Here, Have a Taste of Lisboa
For a long time in the past, Portugal has been overshadowed as a tourist destination by its close neighbor and historical rival Spain, especially the latter’s Andalusia region. But since a few years back, Portugal has surged as a prime spot this side of Europe. This is thanks largely to its unique identity as a nation, well-projected by the image of its capital city Lisbon.
And of course, what better way to take a dip into a country’s culture than to learn about its food? A country’s gastronomic inclinations can greatly reflect their history and values as a people, as I am about to see firsthand during my “Taste of Lisboa” food tour.
Before this, we felt like we were walking on the wrong side of Lisbon. Sure, the city was great and all, but we felt like we were really missing something. As we walked, we were falling in love with the city. Lisbon has that quality of growing on you. As it did, we found ourselves wanting to learn more. Hence, the tour!
Eating though Lisbon
Miguel, our tour guide, met us with a smile as we gathered downtown. He greeted us warmly and asked us to introduce ourselves. There were a lot of Americans and Canadians in our tour group! According to the tour’s site, Miguel will be the one to take us off Lisbon’s beaten tracks as we tour both the modern and historical side of the city. And what better way to begin this than by looking at one of Portugal’s most iconic foodstuff?
We began the tour with Miguel taking us into a traditional deli or manteigaria. While sampling the food there, he told us about the country’s obsession with — of all things — cod. Some local stories claim that the country is so in love with the fish that they have more than 365 ways to cook it. That’s one for each day of the year! Some people even up this number to more than a thousand. Whatever it may be, the fascination with cod is a great part of the nation’s history.
Also called bacalhau in Portuguese, cod is almost always sold dried. In fact, the word means “dried cod”. Curiously, the Portuguese have no word for fresh cod, with the equivalent (bacalhau fresco) technically meaning “fresh dried cod”. The drying was a remnant of the country’s early trading days. The fish used to be imported and had to be dried to prevent spoiling in transit. Over time, it became a staple food due to its abundance, providing an affordable source of protein for many. The spread of cod was also greatly helped by the country’s Roman Catholic roots, since the Church forbade its adherents to eat meat on many days of the year. And being such an important fish, they use every part of it, too!
In the manteigaria, we were able to see firsthand how cod is sold on Lisbon. These were pretty big fish! Our guide also gave us a primer on other staples of Portuguese food, such as the local wine and charcuterie. Portugal had really fine wine — and the best part? It’s a whole lot cheaper than Spain’s! Good wine is very affordable here in Portugal, and we paid only around a third of what we did when we were across the border. Come to think of it, Portugal is much more affordable than Spain in many aspects.
The charcuterie came in the form of pata negra, which was a type of ham. I immediately recalled the Devour Madrid tour wherein we had the jamon iberico de bellota, which was 50% acorn fed and very delicious. But I and my three friends all agreed that pata negra is better! As we had our wine and ham, Miguel explained more about the history and culture of Portugal.
From there, we moved to a bar where we tasted green wine — Vinho Verde. Despite the name, it was actually red wine that is consumed soon after being bottled (hence the name). It also translates to “young wine”. Then there’s the really great codfish cakes! They were very flavorful and crunchy.
We were also introduced to the bifana, which was a type of sandwich with thin, slow-cooked pork. While we have our cheap burgers back home, in Portugal this i s their most famous fast food.
After this, Miguel took us to the Mouraria. The place is usually dubbed the “secret neighborhood” of Lisbon, and is considered the “heart” of the city. It has a unique culture, with age-old structures and a really quaint lifestyle. It carries the pulse of the capital, like its neighbor district Alfama. The only contrast is that Alfama faces the sea, while Mouraria is land-locked. Mouraria is also famous for being the center of fado, a song (traditionally of sorrow, but now can be about a variety of topics) that is integral to the Portuguese culture. Miguel told us about some of the great Fado singers.
From there we moved on to my favorite leg of the tour, a tiny bar here in Mouraria called “Jasmin”. We had ginja, which is a local type of wine that uses sour cherries. It took some getting used to, but it was great! Equally great were the sardines, which were exquisitely served.
Before we wrapped up, we tried samosas (a Mozambique stuffed pastry), port wines, and pasteis de nata (custard egg tarts). The last one was from the oldest confectionery in Lisbon, Confeitaria Nacional. It’s been open since 1829!
Overall, the 4-hour tour was completely worth it. We not only learned something new, we also got our fill of treats and learned to appreciate the true spirit of Lisbon. And of course, we fell in love with the charming city even more! Check out their Website and Facebook for more tours!