15 June 2011

Adventures in Lisboa

I don't have to think twice when someone asks me which is my favorite European city. Without a doubt, it is Lisbon (Lisboa in Portuguese)! The name itself evokes Portugal's fabled past of seafaring explorers, the nostalgic notes of the fado, streetcars, the beautiful tiles (azulejos) which cover the city's streets and walls and incredible geography between the Atlantic Ocean and the Tagus River. My husband Luis is half Portuguese, and while he grew up in the beautiful Azores Islands which are two hours away from mainland Portugal in the middle of the Atlantic, we do make trips to Lisbon from time to time to see family and enjoy the city's magic. We made such a getaway this past weekend, and as always the food and drink for which Portugal is known was one of the highlights!

The Portuguese cuisine is a simple and hearty one based on dishes with lots of olive oil, garlic, fish and seafood (particularly the ubiquitous salt cod or bacalhau), chorizo and potatoes. Portuguese cuisine is known for dishes such as arroz com mariscos (rice with seafood), bacalhau com natas (a casserole of bacalhau and potatoes cooked in a cream sauce) and frango piri-piri (spicy chicken). Sadly, it's not very vegetarian friendly at all! However, there is a notable exception in the soups, which are an outstanding feature of Portuguese cuisine. During this trip, I sampled cream of vegetable soup (creme de legumes), gazpacho from the Alentejo region and of course the classic caldo verde. Caldo verde is made with a potato base and a type of collard green known as couve in Portuguese, to which a few slices of chorizo are usually added. Vegetarians can take out the chorizo (it's added only at the end and thus doesn't leave a taste). Caldo verde can be eaten at any time of day, even for breakfast!

Caldo verde

Gazpacho alentejano

Speaking of breakfast, this is undoubtedly my favorite meal when in Lisbon! Though many Portuguese start their days with a strong espresso (called a bica in Portuguese), Luis and I generally prefer to have a galão, which is a hot, frothy coffee with lots of milk served in a tall glass. To accompany the galão or other coffee, there is an incredible selection of pastries and sweet treats on offer at most pastelarias, along with sandwiches, fritters and savory snacks. The most famous Portuguese pastry is undoubtedly the legendary pastel de nata, which is a delectable little custard-filled tart in a flaky shell, dusted with sugar and cinnamon. So renowened is the pastel de nata that it will be the subject of a separate post, so do stay tuned for that! On some days, we chose to have our breakfast seated in pastelaria terraces to soak up the warm sunshine, while on other days we opted to indulge at the counter of the pastelaria or tasca (small cafe/bar) where we found ourselves, as most Portuguese do (counter dining is cheaper too, by the way!)...

Portugal is also a wonderful place for drinking! Portuguese wines, including ports, are renowned for their vitality and drinkability. Some of the world's most exciting wines come from the Douro and Alentejo regions. Luis and I are particularly fans of vinho verde or green wine, which hails mostly from the Minho and Douro Literal regions in the northwest. Vinho verdes are crisp, tangy and fruity and should be served ice cold. There is nothing more refreshing on a summer day! During our weekend stay, we also enjoyed many a caipirinha, Brazil's most famous cocktail which the Portuguese have perfected. Like most alcoholic drinks in Portugal where drinking is a huge part of the culture, caipirinhas are dirt cheap at 3-4 euros (cheap at least by Parisian standards!). Like most visitors, we enjoyed bar hopping among the many nightspots in the Bairro Alto neigborhood, where everyone hangs out on the street with their caipirinha in hand. Portuguese beers, notably Super Bock and Sagres, are also tasty and refreshing. Make sure to say "saúde!" (to your health) as you toast!

Drink-wise, another must try libation while in Libon is ginjinha or ginja, which is a liqueur made by infusing sour cherries in alcohol and sugar. Ginjinha is sold for 1 euro (or less!) in little plastic cups with a macerated morino cherry in each cup. It's rather sweet, but quite tasty and perfect in that little portion. Like most places in Lisbon, you just drink your ginjinha at the bar or better yet...out on the street! There are many little simple bars which sell ginjinha, but we personally loved Ginjinha Sem Rival, which is right off the Praça da Figueira on Rua das Portas de Santo Antao. We drank our ginjinha outside on the street amid a lively crowd and a lone fadista (fado singer) who serenaded us with the most hauntingly beautiful melodies on that lovely summer night.

Not surprisingly, Lisbon has a wide selection of restaurants and eateries representing Portugal's former colonies. Portugal has always had a special relationship with India and occupied the state of Goa until 1961. To this day, there is a large Goan community in Lisbon, many of whom lived in Mozambique before settling in Portugal. Having spent part of our honeymoon in Goa and being ourselves an Indian-Portuguese couple, we were naturally eager to try a Goan restaurant in Lisbon. Based on a number of good reviews, we chose Tentações de Goa, a small and cheery spot in the Mouraria neighborhood behind the Praça da Figueira. Although it took us ages and a great deal of getting lost to find the hidden Rua São Pedro Mártir on which the restaurant is located, it was well worth it. We were greeted with charming service (which is commonplace in Lisbon) and enjoyed an ice-cold bottle of vinho verde and some bhajis with a tasty coriander and coconut chutney. The Goan xacuti style curries (vegetable for me, shrimp for Luis) with lots of coconut really hit the spot too, as did the traditional dessert of bebinca, which is a Goan custard pudding baked in layers.

Another interestingly excellent option for vegetarians visiting Portugal are the numerous Brazilian rodízios which are found in just about any shopping mall food court. Going to a shopping mall (centro comercial) may seem like an odd excursion for weekend trip (especially since there are so many other wonderful things to do!), but it's a must-do if you hope to understand anything about the Portuguese culture. Going to malls on weekends and holidays is the national pastime in Portugal. Seriously! The rodízios (such as the popular 'Chimarrão' chain) are a Brazilian concept where you pay a fixed price (usually somewhere in the 8-12 euro range) and have access to a full buffet and unending cuts of different types of meat, brought around by your server on big skewers. A rodízio might seem like a carnivore's paradise (see Luis below), but vegetarians are more than catered for with an extensive salad bar of over 20 different salads, black beans, rice, fried plantains and Brazilian-style collard greens. Wash it all down with the caipirinha of your choice, and you'll see why a rodízio meal is on our agenda during every trip to Portugal!

An additional little jewel that we stumbled upon during this trip was a gourmet hamburger joint called the Café do Rio. Located right next to the Praça do Comércio and the Tagus River, this recently opened spot uses 100% organic beef and has 30 different burgers including beef burgers, chicken burgers and fish burgers (there's even a bacalhau burger, this being Portugal after all!). To my delight, the menu also included four different types of veggie burgers. I chose a chickpea and feta burger, served with a "Meditarrean sauce", red onion, tomato, lettuce, freshly made fries and Thai rice. Accompanied with the chunky house-made ketchup, it was delicious! Luis was ecstatic about his picanha burger, actually claiming it to be the best burger he's ever had! Add to this kind service and a cool NY-esque space with exposed brick walls and industrial-style floors, Cafe do Rio is typical of a new crop of trendy eateries which are popping up all over Lisbon as the city becomes ever more cosmopolitan.

So for those of you who have yet to visit Lisbon and the rest of Portugal, make sure that you do as soon as possible! It's a magical city, steeped in nostalgia for its once glorious past while at the same time welcoming the future. Though the country is in the throes of deep economic depression at present, the Portuguese people and Lisboetas (as Lisbon's residents are known) in particular continue to embrace their way of life, in which having your morning coffee at a pastelaria or a midday meal at a neighborhood tasca are cherished daily traditions. You can thus be sure that you will never be lacking in excellent food and drink in Lisboa!

Ginjinha Sem Rival
Rua das Portas de Santo Antão 7
1100-555 Lisbon
Metro: Rossio

Tentações de Goa
Rua São Pedro Mártir 23
1100-555 Lisbon
Tel: +351 21 887 58 24
Metro: Rossio

Centro Comercial Colombo (and various other locations)
Tel: +351 21 002 66 04
Metro: Colégio Militar/Luz

Rua da Alfândega 114
990-016 Lisbon
Tel: +351 21 886 80 50
Metro: Terreiro do Paço


  1. Two words ... Vinho verde! :D LOL! Although I have been to Brasil 4 times, I've yet to get to Portugal! (And my best friend is from Portugal!!!). This post made me realize that I've really got to get to Lisboa in the next year!!!

  2. Looks so gorgeous! I'm so surprised to hear that the Brazilian churrascos are veg friendly. Great to know though and Luis looked like he enjoyed himself. Your burger looked DELISH! Can't wait to take a trip there.

  3. We had a wonderful trip to Lisboa last winter. It was my first time there, but I certainly hope it won't be the last!

  4. I have great memories of Lisbon, but now I'd like to come back there! I'm waiting your special post on that fabulous sweets!

  5. I just loved this post!

  6. Excellent post! Beautiful photographs! It's good that you found some good vegetarian food there too. Nice to know you guys had fun! - Mom

  7. I have never been to Lisbon. It looks very interesting!

    The Caldo Verde looks delicious.

  8. This was so well-written...like reading a personalised travel guide :-)

    Your photos are fantastic. I've never been to Portugal, but all that food (especially the soups) look amazing!

  9. well said and how not to enjoy food everywhere we go, esp to the places we adore and enjoy much.

  10. Such an amazing review and photos you posted, about Portugal...somehow I missed this post and glad, that I caught up with my browsing in your fabulous blog.
    What a fascinating history Portugal has...did not know about the Goa connection and Portugal...amazing!!!
    Also I want to share a little "secret" with you Ramya, my father's heritage is originally from Portugal...my ancesters even took the name of the town, BORBA with them, and somehow endd up in Italy. (go figure)
    Here's a link to that beautiful place where I would like to research my ancestry one day, if I can visit!


  11. Thanks everyone for your lovely comments! I hope that you will all have the opportunity to visit this magical city!

    Elisabeth - How interesting that you have some Portuguese ancestry! Did you know that Borba is renowned for its wines? Google 'Marques de Borba' - it's an amazing red!