What do Portuguese People Eat for Dinner?
Portugal is a special place when it comes to food. I realized this early on during my many times in Lisbon, where I would spend my days quietly and contently looking forward to day end… dinner time.
Dinner in Portugal, no matter where you are in the country, is a nightly occasion. It’s a thoughtful, vibrant and communal time regardless of whether you’re eating at home or out on the town.
Before I get into the technicalities of the Portuguese dinner, I first need to contextualize mealtimes on a whole for this land on the Iberian peninsula.
What Food Means to the Portuguese People
The Portuguese have a beautiful relationship with food. To them, food is something that brings families and communities together; and if it’s good enough (which it always is) it brings happiness and enjoyment, even if just for the hour or two during which it’s consumed.
More than this, the Portuguese are a feeding people, particularly the most maternal of the women. If you have been invited to dine with a local Portuguese family, you’ll be fed and accommodated for to your heart’s content, and then some!
In Portugal food also represents passion; similar to the neighboring lands of Spain and Italy. It’s prepared with immense love and appreciation for the age-old recipes that have withstood the test of time, forming the foundation on which this societies was essentially founded.
And so, I say it again, dinner time in Portugal is a nightly occasion.
Dinner in Portugal
Like everywhere, in Portugal the people have the option of dining in, or eating out. During the week, it’s common for local households to prepare food in the home, saving restaurant dining for special occasions and/or weekends.
A typical Portuguese home dinner usually always consists of three courses; as I said, dinner is an occasion and even busy families want isolated, lengthy dinner times in which they can simply focus on the food and loved ones for a while.
Starters are usually a vegetable based soup such as a caldo verde: green soup made with potatoes and oil. Some people choose to throw chorizo somewhere into the start of a meal but this is not necessarily customary. Small bean-based dishes also often make appearances before main meals.
In Portugal, a dinner main should involve one main meat dish and a number of sides. The Portuguese eat a lot of fish, so whatever fresh cut they manage to get from the market that day will usually be baked as is, or turned into a traditional dish like bacalhau or fish stew.
Chicken and rice is a staple for Portuguese households. This country is known for their phenomenal chicken sauces and seasoning.
The Portuguese like their vegetables cooked very simply: boiled potatoes, carrots, broccoli and cabbage with little to no seasoning make an appearance on almost all dinner tables nationwide.
Pork is another popular meat for household dinners in Portugal, as well as sides of Portuguese-style rice which tends to hold a lot of flavor.
Then comes dessert: in Portugal, dessert after dinner is almost always some sort of piece of fruit. It’s only really when entertaining guests that a host might serve a more hearty dessert like tarts or nutty baked goods.
Eating out in Portugal is very similar to eating in. When keeping to the local cuisines, Portuguese people flock to their nearest homestyle restaurants where they can enjoy all of the country’s classic dishes made by a more skilled chef.
Like at home, eating out should always include a starter, main meal and dessert, & a shot of espresso usually ends things off. Sometimes, restaurants in Portugal offer a sort of “pre-starter”, a starter before the real starter, if you will. This will be your choice of bread and oils, seasoned olives & other pickled foods.
You’ll rarely find anything other than wine and water being drunk during an authentic Portuguese dinner.
Do the Portuguese Only Eat Local?
While young people in Portugal these days are very much open to global cuisines, most of the older generations remain etched in the belief that their local cuisine is simply superior.
The people in rural Portugal will likely not be found sampling sushi while out on the town. They know what they’re used to, they trust the food and, most importantly, they love eating it.
Local cuisine in Portugal is safety, staple and comfort. You’ll absolutely find young locals in cities like Lisbon who enjoy a Dim Sum here and there, but the general population of the country will stick to the foods they were raised on.
Do the Seasons Affect Portuguese Dinner Cuisines?
Yes indeed. Portugal’s climate is incredibly gentle when compared to other parts of Europe; the summers are hot and sticky, while the winters are mild and manageable.
In the summer, the intensity of the heat makes it undesirable to stomach hot, heavy foods. The people tend to gravitate toward light, fresh seafood dishes and grilled meats as opposed to stews, soups and bakes.
The Portuguese also eat dinner a lot later in the summer, as it is still light outside around 10pm on the peninsula. If you’re ever in Lisbon in the summer, you’ll see that it’s not uncommon for people to only sit down to eat at restaurants at this time.
Come the winter, the beloved stews, soups and bakes are reintroduced to the dinner table. A much loved dinner dish is that of cozido: all of the week’s leftover animal parts and vegetables stewed together for a table delicacy.
During this season sundown occurs much earlier so dinner can be enjoyed at a more digestion-friendly time.