Despite being a foodie, I almost never blog about food. And I almost never take pictures of food. But it would be remiss of me not to at least mention some aspects of the food we had in Portugal. Food is, of course, regional and our culinary experience was based on spending time in Lisbon, the Algarve, and Setúbal peninsula. I am looking forward to trying different foods in other parts of the country on our next trip.
As someone raised in Hong Kong who thinks Cantonese cuisine is one of the pinnacles of gastronomy, I really love and appreciate the emphasis on freshness, especially with respect to the seafood (which I also love and is my primary source of protein). That, and my fondness for soft, doughy, pillowy, eggy baked good means that Portuguese cuisine is a big win for me (unlike, say, Kazakh cuisine). Incidentally, the origins of all these eggy sweets comes from the convents and monasteries. The nuns/monks used the egg whites to starch clothing and the remaining egg yolks were utilized in baked goods.
It seems like the only pastry tourists know about is pastéis de nata (literally, cream pastry), which is unfortunate since there are so many other tasty Portuguese pastries (more on that later). Macau’s proximity to Hong Kong meant that I had been exposed to and ate Portuguese egg tarts quite a lot. But now I got to try it in the motherland! Had we not rented a car and if Belém was not somewhat on the way out of town to the Algarve, I would not have endured the 40 minutes each way on public transportation for these things. But events aligned and I wanted to see if all the hype about the egg tarts from Pastéis de Belém was warranted.
Arriving first thing on Saturday morning meant we did not have to deal with lines.
Upon entry, I noticed locals having their bica and pastry standing up at the counter. I like that this place in every tourist guidebook also caters to locals as well. Pastéis de Belem makes many other baked goods besides their famous pastéis de nata. The staff cranking these babies out work behind a large glass screen, which allows visitors to see them in action. Hopefully the glass screen does not make them feel like zoo animals.
The pastéis de nata looked good, but not extraordinary. That is, until we bit into them. The pastry was layered and flaky, and the custard warm and of perfect consistency. I would say, when warm, these egg tarts were the best I had on this trip. If they are cold, there are a lot of other places that produce just as good pastéis de nata.
As I said earlier, I hope visitors to Portugal try more than just pastéis de nata, as there are many other delicious pastries. Sintra has their delicious queijada de Sintra. Another one is pastéis de feijão (bean pastry). Pastel de feijão usually comes in the form of a round tart with a marzipan-like filling (I know, kind of like queijadas). Fábrica Pastel de Feijão in Alfama has a different take on these.
Scott and Eric stumbled across this place totally by chance. When Scott waxed lyric about this place, I was, as usual, slightly skeptical. The pastel de feijão was outstanding. At €2.50 each, they are not cheap by Portuguese standards. It is a good way to prevent me buying them by the half/one dozen.
Okay, enough of doces (sweets). The savory foods were what really got me loving Portuguese food. We had so many good experiences in many restaurants that I can’t list all of them. I think Portuguese food is quite simple in its preparation, but I enjoyed almost all the fish and shellfish (especially cuttlefish and octopus (polvo)) dishes I had. Arroz de polvo was our revelation of the trip. We had no idea about the dish before we arrived in Lisbon, and got to have it in octopus central (Santa Luzia and Tavira in the Algarve). It has also been cool to practice speaking Portuguese at the Portuguese fishmongers here (they are Portuguese American and speak perfectly fluent English; they are just humouring me most likely).
Scott’s friend, Erich, kindly booked us a table at the Michelin starred restaurant, Loco. We had the 18 course (they call them “moments” – yes, a bit gimmicky) menu, which is a record for me. There were a few standout dishes. I am not keen on land meat (okay, okay, a pig on an aircraft carrier doesn’t count) but still tried all the meat dishes. I admit, I had to pass almost all of the beef tongue to Scott and Erich.
Incidentally, we had really excellent Indian food in Lisbon. There is no shortage of Indian, Tibetan, and Nepalese restaurants. I did find it a bit strange to see quite a few of these restaurants serving Italian food as well e.g. Indian Italian, Nepalese Italian. Is this a think in Portugal?
It seems like vegetables don’t play a starring role. I find this odd given what wonderful produce Portugal has. Even the vegetables as sides to the protein were kinda lame. The only vegetable dish/side I remember (because the rest were so insipid) is cenouras à Algarve (delicious). I will trying to seek out Portuguese vegetarian options next time round.
To me, Portuguese food is simple in its preparation. But that does not mean it is not super delicious. I think the simplicity of preparation techniques allows ingredients to shine. I am looking forward to eating new foods and old favourites on our next trip to Portugal.