Food Specialties in Lisbon
Updated: Jun 15
The universal language of food, like music, speaks of history, culture, geography and genius. It speaks of what is valued and available, what is passed from one generation to the next, and what is shared with people fortunate enough to be traveling through.
Lisbon, blessed with endless sunshine and an endless coastline, opened its culinary arms to me and I gladly stepped forth for the embrace, sampling some of its many delights.
Pastéis de Nata
These sweet egg custard tarts, known as Pastéis de nata, are ubiquitous to this city and you can't help but love these things. Fortunately for us, there were bakeries and cafes selling pastéis de nata all over Lisbon. The most famous of which is Pastéis de Belém.
How Pastéis de Nata Came to Be
It is said that monks at the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém developed the original recipe for the tarts. They were using egg whites at the monastery to starch clothing, and the leftover egg yolks were used for baking with led to the creation of the iconic pastries, Pastéis de nata.
Though not similar in taste or texture, how the Pastéis de nata came to be created is similar to title cakes that can be found in Bordeaux called cannelés. Winemakers used egg whites to clarify the wines, and cannelés were created from the surplus of egg yolks.
Ginja, a sweet cherry liqueur, has been around since at least the 1800s. In days past, it was believed to be a miracle elixir -- a cure for all kinds of afflictions.
This sweet, alcoholic drink is a Lisbon original and the most authentic way to taste Ginja is to visit one of the Ginja bars. These bars are crazy small; there are no tables inside, only a counter and lots of bottles of Ginja. You just walk in, pay a euro or two, and walk out with a shot of Ginja. You can order the Ginja with or without cherries that have been soaking in the liquor, but know which way you're ordering before you walk in. These places are so tiny there's no room to change your mind.
The most famous of the Ginja bars is A Ginjinha, which dates all the way back to 1840. The first Ginja bar we came across was the Ginjinha Sem Rival where we sampled the first of many shots of Ginja. The bar is old, and stepping inside of it, I felt a like a time traveler stopping by for a drink. Salut.
Coming to Portugal, of course I planned to have my fair share of port wine. That was a given. What wasn't a given was my discovery of White Port. Like its counterpart, white port is sweet, more an aperitif or digestif than a wine that would serve with a meal. And, white port seems to be a little lighter on the taste buds, setting it apart from the red. To my delight, white port is found throughout the city, and after my first glass, I was a fan.
In the ten days we stayed in Lisbon, we only purchased one bottle of wine to keep at the apartment -- a bottle of white port. On our last day, we realized our bottle was still half full; cause for a spontaneous afternoon on the balcony, enjoying the sunshine and soaking up port.
We may have only bought one bottle of wine for the apartment, but we never missed an opportunity to try different wines when we dined out. On our first day in Lisbon we were introduced to Vinho Verde, which means green wine. This particular wine is not actually green in color; it is a light white wine with a touch of effervescent. Vinho Verde comes from the Vinho Verde region of Portugal and is green in the sense that it is a young wine.
I am by no means a wine aficionado; I'll even admit there was a time when my wine came from a box, so when it comes to ordering a bottle of wine at a restaurant, I like to ask the server's opinion. Also, to make sure the wine will pair well with the food, I order the wine after I've ordered my meal.
Chafariz do Vinho Wine Bar
Lisbon has a most unusual wine bar, the Chafariz do Vinho, located in the Principe Real area of the city.
It took us few times to find Chafariz do Vinho; it is actually built into a very large set of stairs. At first glance, the wine bar looked tiny, just a wooden bar along one wall. But, after venturing in and asking for a table, what we saw was unusual indeed. We ere escorted passed the bar into another, much larger area that is the inside of a stone aqueduct. The space was vast with seating on several different levels and a stone trough running along a set of stairs.
Chafariz do Vinho offers wines by the glass, bottle or in flights, which is what we tried. There are several authentic Portuguese dishes on the menu, too. Not knowing that Chafariz do Vinho served food as well as wine, we made the mistake of making reservations at a different restaurant for dinner.
Sardines Not in Season
Lisbon is replete with food specialties, yet, somehow, I managed to book our trip when its most famous speciality -- sardines -- were not in season. Those little fishes could still be found all over the city though; restaurants served sardines that had been previously caught and frozen and there were also plenty of stores selling sardines in tins, thousands and thousands of tins. Tins stacked on tables, and shelves and overflowing on counters. Here's the lucky sardine that came home with me: a Fado singer!
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