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The secrets of Portuguese cuisine: From bacalhau to alheira

With fresh ingredients as old as time, Portugal is an essential stop for curious foodies.

Portuguese cuisine is defined by simplicity – be it grilled sardines, enjoyed in view of the Atlantic, or the wholesome warmth of a classic caldo verde, lovingly made from a choice selection of local produce. To eat here is to taste the very best of land and sea, with time-honoured dishes passed down through the generations.

Whether cruising through the spectacular landscapes of the Douro Valley or exploring the ancient byways of Lisbon and Porto, you’ll never be far from your next delicious plate in Portugal. At Emerald Cruises, we recognise the simple beauty of Portuguese gastronomy, and so include food-orientated experiences in all our itineraries, each designed to bring you closer to the country’s unrivalled cuisine.

To help you fathom the depth of flavour in Portugal, here we showcase ten of the country’s signature plates – from bacalhau to leitão.


Portugal’s national dish, bacalhau is simply dried, salted cod, which is used in a variety of different recipes. Popular across the country, there are reputed to be over 365 different ways to incorporate bacalhau into regional dishes – a recipe for every day of the year. From bacalhau com natas (bacalhau with cream and potatoes) to bacalhau com broa (bacalhau and cornbread, there are a myriad of ways to enjoy this Portuguese delicacy, each using its unique texture and taste differently. You can even enjoy bacalhau at breakfast, with the famous bacalhau a bras – salted cod with scrambled eggs.

Caldo Verde

caldao verde
Portugal’s famous soup, caldo verde, is beloved in the Douro region, where it’s been enjoyed as a popular peasant food for centuries. The fertile lands of northern Portugal are ideal for growing the principal ingredients of this classic soup, which traditionally include kale, onions, potatoes and garlic. Traditional Portuguese sausage or chorizo is also often added, imparting a rich depth of flavour, though the vegetarian version is equally as tasty. Such is the fame of caldo verde, that the dish is listed as one of the seven wonders of Portuguese gastronomy.

Arroz de Marisco

arroz de miasco
Decadent, rich and unbeatable for bread dunking, arroz de marisco is Portugal’s definitive seafood stew. Comprising a mix of freshly-caught fish in a smoky, aromatic broth; rice is often added to bulk out the pot and create a hearty, satisfying meal. Stemming from peasant origins, and a favourite among fishermen, arroz de marisco is now a Portuguese classic, which makes full use of the country’s bountiful Atlantic fish stocks. With a glass of Douro red and a plateful of local bread, there are no finer dinners to enjoy on Iberia.

Polvo à Lagareiro

polvo a lagareiro
Seafood is a cornerstone of Portuguese gastronomy, and octopus is among the most popular varieties. A classic dish containing octopus that you must seek out in Portugal is polvo à lagareiro. Here, the octopus is oven-roasted in olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, and lemon juice, before being served simply alongside potatoes and lots and lots of olive oil. The dish is very popular in northern Portugal, so you should have no trouble finding it in one of Porto’s traditional restaurants.


Of all the sausages beloved in Portugal, alheira is the most popular. Made from a blend of different meats, including pork, veal and chicken, the sausage has a remarkably long and fascinating history. In the 15th century, during the inquisition period, Portugal’s Jews faced being expelled from the country if they refused to convert to Christianity. In response, many merely faked conversion, and the alheira sausage, which was then made of chicken, was used as one of the props to hide their truth faith.


A classic street food staple, francesinha is one of Portugal’s younger, less traditional dishes, but one that packs plenty of flavour and makes for the perfect mid-sightseeing lunch. Hailing from Porto, Francesinha is essentially a meat and cheese sandwich, served in a beer and tomato sauce and topped with French fries. This may sound like an unusual combination, but the francesinha is a delicious treat, beloved by locals and visitors alike. This is very much a cult dish, with several cafes in Porto claiming they were the first to invent it.


Grilled fish, served simply with lemon and seasonal vegetables, is a cornerstone dish along Portugal’s Atlantic seaboard. And, if the Portuguese are going to reach for any fish, it’s almost always sardines. Thousands of sardines are freshly caught each day in Portugal, and many of them make their way to the grill. Their skin is perfect for chargrilling, while lemon is used to infused flavour and retain moisture within the meat. With a glass of white wine and a view of the sea, you can do far worse than a plate of grilled Portuguese sardines.


In Portugal, converveiras refers to tinned foods, which may not sound like something you’d like to eat while travelling. But not so fast, because Portugal has a unique relationship with canned food, holding it in high regard. So popular are tinned foods in Portugal that there are restaurants dedicated to serving them, and it all comes down to the variety of canned produce available. Tuna and preserved lemon, spicy sardine, smoked octopus – these are just some of the foods you’ll find in a tin in Portugal, and trying a few while enjoying a cold beer is a very popular way to graze.


Meat eaters, exclusively, will enjoy leitão – a traditional Portuguese dish of roasted piglet. This is easily one of Portugal’s least vegetarian-friendly meals, but it does pack big flavour, and many restaurants specialise in it. While you can enjoy leitão throughout Portugal, it’s most associated with the ancient university city of Coimbra, whose surrounds play host to some of the country’s most distinguished livestock farms and fertile grazing pastures. If you’re looking for an authentic taste of old Portugal, this is it.

Pastel de Nata

Pastel de Nata
Sweet, simple and iconic, the pastel de nata is the most prominent symbol of Portuguese cuisine, and the country’s delicious egg custard tarts are now exported all around the world. Pastel de nata have been around since the medieval period, and were originally produced in monasteries and nunneries. Of all Portugal’s pastel de nata makers, Pasteis de Belem, in Lisbon, is easily the most celebrated. Open since the 18th century, the bakery now produces thousands of custard tarts a day. Expect long queues, and complete satisfaction.

Experience Authentic Portuguese Cuisine with Emerald Cruises

During a deluxe river cruise on the Douro with Emerald Cruises, we want you to experience the pleasure of Portuguese gastronomy to its fullest. That’s why, on selected itineraries, you can savour memorable dining moments which bring you the very best of authentic regional cuisine.

Such foodie events bring you closer to the flavours of Portugal, whether it’s an on-board Portuguese cooking demonstration by expert chefs as you cruise between Porto and Pinhão, or an evening at a local wine estate, where you’ll enjoy a rural dinner at Quinta da Pacheca – one of the most beautiful settings in the Douro region.*


Ready to enjoy the wonderful cuisine of Portugal for yourself? Our collection of luxury Douro river cruises provide the perfect introduction, with the option to enjoy an immersive city stay in Lisbon before or after your river journey. For more information, or to book, visit the homepage or call us on 855 444 0161.

*Please consult the tour itinerary for the most up to date events and activities