My friend is drawing a freeform map of the world at the behest of our guide, Célia Pedroso. I’m not only impressed by the ability to take a paper tablecloth and just lay out the world by pen in a matter of moments, but when Célia begins to place pieces of cinnamon stick, cloves, star anise and chillies onto the various countries before us, the reach of Portugal during its period of Discoveries — which began in 1415 — is kind of astonishing.
As a small, sea-facing country, there was nowhere else for the expansionist royal court to go but out across the Atlantic and into the world. During this time of adventure (and colonialism, and with it incredible cruelty), the country became the biggest conqueror, the richest in Europe and also the one that would change the culinary plate forever. The spice trade had already imported new flavours to Europe, but the Portuguese brought these treasures to the masses, making spices cheaper and more accessible, changing our cooking forever.
We’ve joined Célia, from Culinary Backstreets on the Lisbon Awakens: A Culinary Crossroads Reborn tour. Pointing to our map, she tells us that Lisbon became a global village, and indeed through all this trade it was at one point the richest city in Europe. We take in Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India in 1498 and then quickly scoot through the taking of Brazil, where hot piri piri chillies were discovered and then transported to India and Malaysia. We learn that in some countries the word for orange is ‘Portugal’.
There’s a book in all of this for sure, but for today we’re here to taste some of this cross-pollination in the less touristy areas of Estrela and Campo de Ourique. We try broa, a cake made from walnuts and sweet potato, warmed with New World spices. We move on to Célia’s favourite piri piri chicken place, where the meat is succulent, bathed in a secret marinade of 15 different ingredients, using a recipe that came with Senhor Carlos when he returned to the capital after his family and other Portuguese settlers fled the war in Angola (another colony) in 1975.
We stop to chat to stallholders in the lovely Campo de Ourique market, tasting seasonal fruit and vegetables before heading to Padaria do Povo, a historic bakery and secret resistance hang-out during the years of the Salazar dictatorship which is now a lovely social club — here we try fabulous chamuças (samosas) and vindaloo, both Goanese interpretations of Portuguese favourites.
The cooking of Lisbon is a distillation of dishes from all the Portuguese regions. Chef Miguel Castro e Silva is from Porto in the north but has seven restaurants in Lisbon, all of them embracing the best of his country’s products and lovingly enfolding regional dishes into their menus. We meet for lunch in Mercado, his ‘simple Portuguese’ restaurant on the ground floor of the new Lumiares hotel in Bairro Alto, the city’s rhythmic, and sometimes crazy, heart.
He tells me that everything he makes is about product primarily but also, for him, it has to tell a story. The Portuguese exalt bacalhau, cod, particularly in its salted form — this is for a number of reasons, involving Catholic fasting, but also because when this meaty fish is dried it lasts forever and is easily transportable; so it could be taken deep into the countryside and also into the holds of the caravels, the ships that left Lisbon to explore the oceans. Here the chef takes cod neck, ‘it’s like the rib eye from the cod’, and fries it in tempura batter, which the Portuguese introduced to Japan.
He exalts açorda, another national dish that began from deep poverty when stale bread was reconstituted to make a form of porridge, using a rich seafood stock, and adding the ubiquitous (in Portugal) coriander, fat prawns caught locally and a raw egg yolk. He takes a spoon and mixes it all in utter delight.
Upstairs on the rooftops, with a view over Lisbon, is his fine-dining restaurant Lumni where Castro e Silva explains: “My kitchen’s mostly Portuguese with a twist. It’s very much terroir food, which can be quite heavy, so here we bring it into the modern [day] — we respect the origins of the produce but make it light and elegant, concentrating on flavour.”
It’s a popular choice, but it’s hard to go to Lisbon without making a pilgrimage to the seafood palace that is Ramiro. It’s so popular now, there’s always a queue so we take a ticket — like the deli counter in a supermarket — buy some tokens from the bar and fill a plastic glass of Sagres from an automated beer tap. Timing here is key. Mid afternoon you will hardly wait, at 8pm we sat for about half an hour (but this was the off season). The seafood is always worth it, simply, brilliantly cooked and fresh. I love gamba do Algarve (prawns) boiled and scattered with fleur de sel, the santola (dressed crab), that comes with a plastic board and mallet with which to bash the hell out of the claws, and ameijoas Bulhao Pato, named after a poet but basically just delectable clams steamed with butter, garlic and coriander. First timers must try percebes, goose-necked barnacles which look like aliens’ fingers but contain the essence of the sea inside, and carabineiro, a succulent large red prawn (squeeze the juices out of the heads over the prawn meat, smother with butter and lemon, swirl this all around and then glory in it). Dessert is a prego, rare, thin steak served in a crusty roll with sweet mustard. Yes, Ramiro is more expensive than almost any other cervejeria (beer hall selling seafood) in Lisbon, but none of them match this atmosphere. And when you still see tables full of old Portuguese fellas feasting on massive platters of crustaceans you know it’s yet to become a true tourist trap.
Over the past six or seven years Lisbon has undergone an astonishing culinary revolution. But even on this, my most recent of many visits, I’m enthralled. It’s constantly changing, overwhelming for locals, yes, but much of it for the good. The traditional tascas are still brilliant if you choose them well, serving the best of the country’s earthy fare. But with this new enervated focus on Portuguese produce you’ll find great new restaurants like Prado, where Antonio Galapito, a young buck who spent many years working for Nuno Mendes, a famous Portuguese chef in London, is rocking his kitchen. Back here in his hometown he’s doing what the Portuguese have done brilliantly since the 1400s: leaving and returning with great ideas.
If truth be told, this country has been a little haphazard with vegetables, boiling them too long or making soups out of them. But at Prado fresh, seasonal vegetables are treated like kings. There’s cabbage with goat’s whey and walnuts, black scabbard fish topped with sweet-tasting radish. The showstopper is cockles, chard, coriander and fried bread in an exquisite jus made from the sweet cockles. And a mushroom (yup) ice cream topped with caramel made from butter and pork fat, scattered with barley.
My Portuguese friends and I agree, this is some of the best food we’ve ever eaten in the city at incredibly good prices. I’ll always return to Lisbon, I love the city to my very bones, but as long as it’s here, I want a table at Prado.
Five Lisbon food finds
Eggy cakes and pastries
Custardy, crunchy pastéis de nata are now famous the world over but you’ll not find better than in Lisbon. Our favourites are from Manteigaria in the Chiado area.
Meaning fried salty things, Lisboetas love salt cod fritters, meat croquettes, shrimp turnovers and a host of other crispy delights.
A liqueur made by infusing sour cherries with alcohol, most commonly aguardente. Served in a shot glass, it comes ‘com ou sem elas’ — with or without cherries. Look out for tiny shops, such as Ginjinha Sem Rival and A Ginjinha, where locals get their pick-me-up.
In summer, the smell of sardines is everywhere in Lisbon, particularly around 12 June, the festa de Santo António, a citywide carnival of dancing, singing and food. Ad hoc grills are set up on pavements and sardines are served with charred peppers and rustic bread.
The Portuguese love sausages and have invented some with a bready filling mixed with pork fat called farinheira; chouriço is a softer sweeter rival to the Spanish chorizo and morcela is blood sausage, basically a soft black pudding.
A taste of Lisbon
Sitting atop Lumiares hotel, this restaurant is under the aegis of Portuguese culinary giant Miguel Castro e Silva, who brings his love affair with the country’s produce to the plate with finesse. A winemaker as well as a chef, he turns the basic, sturdy elements of the country’s larder into beauty on a plate. Bread and rice are essential staples in this cuisine due to years of deep poverty, but here Castro e Silva exalts them. His milhos, ground corn a little like polenta, is crispy on the outside and full of flavour. A slow-braised lamb with chickpeas and sweet potato mash is delectable. Dinner from £35 per person without wine. And eight-course tasting menu is £50.
The focus here is on fresh fish and seasonal produce. Chef Diogo Noronha says: “With total respect for the ingredients, and in praise of the diversity of flavours from sea and mountain, the concept behind Restaurante Pesca aims to align with the essential commitment to sustainability.” There’s an exquisite squid tartar, prawns from the Algarve coast and the fabulous giant prawn, carabineiro, adored in the city. Main course fishes include seabream, meagre, turbot, black scabbard fish and red mullet. The wine list focuses on the biodynamic and natural. Dinner from £43 per person without wine.
Take a food tour of Lisbon with a knowledgeable gourmet-loving local guide. Try pastries, hams, sardines, seafood and ginjinha on the half-day Lisbon Eats: The Culinary Backstreets Essentials tour. Or opt for an exploration off the beaten track with full-day tours. All food and wine included. Tours begin at £69.
Rooms at The Lumiares Hotel cost from £135 per night for a studio and £178 per night for a one-bedroom apartment. TAP Air Portugal flies direct from London City Airport, Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester to Lisbon from £42 one way.
Published in the April 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)