A platter of Portuguese seafood

Percebes: a thinking person's guide to Portuguese seafood

Portugal’s rich fish and seafood tradition caters to every taste, both conservative and adventurous. I should know. I’ve eaten my way through the full gamut.

First, I started with the standard tourist fare served all along the coast from Lisbon to Sagres, mainly fish, grilled or fried. You name it, I tried it.

Then I moved on to the seafood. Clams cooked in white wine, whole prawns bathed in garlic and succulent octopus served up in a salad or sitting majestically alongside cooked seasonable vegetables. So far, so simple, right? Well, it is when the dishes are listed in English.

Exept you get the best seafood in places where everything’s written in Portuguese. That’s where people in the know go.

Want to tuck into a hearty Cataplana de marisco, swoon over Arroz de tamboril and work out exactly what percebes means (despite what the dictionary says, it has nothing to do with thinking)?

If yes, then, this guide to Portuguese seafood is a must. Deciding what to choose will be easy, even if you go all out and select your own custom Prato de frutos do mar.

Peixe grelhado, grilled sea bream, served with potatoes

1. Peixe grelhado

Peixe grelhado, grilled fish, is a staple in most Portuguese restaurants. Locals prefer theirs grilled over charcoal because this gives a nice crispy texture to the skin.

Depending on the season you’ll see carapau, oily mackerel with high levels of Omega-3, robalo, white flesh seabass and dourada, mild-tasting golden bream.

However, the two most often eaten fish types are sardinahas and bacalhau. They’re so popular they get their own entries.

Sardines on the grill in Portugal

2. Sardinahas assadas

Sardinahas (sardines) are so popular in Portugal they even have their own festival. Well almost.

The Festos dos Santos Populares in Lisbon is held every year in the first two weeks of June. It’s a Catholic celebration of the feast days of various saints, culminating in a street party to honour Santo António.

Saint Anthony was a 12th-century Catholic priest born to a wealthy Lisbon family. He took a vow of poverty and because sardines were the food of the poor, they’re considered his symbol.

On June 12, the longest day of the year, people line Avenida da Liberdade to watch the Marchas Populares parade. Then they flock to Lisbon’s tiny squares and narrow backstreets where the air is thick with the pungent smell of sardines cooking on outside grills.

Revellers eat them hot off the coals wrapped in slices of white bread and washed down with beer, before joining in the throng to dance to upbeat Pimba music with its double entendre lyrics nonstop until to dawn.

Bacalhau, a typical portuguese dish codfish with potato and egg

3. Bacalhau

Depending on who you believe, Portugal has a different bacalhau recipe (that’s cod), for every day of the year. Other people say the number runs to more than a thousand.

Either way, you’re bound to see bacalhau on the menu everywhere in the country and in the supermarkets. Portuguese women shake and knock on dried salted sheets of cod, often longer than they are themselves tall, before deciding which one to buy.

They use it to make Bacalhau à brás. In this dish the cod is sautéed with onions then shredded, mixed with potatoes and cooked through with eggs until it has a velvety texture, and finished with the addition of olives and chopped parsley.

Pastéis de bacalhau are another favourite. Once again the fish is shredded and cooked with potatoes, eggs, parsley and onion, but this time the mix is shaped into a ball and fried.

It’s served as a petisco, a type of savoury snack the Portuguese eat at a tasca, bars traditionally serving house wine and brandy accompanied by edibles to graze on.

These days many tasca now serve up a wide range of petisco to consume as a complete meal.

A traditional Moorish dish, Cataplana de marisco is cooked in a special dish.

4. Cataplana de marisco

There’s always room at the table to fit a Cataplana de marisco, a Moorish dish that dates back centuries.

The word cataplana refers to both the cooking utensil, a copper pan with a hinged concave lid, and the food cooked inside it. Clasps on either side of it tightly seal in all the ingredients.

This ensures the flavours of the shellfish, such as clams, prawns and mussels, along with onions, garlic and peppers, are retained and blended together during the cooking process.

Historians don’t know its exact origins, but believe cataplana were first used in the Algarve region during Arab rule. The local river, Ria Formosa, teems with bivalves they think might have inspired its invention.

At one time, these vessels were placed atop burning embers in a hole in the ground and covered in sand, but now they’re used on conventional stovetops. 

Arroz de tamboril, monkfish in tomato and rice

5. Arroz de tamboril

Arroz de tamboril is just one of the many Arroz de marisco, seafood rice dishes served up in Portugal, but it’s the one I like best.

The succulent squeaky firm flesh of the tamboril, the monkfish, contrasts beautifully with the perfectly cooked rice. More like a thick soup than anything, the flavour is enhanced by handfuls of fresh coriander.

Another seafood stew you’ll often see on the menu is Caldeirada, a stew cooked with several types of fish and shellfish, covered in tomatoes and herbs.

Polvo à Lagareiro, roasted octopus covered in olive oil and served with potatoes

6. Polvo

Octopus, polvo in Portuguese, is usually served whole or grilled and cut into small pieces and eaten as a salad.

First, it has to be simmered in water and a dash of olive oil for several hours to soften up. In Polvo à Lagareiro, a regular menu item, the pre-softened tentacles are then roasted, drenched in olive oil and served with baked potatoes.

Gambas ao Alhinho, prawns with garlic, olive oil and wine.

7. Gambas

When it comes to seafood, my motto is gambas with everything, because I love prawns. Particularly the petisco standard Gambas ao Alhinho.

For this one prawns are lightly sizzled in lashings of garlic and olive oil, then finished with a splash of white wine and fresh coriander.

Do note that in most tourist areas, the prawns come cleaned, but elsewhere, they are served whole, heads, unmentionables and all. 

Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato, steamed clams with wine, olive oil and lemon

8. Amêijoas

The Portuguese have been eating ameijôas, clams, for hundreds of years, and Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato is probably the most clam famous dish.

It was invented for 19th-century Portuguese poet Bulhão Pato, known for his love of food. The clams are steamed open in a combination of garlic, olive oil and white wine then scooped out onto a plate, sauce and all.

It’s finished off with coriander and a drizzle of lemon juice. Carne de Porco á Alentajana, pork with clams, is another Portuguese staple.

Caranguejo, crab dip served in a crab shell.

9. Caranguejo

Although caranguejo is the correct word in Portuguese for crab, the Portuguese favour Sapateira recheada.

Literally meaning stuffed shoemaker, this dish consists of a crab shell packed with a mixture of cooked crab meat, mayonnaise, pickles, yellow mustard, pepper and finely chopped hard-boiled egg.

It’s usually served at room temperature and eaten as a dip.

A dish of percebes or goose neck barnacles

10. Percebes

To really mix things up, have a Prato de frutos do mar. This is when you stand in front of a fridge packed with fresh seafood and pick whatever you fancy.

Your selection of ‘fruits of the sea’ is weighed, cooked and then served up on a platter. If you’re less adventurous, pick the usual suspects like prawns, crab, mussels and clam, but you should try percebes at least once.

These weird-looking little black tube-like dinosaur feet shellfish are known as gooseneck barnacles in English. It takes a bit of work to eat them, but it’s worth it to experience their distinctive texture and flavour.

The spiky-looking sea snails called cannulas are another challenge but equally satisfying. Go on, you won’t be disappointed.

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Lisa Morrow

Author - Lisa Morrow

Australian-born author and travel writer Lisa Morrow has lived in Istanbul and other parts of Turkey for almost 15 years, allowing her to travel extensively in Europe. She has a master’s degree in sociology, has written five books on Turkey, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, CNN Travel, World Nomads and elsewhere.  

Last Updated 16 December 2023

Dos Tres Irmaos beach in Algarve, Portugal.


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