which can include lobster, crab, clams and shrimp. You can taste top-notch versions at Cantinho do Mar in seaside Praia da Vieira de Leiria; O Faroleiro overlooking the spectacular Guincho beach in Cascais; or Marisqueira Rui in Silves, the old Moorish capital of the Algarve.
Other classic rice dishes: arroz de pato, oven-baked with duck; arroz de cabidela, involving lots of chicken blood; and sweet, cinnamon-scented arroz doce for dessert.
- Wild pigs
Portugal enjoys some of the world’s juiciest pork and tastiest ham as a byproduct of its thriving cork industry.
Semi-wild black pigs grow fat on a diet of acorns dropped by the forests of cork oaks across the southern Alentejo region. The resultant porco preto is marbled with fat, filled with flavor.
Cured ham (presunto) made from these beasts – especially from the border town of Barrancos – rivals the best from Spain or Italy. The Alentejo’s most distinctive dish combines clams with garlic-and-red-pepper-marinated pork.
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- The old school
Just about every provincial town has a least one old-school restaurant cooking time-honored dishes unique to their region.
Examples: Porto Santana serving vinegary dogfish soup in the whitewashed town of Alcacer do Sal; Cafe Correia famed for stuffed squid in Vila do Bispo; Aveiro’s O Telheiro and its eel stew; the Solar Bragancano whose seasonal partridge, pheasant and boar dishes make a trip to Braganca worthwhile.
Portuguese towns also have a bunch of informal restaurant categories: tascas are wine taverns serving hearty lunches; cervejarias are for seafood and chilled beer; pastelarias are nominally pastry shops, but also serve lunchtime dishes.
- So much wine
For a small country Portugal makes an astounding variety of great wines.
Summery vinho verdes from the green northwest. Full-bodied reds and fruity whites from Douro, Dao and Alentejo. Bubbly from Bairrada; legendary Port and Madeira vintages. Honeyed moscatel from Setubal. Rare tipples from odd places like the Lisbon surfer suburb of Carcavelos. Or the World Heritage vineyards clinging to a mid-Atlantic volcano on Pico Island.
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- The legacy of empire
Lisbon has been a culinary melting pot since the 15th-century age of discovery. Portuguese traders introduced chili to India, took tempura to Japan. India’s vindaloo curry descends from vinha d’alhos, a wine-and-garlic marinade.
The influence works both ways: grilled chicken in fiery piri-piri sauce is a cherished Portuguese staple rooted in southern Africa.
Lisbon is filled with exotic eateries serving Cape Verdian cachupa, Angolan muamba, Brazilian moqueca and feijoada, spiced goat from Goa, coconut-infused shrimp curry from Mozambique.
- Little piggies
Mealhada is a town built on suckling pig. The main street is lined with industrial-scale restaurants serving up hundreds of spit-roasted piglets every day.
To become leitao da Bairrada, the animals are basted in a garlic-and-black-pepper sauce and cooked slowly to produce tender pink flesh wrapped in a crispy skin. Usually served with fried potatoes, slices of oranges and local sparkling wine, although purists prefer the Bairrada region’s excellent reds. Where to try it?
Pedro dos Leitoes and Meta dos Leitoes are safe bets in Mealhada, Casa Vidal in nearby Aguada de Cima is a favorite with many insiders.
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- A festival of fruit
Madeiran bananas; Azores pineapples; cherries from the Serra da Gardunha mountains.
Oranges, almonds and figs from the Algarve; melons raised on scorched summer plains beside the River Tagus. West coast pears; pale yellow apples from Esmolfe and stripy red ones from Palmela; Elvas plums; loquats heralding the spring; juicy peaches; passion fruit from the islands.
The sun-drenched climate gifts Portugal a cornucopia of naturally ripened, locally grown fruit that’s reassuringly blemished, oddly shaped and utterly delicious.
- Saintly sardines
Mid-June, Lisbon’s old neighborhoods erupt in an orgy of singing, dancing, wine-swilling and sardine-grilling.
The Festa do Santo Antonio, to honor the capital’s patron saint, is a city-wide street party and sardines play a key role.
Cheap, plentiful and freshly caught, the little blue fish are at their plumpest and tastiest going into the summer. The whiff of sardines sizzling on street-corner barbeques is as much a part of the city’s fabric as mournful fado music or rivalry between the Benfica and Sporting soccer clubs. Serve with boiled potatoes and roasted red peppers.
Tourists should beware however: the only sardines self-respecting Lisbonites eat outside the May-October season are from a can.
- Edible oddities
Some Portuguese edibles can seem bizarre to outsiders.
Lamprey – a blood-sucking snake-shaped fish that’s been around since the dinosaurs – is a seasonal delicacy.
Goose-necked barnacles (percebes) are scrumptious once you’ve prized the worm-like interior out of its leathery sheath. Cod tongues, pig’s heads, and fried chicken gizzards are all popular.
For dessert, how about morcela doce, a sugared blood sausage? Or pudim abade de Priscos, bacon-and-cinnamon-flavored custard puddings?
- Market magic
All Portuguese towns have markets offering a daily show of fresh fish, locally farmed fruit and veg and grizzly selections of offal. Olhao’s waterfront market in the Algarve dates back to 1912 and is famed nationwide for its seafood.
In Madeira’s capital Funchal, flower-venders in colorful folk costumes compete with a kaleidoscope of sub-tropical produce. Porto’s 19th-century Mercado do Bolhao is a much-loved landmark.
Mercado da Ribeira became Lisbon’s second most-visited tourist attraction after a makeover that added a gourmet food hall.
One tip: Markets are dead on Mondays, there’s no fish.
- Pastel de nata’s rivals
Not that pasteis de nata are passe. The cinnamon-sprinkled custard tarts invented by monks in Lisbon’s Belem district are still yummy, but Portugal’s pastry-making efforts go so much further.
It’s time to embrace sticky Madeira molasses cakes; fig, almond and carob creations from the Algarve; filo-pastry tubes with sweet, eggy fillings originating in the village of Tentugal.
The names of many sinful confections reflect their origins in convent kitchens – like bacon-from-heaven (toucinho do ceu) or nun’s belly (barriga de freira).
Portugal has a pastry store on every street. Among the best: the Casa da Isabel in Portimao, the Confeitaria da Ponte in historic Amarante, Pastelaria Alcoa by the medieval monestary in Alcobaca and the Confeitaria Nacional tempting downtown Lisbon since 1829.
- Bifana vs. prego
To make a bifana, marinate thin slices of pork in white wine and garlic, fry, slap it into a bread roll, add mustard or hot sauce to taste.
For a prego, the process is pretty similar, but the main ingredient is beef steak. These are Portugal’s snacks of preference. Done right, with quality meat and juices that soak into the soft white bread, they are unbeatable. Accompany with cold beer.
Pregos are also customarily used to round off a feast of clams, shrimp or crab in marisqueiras – specialized seafood joints. Those at Lisbon’s Ramiro are legendary.
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- Goats and other animals
In a country so associated with seafood, it would be wrong to neglect the meat. Besides unparallelled pork, lamb raised on Alentejo plains or northern highlands is wonderful.
The lean flavorsome meat of roast kid (cabrito) is widely eaten at festive meals. Older goats are simmered in red wine to make chanfana, a Coimbra regional specialty.
Beef from long-horned Barrosa and Maronesa cattle roaming the north is justly famed. In the hunting season boar (javali), deer (veado) and hare (lebre) abound.