My first meal in Lisbon was serendipitous, yet life-affirming in a way unplanned events sometimes take a turn for the best. After signing up for an event—dinner inclusive—that hosted a liberal mix of tech entrepreneurs visiting the city for a summit, I had little hope for what would be on the menu. But as each plate rolled out of the kitchen I regained my optimism bite by bite.
The bolinhos de bacalhau or salted cod fritters, deep fried oblong patties of cod fish, split open like wispy cotton balls when I pulled apart. The punheta de bacalhau, flaky codfish salad, retained the umami aftertaste of salted cod; and the shellfish flavours of arroz de marisco, mix seafood rice, sang rapturously in my tongue. I washed everything down with berry-red Sangria—so syrupy it made my teeth squeak and
the only anomaly in an otherwise perfect meal. Emboldened by the gratification supplied by my first meal, I conceded that there can be no food faux paus big enough to disappoint me in Lisbon.
Having lived in the South German town of Stuttgart for a year, where fish came in neatly processed fillets and hardly featured in the local cuisine, my hunger for seafood had reached ravenous proportions. I landed in Lisbon with high expectations for fresh seafood. This is over and above the pictures I’d seen of the diaphanous cod—dried and salted, hanging fish-head-first from hooks. It reminded me of wind chimes and made my mouth water with all the gastronomic possibilities it posed.
“When I think of all the species of fish…that make up part of our daily food,” says Portuguese travel blogger and writer, Nelson Carvalheiro, in his twice-Gourmand-Cookbook-Award-winning The Portuguese Travel Cookbook, “I’m instantly overwhelmed.” Reading his (partial) list makes you breathless. “…sea bass, snapper, mackerel, skate, dogfish, bream, pouts, turbot, monkish, cancarro, dory, sardine, horse mackerel, cuttlefish, mullet, squid, octopus,” he adds, helpfully, “my head begins to spin.”
The next day, preoccupied by Lisbon’s undulating hilly landscape that reminded me of San Francisco, I strolled the city streets alongside ancient trams, rattling their way up and down. I spent hours at various miraduoros or vantage points overlooking Lisbon’s tiled roof buildings whose walls are often plastered with azulejos, glazed ceramic Portuguese tiles, framed by a blue autumn sky.
As dinner approached, I was unprepared when hunger pangs crept up on me unceremoniously however I was willing to be surprised and put my theory to test. At the Restaurante Milano in Central Lisbon, the interiors inspired little confidence—wooden chairs, bright white lights and walls decorated with laminated images of assorted Italian attractions—but the tables were heaving with hungry diners and there was only elbow room to spare. Paying heed to what conventional wisdom dictates about crowded restaurants, I went in and ordered sardinhas assadas, fried sardines, with tomato rice.
My order, the most basic Portuguese meal, was close to a dozen fried sardines on a bed of deep red tomato rice. I’m used to eating my mother’s sardines, floating in a feisty red curry topped off with a layer of coconut oil and tempered with mustard and curry leaves. As if she read my mind from my expression, the waitress asked if I’d like some spicy sauce. She vanished as soon as I responded affirmatively and brought back a little bowl of freshly made piri-piri.
The Portuguese are credited with bringing chilli to Asia. Piri-piri is the bird-eye chilli the Portuguese took with them on their voyages, and it singes your throat with viciousness. It unclogs your sinus and makes your nostrils run. On a zero to five chilli heat scale, it ranks at four and gets a “very hot” rating. Yet, the world has long discovered its wonders when paired with grilled chicken as a spicing component. In Portugal, you can find it in restaurants, often freshly made with seeds floating to the top, not unlike the freshly made sambal in Southeast Asian countries.
By the time I finished eating, barely lifting my head from my plate, the empty space in my four-seater table was already occupied by two ebullient Lisboners who were getting drunk by the minute while relaying their dinner expedition to a friend on phone. Nevertheless, my basic meal was a resounding success.
I had a whole week of dinners and lunches left and I was wary my beginners luck would run out, so I signed up for a day-long food tour called Song of the Sea, with the Lisbon-based food tour specialists, Culinary Backstreets. I picked it because it promised to take me “in search of the very best seasonal bounty of the sea.” I was sold. The next day I met my guide, the cheery Joao Freitas, a Lisboner and a wine-swigging business management graduate, at the city’s Estrela suburbs in front of an 18th-century fountain that was once a source for drinking water but now serves only as a landmark.
The advantages of taking a tour with a local like Freitas is that he will introduce you to the culinary jewels that otherwise fly under the radar of tourists. Our next stop proved this. At Ultimo Porto, which overlooked the Tago estuary in east Lisbon, the cook was grilling whole octopuses, and chunky slabs of cod fish and sea bass in the outdoor grill when we sauntered in. Office-goers in blazers and businessmen in expensive suits ate plates of grilled fish over glasses of the greenish Portuguese wine, Vinho Verde. Smoke from their cigarettes rose up headily, clouding my vision and making my eyes water, as the rays of the afternoon sun slapped against the glass windows panes. The restaurant’s drinks menu ran into several pages, but their food was just one unfailing page filled with grilled fish—sea bass, octopus, grouper, codfish, horse mackerel, and sardines when they’re in season.
We ordered a platter of grilled cod and cuttlefish, which was served with boiled potatoes and sautéed turnip greens, and a side of tomato rice. The chunks of fish bounced between my teeth and the mild sourness of turnip greens drowned in the lusciousness of tomato rice. The simplicity of the meal was revealing in its delicious details.
We ended the tour at O Palacio in the Alcantra neighbourhood, with plates of Sesimbra clams sautéed in olive oil and seasoned with cilantro. I scooped out the mildly tangy olive-oil-cilantro-clam juice—which, to me, tasted like rasam—with empty clam shells and slurped until my plate was squeaky clean. The next dish, goose barnacles gently boiled in brine, looked like little bird’s feet to me and seemed unappetising. I pulled at them gingerly to reveal peachy flesh that tasted like the ocean. “If you close your eyes, it’s easy to imagine you’re eating smoked salmon,” said Freitas. He was right. This time I ignored the piri-piri pickle.
Towards the end of the tour, I had extracted a list of local restaurants from Freitas that I visited in the coming days. At the Time Out Market in Chiado, I had cod fish cakes with tomato rice. I also ate cod fritters of multiple shapes at multiple fish stands. Some of these meals were satisfying, but some, as is the fallible nature of the gastronomic universe, not so.
Over the course of my stay in Lisbon I realised the city’s culinary offerings are often modest with little to no room for gastronomic pretence. The Portuguese may have opened the spice route to India to the western world but in their own cuisine, the spices they brought back home are used with restraint. Yet the comforting flavours, subtle as they are, are served with a lot of heart and have the capability to transform simple meals into unforgettable feasts.
Prathap Nair quit his job to travel and write a few years ago. He has travelled on the TransSiberian train, walked the Flaming Cliffs of Mongolia and hiked up Mt. Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia. He likes the unpredictability of loosely planned solo travels.