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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.