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.