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Marisqueiras & cervejarias: must-try dishes at a Portuguese seafood restaurant

With almost 100 Km of coastline, and that’s not even counting the archipelagos of the Azores and Madeira in the Atlantic, it doesn’t come as a surprise that seafood is one of the backbones of Portugal’s cuisine.

The Portuguese way of life has always been closely connected with the ocean. Examples of that are the age of explorations in the 1500s, when the Portuguese left our mainland to explore overseas territories in Africa, the Americas and Asia. But also the amount of people who have historically made a living as fishermen or fish vending ladies (known in Portuguese as varinas), or even Lisbon’s most beloved traditional music genre, fado, with mournful lyrics often inspired by the sea and how women who’d stay inland would miss sailors gone for long periods at a time.

Portugal’s maritime lifestyle translates into our country having Europe’s highest consumption of fish per capita, which we tend to prepare in a variety of ways, such as grilled over charcoal, steamed, fried, roasted, and as part of hearty stews. While fish, both wild and farmed, are present on the daily table of many Portuguese families at home and when eating out, a wider variety of seafood such as mollusks and crustaceans are reserved for special occasions. In Lisbon and all across Portugal, you’ll come across specialized restaurants serving these kinds of seafood, which often go by the name marisqueira (seafood restaurant) or, as odd as it may sound, cervejaria (beer house). Cervejarias are establishments where funnily enough the Portuguese expect excellent fresh seafood but that, most often than not, serve the standard Portuguese beer you find across the country, like brands Super Bock and Sagres. Historically, cervejarias were meeting places for people to come enjoy a beer and, just like the history of taverns goes, small servings of seafood such as tiny prawns would be served to help soak up the alcohol and make customers thirsty for another round. Eventually the menu developed to such an extent that the seafood items available would become more important than the actual drinks.

Now-a-days, the Portuguese go to marisqueiras and cervejarias to enjoy a variety of sea creatures, normally prepared in faily simple ways such as steamed, boiled, grilled or, in some cases, particularly applying to prawns and clams, sauteed with olive oil, garlic and a few other seasonings. When the budget allows, a mariscada is the best option: this can either be an order of different seafood dishes or an actual platter of assorted seafood, usually meant to be shared. To eat a mariscada like a local would, end the feast with a prego, that is, a thin pan fried beef steak sandwich, which sounds like an unusual choice of dessert, but that is a very well liked way of making all that seafood settle in your stomach. But don’t worry, as this doesn't mean that you can’t actually end the meal in beautiful Portuguese style, that is, with an actual sweet dessert and espresso coffee.

Navigating the menu of a Portuguese seafood restaurant isn’t always easy, as the names of the creatures listed might not necessarily ring a bell. Furthermore, the menu varies depending on the time of the year, as seasonality impacts the availability of fresh seafood. But fear not, as, today, we’re exploring the best marisco you can taste at a Portuguese seafood restaurant.

Portuguese seafood: crustaceans and molluscs you should order in Lisbon

The most common way to eat sea crustaceans and molluscs in Portugal is steamed or, at the most, grilled with a touch of olive oil and garlic. This simplicity of cooking methods derives from the love of the actual flavor of the seafood, punctuated by the cold waters of the Atlanic where these specimens are captured, and which Portuguese cooks believe should not be overpowered by additional seasonings. If an ingredient is outstanding on its own, we believe that it shouldn’t be transformed all that much.

Percebes | Goose barnacles

Quite possibly the most Jurassic looking creatures you can eat in Portugal, goose barnacles are the otherworldly looking crustaceans you must try for the sake of a true seafood adventure! Percebes are harvested in rocks by the coast, where the ocean waves crash hard, as you can see chef Gordom Ramsay attempts to do in the video above. Collecting goose barnacles is a very dangerous job and the price of this seafood reflects that. To eat goose barnacles, hold the hard part of the shell, twist and pull out the flesh of the tube shaped part of the body of the percebes. The edible portion would be the meat hiding on the inside, and the shell is meant to be discarded or sucked on for taste. The briny flvor of goose barnacles is usually enhanced by boiling them in sea water and the end taste in your mouth promises to make you feel like a trip to the beach.

Camarão-da-costa | deep-water rose shrimp

This petite shrimp is the kind of seafood you can easily order at a seafood restaurant as an appetizer or, as it is more frequently done, as an afternoon snack with a cold beer. If when you’re in Lisbon you take the ferry boat to the south bank of the river, to Cacilhas, we suggest visiting one of the marisqueiras near the boat terminal, sitting at a tall stool by the counter and order a draft beer and a serving of tiny shrimp, like many locals do - note that you can face the laborious task of pulling skin and flesh apart or you can eat them whole, as many of us do when they’re super tender. Some folks order a coffee and a pastel de nata as an afternoon snack in Portugal. Some others go for cerveja and camarões. We’ll leave the choice up to you!

Carabineiros | scarlet prawns

If you like prawns, you’re in for a feast with these chunky scarlet prawns which, unlike most Portuguese seafood, are collected in warmer waters, like in the Costa Vicentina of the Alentejo or the southern Algarve region. Carabineiros’ shell is intensely red and the delicate flesh hiding inside is chunky and deeply flavored, making it one of the most appreciated seafoods amongst Portuguese chefs. Portuguese scarlet prawns are usually eaten grilled, and being a premium ingredient they are often sold by the unit. Make the most of your serving of carabineiros and suck out all of their taste… literally! The unctuous substance that oozes out of the shell in the head part is, according to many, where most of the flavor is concentrated. So don’t be shy to take matters into your own hands and go for it!

Camarão tigre | tiger prawn

Priced similarly to scarlet prawns, tiger prawns are very cherished in Portugal, but they are usually imported from African countries such as Madagascar. This is one of the star dishes of the very famous Cervejaria Ramiro (Av. Alm. Reis 1 H), the Lisbon seafood restaurant that rose to international fame after Anthony Bourdain’s visit in 2012, for the filming of No Reservations. In Portugal, these meaty tiger prawns are usually cooked butterflied and on the grill, with a touch of salt, garlic and a drizzle of olive oil or melted butter.

Besides camarão-da-costa, carabineiros and tiger prawns, there are other common types of shrimp and prawns you’ll find in Portuguese seafood restaurants. Simply learn the Portuguese words for them - camarão for shrimp and gamba for prawn - and pay attention to their place of origin which would often be listed in the menu. Some of the most sought-after varieties include shrimps from Algarve and prawns from Espinho. Crayfish, known in Portuguese as lagostins, are also available and are usually eaten simply boiled.

Sapateira | brown crab

This is the most common type of crab you’ll find in Portuguese seafood houses, featuring big fat pincers which, on the outside, are black on the tippy top. The flesh of those pincers is easier to extract than in the slimmer crab legs, and so it’s many people’s favorite part of the crab meat. Yet one of the most requested preparations of crab at marisqueiras is recheio de sapateira (also known as sapateira recheada), that is a smooth concoction made with shredded crab meat, mayonnaise, boiled eggs and other flavorings such as pickles, whisky and mustard, meant to be spread on toast as an appetizer.

Santola | Spider crab

Spider crab is not to be mistaken with the brown crab above. Even though both species come from the North Atlantic and Mediterranean waters, santola is more delicate than sapateira, features a more rounded spiky shell and thinner long legs. Extracting the meat of both crabs involves a certain amount of work, which in Portuguese marisqueiras is done directly at the table with your own hands and a few tools provided by the eaterie, such as a small hammer and board to crack the shells against. Just like it happens with brown crab, the main shell is used to prepare santola recheada, a ​​tangy crab meat and creamy condiments paté. Smaller crabs such as velvet crab (navalheiras in Portuguese) are also a part of the Portuguese seafood repertoire, typically boiled in salted water with bay leaf.

Lavagante | European lobster

Caught in the chilly waters of the Atlantic ocean, European lobster is tender and extremely flavorful. Even though lobster is often translated to Portuguese as lagosta (see below), the correct corresponding species would be lavagante, which happens to be the pricier of all lobsters and, as such, it is a kind of seafood reserved for very special occasions. Lavagante and lagosta taste similarly but it’s easy to set them apart based on visuals, as only lavagante has pincers and its shell is darker.

Lagosta | spiny lobster

If you are an experienced seafood eater, you may be able to notice that lagosta’s meat is slightly sweeter than lavagante. To dive deep into the world of Portuguese spiny lobster, order lagosta from Ericeira or Peniche, which are two popular fishing towns north of Lisbon, famous for their incredibly high quality seafood restaurants. Even though the most common ways of cooking lobster are still steamed or grilled with simple seasonings, just like it happens with most seafood in Portugal, the Portuguese cuisine repertoire for lobster does include a few other dishes, from lobster soup (sopa de lagosta) to Peniche style lagosta suada (pictured above), slowly cooked for maximum flavor extraction, together with tomatoes, onions, garlic and selected spices. Spiny lobster can also be included in the fancier versions of arroz de marisco, Portugal’s take on seafood rice (see below) which has a tomato and fresh herbs base but that can make use of different pieces of seafood according to taste and budget.

Cavaco | Mediterranean slipper lobster

Cavaco, also known as santiago, belongs to the lobster family and it is more common in the Azores archipelago than in Portugal’s mainland. When it makes an appearance, diners appreciate its tasty tender meat simply boiled or grilled in the same manner you’d prepare carabineiros. As it is closely associated with Azorean cuisine, when you see this seafood featured in Lisbon menus, it will most likely be listed as cavaco dos Açores. As a species that has suffered from over fishing, it is now usually only available between September and April, when capturing it is allowed.

Bruxas | slipper lobster

Bruxas are a smaller type of cavaco, that also go by the name santiaguinho. As their cousins, they can be boiled or grilled but, around Lisbon and Cascais, they are also often enjoyed fried with mayonnaise for dipping. Enjoying a serving of Portuguese slipper lobster won’t be the most affordable experience in town, easily coming to 100 euros per kilo. Like many other seafood species included in marisqueiras’ menus, bruxas price is listed precisely per weight and not per serving. Always check with your waiter what an actual portion would approximately cost, to avoid surprises and a potential bitter aftertaste.

Búzios | periwinkles

Also known as sea snails, periwinkles can be cooked in a variety of ways, such as simply boiled in salted water to be enjoyed with a squeeze of lemon, or in a salad with a vinaigrette and chopped fresh coriander. Búzios à portuguesa is a typical recipe that features periwinkles cooked in a thin aromatic sauce made with olive oil, garlic, bay leaf, parsley and oregano which, just like Bulhão Pato sauce (see below) end up being the highlight of the dish more than the seafood itself, particularly for those into bread dipping. Burriés, known in English as common periwinkles, are very similar to búzios, but their flesh is a little softer than periwinkles, and they are prepared similarly too.

Berbigão | cockles

Common cockles are collected under muddy sands, such as those found around tidal flats. In Portugal, most berbigão comes from Ria Formosa, down in the Algarve, or Ria de Aveiro, a central city often known as “the Venice of Portugal” because of its abundance of canals. Cockles can be eaten steamed on their own, like many other varieties of shellfish, but as they are not seen as a premium seafood and its flesh is indeed tiny, they end up very often being used as an ingredient in other types of dishes such as arroz de berbigão, a saucy rice dish with cockles, or stews like caldeirada and cataplana (see below).

Conquilhas | donax clams

Donax clams, also known as bean clams, are tiny clams very widespread in the coastal regions of the Alentejo and Algarve. Their flavor is mild as compared to many other shellfish you’ll come across in Portugal, and so they represent a good introduction to seafood if you’re not very used to briny sea flavors. Some of the most cherished recipes for bean clams include conquilhas à Algarvia, where the flavor of the clams meets the freshness of a straightforward lemon, garlic and cilantro sauce.

Lapas | limpets

If you visit the Azores or Madeira, lapas are one of the first local things you should try. In Lisbon, limpets don’t always make it to seafood restaurant menus, but when you do come across them, make sure to make the most of the opportunity! The most common way of eating limpets in Portugal is grilled, with a rich butter sauce. Sometimes, they can also be topped with a kind of delicate salsa made with onions, garlic and pimenta da terra, a type of malagueta chili extremely common in the Azores. More rarely, and closer to the source, lapas are also served raw, like it often happens with oysters, and with no heat intervention the flesh ends up being more tender and saline.

Cracas | barnacles

Not to be mistaken with goose barnacles, or percebes in Portuguese, cracas are another example of Portuguese seafood from the middle of the Atlantic, more specifically from the Azores islands. Just like goose barnacles, cracas also grow firmly attached to rocks along the coast. Collecting them is risky, laborious and, just like it happens with percebes, this translates into a steep price per serving as compared to other shellfish within more easy reach. Yet cracas are such a unique food that seafood lovers must not miss the opportunity to try them whenever presented with this gift. Enjoy cracas Azores style simply boiled in a broth enriched with garlic, onions, herbs and a subtle touch of spicy peppers.

Lingueirão | razor clams

Razor clams can be eaten steamed or, for an experience that will excite your taste buds a little more, prepared with Bulhão Pato sauce (see below). Grilled razor clams are also fabulous, and so is arroz de lingueirão, a saucy and loose rice featuring the razor clams in a way which is reminiscent of the Portuguese recipe for assorted seafood rice, which we also explore in more detail below. Lingueirão can also be listed as canivetes or navalhas, which are alternative names for the exact same species, not to be mistaken with navalheiras which stands for spider crabs.

Mexilhão | mussels

Mussels in Portugal may not be as relevant as they are in Belgium or given coastal areas of France, but they’re certainly a part of the Portuguese seafood collection. There’s no shortage of Portuguese style recipes for mussels, from steamed with a squeeze of fresh lemon (normally listed as ao natural), to more elaborate preparations. These include mexilhão de cebolada pictured above, with lots of slowly cooked onions, and mexilhão à Algarvia, that is Algarve style mussels cooked with olive oil, white whine, garlic and coriander.

Ouriço-do-mar | sea urchin

Thanks to sushi restaurant menus around the world, sea urchin has widely become known as uni, the Japanese term for it. Here in Portugal, ouriços-do-mar inhabit the coastal areas from the north of the country, such as around Viana do Castelo, to the very south, like Sangres. Closer to Lisbon, sea urchin rich areas include Sesimbra and Ericeira, where there’s even an annual food festival dedicated to this seafood, that goes by the name Festival do Ouriço.

Ostras | oysters

We know oysters are not uniquely Portuguese and this is the kind of seafood you can taste in many other parts of the world. But crassostrea angulata, or Portuguese oyster, can indeed only be found in the Iberian Peninsula and is thus worth trying. Portuguese oysters production happens in estuaries in central and southern Portugal, but some of the most famed ostras come from Ria Formosa in the Algarve. As elsewhere, oysters in Portugal are eaten raw, with a squeeze of lemon to taste. Even though they have tender meat and a briny fabulous taste, oysters in Portugal are not as common as some of the other shellfish listed above.

Best Portuguese seafood dishes

When you are eating out in Portugal, note that peixe, that is fish, and marisco, which is a general term for seafood, aren’t interchangeable. When we speak about seafood, or marisco, we are usually excluding fresh fish and popular mollusks eaten in Portugal like squid, cuttlefish and octopus. As such, we have restaurants that focus on fish, while others more specifically serve a wider variety of seafood - those will have marisqueira or cervejaria on the name!

Portuguese marisqueiras may serve a variety of fish and other seafood, but they wouldn’t for example be the kind of place where the Portuguese would go to specifically have a salt cod dish. It may be featured on the menu, but this wouldn’t usually be the speciality of a seafood house.

Of course we have more dishes featuring fish and all types of seafood, like for instance the cuttlefish and beans stew we share the recipe for you here or the much beloved octopus rice, but the ones we are about to suggest here are indeed the most common ones you’ll find at specifically seafood themed restaurants across Lisbon, that is, marisqueiras. While some of them are meant to be enjoyed as an appetizer, locally known as petiscos, others are heartier meals very often enjoyed on a leisurely meal with someone to share them with.

Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato | Portuguese clams with garlic and lemon sauce

Clams cooked Bulhão Pato style could easily compete with the prawns we talk about next, as one of the most ordered seafood appetizers in Portugal. Even though this is a shellfish dish, what really stands out in the recipe is the sauce, which has become so popular and loved that it is now used to cook other shellfish dishes such as mussels or razor clams. Bulhão Pato sauce brings together the richness of olive oil, the punch of garlic, and the freshness of heaps of coriander and lemon juice. Some cooks use white wine in the recipe, while others may even add in a little butter for unctuousness. Whatever the secret ingredients of the sauce may be, make sure you have bread nearby for dipping or, at the very least, learn how to scoop up some sauce with the actual shell of the clams. If you like Italian pasta dish spaghetti alle vongole, you are going to love amêijoas à Bulhão Pato!

Gambas à guilho | garlic prawns

Gambas or camarõesà guilho, stand for prawns or shrimp cooked in olive oil infused with generous amounts of garlic. Sometimes a little red chili is also used to take this pan fried appetizer to the next level. The seafood is meant to be enjoyed with nice spongy bread for dipping, as there will be a lot of tasty seafood sauce left behind once you’re done with the seafood. Gambas à guilho is one of the most widespread petiscos across Portugal, and one you’ll easily be able to order in seafood restaurants and cervejarias across Lisbon.

Salada de polvo | octopus salad

You do not need to visit a seafood restaurant to enjoy chilled octopus salad as this is a very popular appetizer in all kinds of eateries across Lisbon, but it is even more of a given in establishments which specialize in sea creatures. If you ever thought that octopus might be rubbery or tough to chew on, Portuguese octopus dishes are bound to change your mind. Salada de polvo is an easy and refreshing introduction to this mollusk, featuring pieces of previously boiled tender octopus with chopped onions and peppers, marinated with luscious olive oil, white wine vinegar and fresh herbs.

Açorda de gambas | bread stew with prawns

​​Açorda is one of the most prominent dishes of Alentejo cuisine and it is a prime example of how this Portuguese region’s cooking style is rooted in peasant cuisine. Açorda consists of a porridge made with old bread, softened with a flavorful broth prepared with the water used to boil the seafood, garlic, olive oil and herbs. ​​Açorda can be cooked with shrimp (camarões) or prawns (gambas) and it is customarily served with a raw egg yolk on top, which is mixed with the bread porridge just before eating, for added creaminess. If you see açorda de marisco listed on the menu, you can count on the dish to include a variety of seafood other than just prawns.

Arroz de marisco | Portuguese seafood rice

Several countries in Southern Europe have their own version of seafood rice. You have creamy risotto ai fruitti di mare in Italy and the remarkably popular paella from Spain, featuring saffron infused loose rice. Here in Portugal, seafood rice is neither creamy nor dry, but instead it’s based on a broth rich in tomatoes, onions and fresh herbs soaked beautifully by Portuguese carolino rice, a local variety of rice grains which could be compared to arborio in Italy or bomba in Spanish, and that is ideal for saucy rice dishes. The pieces of seafood that make it to the pot when preparing seafood rice vary depending on the cook, the restaurant or the price / budget for the meal. Basic seafood would include prawns and shells such as clams, mussels and cockles, while fancier versions may also go for crab meat and even lobster. Don’t be surprised if you find prawns still with their shells on when you order arroz de marisco in Portugal. The shells are kept on for extra flavor, and we promise they are worth the effort of peeling them directly on your plate, for the sake of a richer taste in your mouth. Arroz de marisco is such an important dish in the repository of Portuguese cuisine that it has been highlighted as one of the 7 Wonders of Portuguese Gastronomy.

Cataplana de marisco | Portuguese seafood stew

More than a dish, cataplana is the name of a Portuguese cooking vessel inherited from the times of the Moorish occupation in the Iberian Peninsula. It resembles a wok with a lid that matches the lower part of the pot and that closes tightly to cook ingredients on the inside with steam, without letting the heat and flavors escape. The dish of the same name is traditional from the Algarve region and it’s one of those magnificent recipes that some seafood specialized restaurants, even in Lisbon, will sometimes have on their menu. More often than not, because of its laborious preparation, you’re supposed to order cataplana for at least two people. The ingredients that make it inside a cataplana can vary, including even a mix of seafood and meat, such as the popular Portuguese combination of pork and clams. When we’re talking about seafood, cataplana can feature anything from clean cuts of fish such as monkfish to shellfish or, for a truly special dish, lobster tails. Would you like to make your own cataplana back home? We can teach you during one of our Portuguese food experiences at Cooking Lisbon!

Caldeirada de peixe | Portuguese fisherman’s stew

Caldeirada is the ultimate Portuguese fish stew, which was born from fisherman’s traditions of using the catch of the day and, often, bits of pieces of whatever was left after selling the primest cuts of fish, to make something nourishing that would turn fish, potatoes, onions and tomatoes into a warming stew. There’s no set recipe for caldeirada as it can highly vary according to the cook and the fish caught on that day, even though generally speaking preference is given to fishes with firmer flesh, such as haddock, halibut, sea bass or red snapper, so that the flesh doesn’t end up disintegrating on the broth. We promise that if you like seafood and comfort dishes, this one will be right up your alley!

We hope you’re now in the mood to explore the great fish and seafood that is available in Portuguese restaurants. Are you traveling to Lisbon? Feel free to get in touch with us via Facebook or Instagram and ask us for further food tips. And, if you’re looking to learn how to prepare some of these dishes by yourself, you can always come visit us at Cooking Lisbon! #cookinglisbon

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Cooking Lisbon

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