This is potentially the most varied experience to have in the country and is clearly a favourite local hobby.
Portuguese cuisine evolved from hearty peasant food drawn from the land, the seafood of the country's abundant coast and the cows, pigs and goats raised on the limited grazing land of its interior. From these humble origins, spices brought back to the country during the exploration and colonisation of the East Indies and the Far East helped shape what is regarded as 'typical' Portuguese cuisine which, conversely, also helped shape the cuisine in the regions under Portuguese influence, from Cape Verde to Japan.
Soup is the essential first course of any Portuguese meal. The most popular is the Minho speciality, caldo verde, made from kale, potatoes and spiced, smoked sausage. It's here in the Minho that you can sample the best vinho verde, which rarely is bottled. In many places, especially near the seashore, you can have a delightful and always varied fish soup, sometimes so thick it has to be eaten with the help of a fork.
You will see another Portuguese staple bacalhau salt cod everywhere. Locals will tell you that there 1001 ways to cook it.
The most common of Portugal's delicious fish peixe dishes revolve around sole linguado and sardines sardinha although salmon salmão and trout truta are also featured heavily, not mentioning the more traditional mackerel carapau, whiting pescada, rock bass robalo, frog fish tamboril and a variety of turbot cherne. These are boiled, fried, grilled or served in a variety of sauces.
There are many varieties of rice-based specialties, such as frog fish rice, octopus rice, duck rice and seafood rice.
In most places you will easily find fresh seafood: lobster lagosta, lavagante, mussel mexilhão, oysters ostras, clam amêijoas, goose barnacle perceves.
Depending on how tourist orientated the area you are in, you'll see grills, thick with the smoke of charring meat, in front of many restaurants during your stay. Other than traditional sardines, Portuguese grilled chicken -- marinated in chilli, garlic and olive oil -- is world famous, although people tired of tasteless industrial poultry farm produce might opt for a tasty veal cutlet costeleta de novilho instead, or simply grilled pork.
In the North, you can find many manners of kid, and in the Alentejo, lamb ensopado and many types of pork meat, including the tastier black pork; the best considered parts of pork being the secretos and the plumas. In the Alentejo, you are likely to be served pork instead of veal if you ask for the ubiquitous bitoque small fried beef, fried potatoes, egg. A widely found traditional dish is pork and clam, Carne de Porco à Alentejana, as well as fried, bread-covered cuttlefish slices tiras de choco frito. Sometimes you can also find wild boar dishes.
Definitely a major specialty is Mealhada's near Coimbra suckling pig roast leitão with the local sparkling wine and bread. Much like the pastel de nata, you shouldn't miss it.
Vegetarians may have a tough time of it in Portugal, at least in traditional Portuguese restaurants. In most restaurants, vegetables usually boiled or fried potatoes are simply a garnish to the main meat dish. Even 'vegetarian' salads and dishes may just substitute tuna which locals don't seem to regard as a 'meat' for ham or sausage. Usually, a salad is just lettuce and tomato with salt, vinegar and olive oil. However, the Portuguese really like their choose-5-items salad bars, and restaurants serving Indian, Chinese, Mexican, or Italian fare can be found in most cities. At any rate, just mention you're vegetarian, and something can be found that meets your preference although in the long run you might be unable to thrive on it.
In many Portuguese restaurants, if you order a salad it will come sprinkled with salt - if you are watching your salt intake, or just do not like this idea, you can ask for it "sem sal" without salt or more radically "sem tempero" no conditioning.
A few restaurants, particularly in non-tourist areas, do not have a menu; you have to go in and ask and they will list a few items for you to choose from. It is wise to get the price written down when you do this so as to avoid any nasty surprises when the bill comes. However, in this type of restaurants, the price for each one of the options is very similar, varying around from €5 to €10 per person.
Most restaurants bring you a selection of snacks at the start of your meal - bread, butter, cheese, olives and other small bites - invariably there is a cover charge on these items, around €5. Do not be afraid to ask how much the cover charge is, and get them to take the items away if it is too much or if you are not planning to eat as much. It can be quite reasonable, but occasionally you will get ripped off. If you send them away, still, you should check your bill at the end. Better restaurants can bring you more surprising, nicely prepared and delicious small dishes and bites and charge you more than €5 for each of them; you can usually choose those you want or want not, as in these cases the list is longer; and if the price is this high and you make an acceptable expense, opt for not ordering a main course.
If you have kitchen facilities, Portuguese grocery stores are surprisingly well-stocked with items such as lentils, veggie burgers, couscous, and inexpensive fruits, vegetables, and cheeses. If you like hard cheese, try "Queijo da Serra", if you prefer soft cheese,try requeijao. Unfortunately, the success of the "Queijo da Serra" also allowed the proliferation of industrial and taste-devoid varieties, unrelated to the real thing. On larger shops mostly found in the principal cities, you can also find many unusual items such as exotic fruits or drinks.
In some grocery stores and most supermarkets the scales are in the produce section, not at the checkout. If you don't weigh your produce and go to the checkout, you will probably be told Tem de os pesar or Tem de pesar,"tem de ser pesado" "You have to weigh them"/it(they must be weighed).
Portugal is famous for its wide variety of amazing pastries, or pastéissingular: pastel. The best-loved pastry, pastéis de nata called just natas further north, is a flaky pastry with custard filling topped with powdered sugar açúcar and cinnamon canela. Make sure you try them, in any "pastelaria". The best place is still the old Confeitaria dos 'Pastéis de Belém' in Belém, although most "pastelarias" make a point of excelling at their "pastéis". For once, all the guide books are right. You may have to queue for a short time, but it'll be worth it. Some people like them piping hot and some don't.
Also nice, if dryish, are the bolo de arroz literally, "rice cake" and the orange or carrot cakes.
From the more egg-oriented North to almond-ruled South, Portuguese pastry and sweet desserts are excellent and often surprising, even after many years.
On October/November, roasted chestnuts castanhas are sold on the streets of cities from vendors sporting fingerless gloves tending their motorcycle driven stoves: a treat!
The Portuguese love madly their thick, black expresso coffee bica, and miss it sorely when abroad.