Portugal: The best dishes to eat in Lisbon

In Portugal we have three types of protein, declares our tour guide. "We have meat. We have fish. And we have codfish."

Is codfish not fish? She rolls her eyes. "It is much more important than just fish," she sighs with a theatrical shudder. "It has kept us alive through the centuries when we could not have fresh fish from the coast. It was salted to preserve it and meant we could eat it forever."

Bacalhau, as that salted, dried codfish is known, is still just as much the national staple now as it was during the 14th century when it fuelled the nation's sailors as they crossed the world, claiming parts of Africa, the Middle East, South America, India and China for their vast imperial realm.

Odds on that it's a hell of a lot tastier today, though. Visitors can sample it in restaurants roasted on beds of kale, basted in cream with potatoes and prepared as the traditional casserole Bacalhau a Gomes de Sa, with, allegedly, no fewer than 365 different bacalhau recipes now in existence.

"We can eat it a different way every day of the year," says guide Sofia Martins. "And I think some of us do …"

Portugal's proud food culture stretches back to their discovery of vast caches of codfish off the coast of Newfoundland when their own stocks of fish, like sardines, proved to be too oily to be dried successfully. It helped enable legendary explorers like Prince Henry the Navigator to launch the Age of Discoveries, Ferdinand Magellan to organise the first circumnavigation of the earth and Vasco da Gama to be the first to link Europe and Asia by sea.

The riches they brought back helped fund some of the finest buildings in the world, too. The Portuguese capital Lisbon's imposing Jeronimos Monastery, built over 100 years from 1501, where the navigators could be blessed before they set off on their voyages, was also called the Pepper Palace, partly financed from the proceeds of the trade in pepper.

Today, one of the most exalted dishes served in the restaurants of Lisbon is black pepper chicken, with the pepper most definitely the hero of the dish.

Sometimes it seemed the entire population marched on its stomach. That same Jeronimos Monastery, for example, also spawned another timeless favourite – the Portuguese custard tart. When the Reformation hit the country in 1834, the monastery was closed down and two of the monks went off to become bakers, inventing the little delicacies of buttery crisp flaky pastry encasing a smooth custard filling.

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They're now replicated around the world, but few rival the results of the original recipe now churned out in their hundreds of thousands every day at the Pasteis de Belem; the vast coffee and cake shop just up the road from the monastery.

Here, they're so astonishingly delicious, tourists order them by the half-dozen. Each.

Lisbon's culinary excellence is today everywhere to be seen; its streets lined with an incredible array of cafes, restaurants and pastelerias or cake shops, and frequented as much by locals as by visitors, pairing their food with a fine selection of local wines and ports.

The Time Out Market Lisbon, with stalls set up by many of the city's top restaurants, opened in 2014 and now receives more than two million visitors a year.

"The Portuguese have always loved their food," says Lisbon-based Australian Hanna de Sousa. "But it's a constantly evolving feast. Bacalhau, for instance, is these days just as popular as it's always been, although now you can get it with spiced quinoa salad."

In Portugal, you could say, they now have four types of protein …

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traveller.com.au/portugal

TOUR

Bunnik Tours visits Lisbon on their small-group 26-day tour of Spain, Portugal and Morocco, starting from $10,595, including flights from Australia.

Ph 1800 286 645. See bunniktours.com.au

Sue Williams was a guest of Bunnik Tours

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