While most menus in the Algarve will be multi-lingual, there are a number of terms that it is taken for granted that you will know. Here’s a short list that will get you started, including a pronunciation guide. I’ll add more to this section as time goes on so check back.
It is worthwhile to note that while Spanish and Portuguese are both Romance languages, they are very different. Using Spanish terms for food will seldom work for you. Indeed, in my experience, it is one way to get Algarvian food service staff to get a bit prickly with you! They’d far rather you ask in English or your native language than to try to turn them into Spanish speakers!!
Coffee - Asking for ‘Coffee black’ gets you a cup of espresso stretched with water. Strong and bracing, Coffee Black will give you a jolt. ‘Coffee white’ is this same type of coffee with a dash of milk in it. Note that it isn’t Black Coffee or White Coffee. In my experience the locals expect a reverse order! If you are looking for a latte or café au lait equivalent, order a galao [ga-low (as in ouch)] and you’ll get a glass of creamy coffee with a spoon standing upright in it.
A bica is an espresso sized and espresso strength coffee.
Order a cappuccino and your coffee comes topped with whipped cream. An odd interpretation of this Italian classic, to be sure, but it gives you a very creamy coffee experience.
Water is not brought to your table unless requested and then it’ll come in a bottle, which you’ll pay for. Still water is called Agua Mineral (Agwa mineral); fizzy water is Agua Mineral com gas (Agwa mineral con gash). Fizzy water costs more than still water; it is most likely that still water will be served at room temperature and the fizzy stuff will be served chilled.
Wine – White wine is called Vinho branco (vin-yo brawnko) Red wine is Vinho tinto (vin-yo tinto)
Beer – Draft beer in a large 20 oz. glass is Caneca (ca-nek-a); a small glass of draft is an Imperial (im-peer-ial). Beer in a bottle is cerveja (ser-vay-zha).
Couvert is some combination of bread, butter, sardine spread, olives, marinated veggies or other tid-bits brought to your table at the beginning of a meal ~ FOR A FEE. Usually each person is charged €1-3 for the couvert, although some restaurants charge considerably more if they offer things like marinated carrots, shrimp, sausage, etc. If you don’t plan to eat it, wave it away before it is placed before you. Nobody will be offended by your refusal of couvert and you won’t be irritated by paying for stuff you didn’t want and didn’t consume.
Chicken - You’ll see two kinds of chicken on Portuguese menus: frango (frawn-go) or galinhas (ga-leen-yash). Frango refers to a small frying chicken and is usually served Piri-Piri’d or grilled. Galinhas is a larger roasting hen that tends to be served stewed or roasted.
Pork – Two kinds of pork are frequently offered: pork (or white pork) and black pork. Pork or white pork is the regular old piggy that we are accustomed to. Black pork is a heritage breed that is usually to roam free, eating acorns, etc. ‘Free range pig’ as one of my clients decided! You’ll also find wild boar (javelin) on menus; it has a gamier flavour than either of the domesticated porks.
Specialty Meats – It is not unusual to see things like roast suckling pig (leitao), lamb (borrego) and kid (baby goat) (cabrito), rabbit (Coelho –co-el-yo) on menus.
Cataplana is a national dish of the Algarve. It is the name for both the pot and the food that is cooked in the pot. Virtually all restaurants that serve Cataplana claim that theirs is the best on the coast. Basically, a Cataplana pot is like a hinged clam shell that is clamped shut for cooking, is brought to the table sealed and then opened with great ceremony, amidst lots of steam and wonderful aromas. It typically contains a sort of stew with onions, garlic, presunto (pre-zun-to) (Portuguese ham), sausage, clams, shrimp and other delicacies, and a bit of white wine. A good Cataplana is a thing of delight. Alas, many places try too hard and serve something that is just a big mish-mash of ingredients.
Bacalhau (bak-al-yao) is another national dish of Portugal. Dried salted cod is soaked for several days and then poached in several changes of water until it is soft and tasty. Some places then grill the reconstituted fish; others shred it and mix it with potatoes in a sort of hash; others poach it with onions, potatoes and other goodies to create a delicious stew. Bacalhau is definitely an acquired taste, but I encourage you to try it in one of the marvelous variations available. Personally, I love bacalhau and enjoy discovering the many surprising combinations inventive Portuguese chefs create.
Migas (mee-gash) is a rather strange but delicious concoction made from stale bread crumbs. Originally from the Alentejo region, Migas pops up on menus throughout the Algarve from time to time. It is a pancake sort of thing made from old dried out bread that has been made into breadcrumbs and then fried in garlic and olive oil. Like many peasant dishes, when well made it is sublime. When poorly made it is barely edible. The best Migas I’ve eaten is at O Arraiolos Restaurant in Olhos D’Agua where they cook it with a light hand yet imbue incredible flavour into this simple dish.
Piri-Piri (peeree-peeree) is a type of hot pepper and a hot pepper sauce that is ubiquitous in the Algarve. You can buy bottles of fresh, homemade Piri-Piri at local markets or factory made stuff similar to Tabasco sauce, available either in supermarkets or local markets.
I’ve learned how to buy the fresh chilis and make my own Piri-Piri sauce and have a good time teaching the technique to my clients who participate in my culinary tours.
Chicken Piri-Piri is another Algarvean dish that consists of a small fryer that is slashed to the bone in several areas and then rubbed with a mixture of Piri-Piri chilis, sea salt, olive oil and sometimes garlic. After it has marinated for a while it is slow grilled and served with potatoes or fries. Truly yummy when well done.
Want to know more about the Portuguese Menu? My book Algarve Dining has much more detail, including street foods that are on offer. And stay tuned, I’ll be offering a new e-book shortly called Deciphering the Portuguese Menu filled with all kinds of information about food and wine of this glorious country.