We are standing in a giant store where every wall is covered with floor-to-ceiling shelves, displaying thousands of cans of sardines.
“Is this… a sardines store?” Julia asks no one in particular.
Her pointless question echoes off the endlessly stacked sardine cans and down the airport hallway.
We had arrived on an overnight flight from Chicago to Madrid, spent a few sleepless hours wandering the Madrid airport and now, a few hours later, finally deplaned in Lisbon. As we stumbled towards border control, zombie-style, we suddenly found ourselves… Where were we exactly?
“This is a duty-free zone.” I say, “There are usually duty-free stores before border control.”
“THERE IS NOTHING HERE BUT SARDINES!” Julia yelled.
“Duty-free sardines,” I said. “Welcome to Portugal.”
We wandered around the store, examining bright and colorful cans of edible souvenirs, labeled with years going all the way back to the 1900s. There is something very disconcerting about eating sardines out of a can, gaudily labeled with the year 1945 on the top, as it simply looks too much like the “sell by” date. On the other hand, gifting someone born in 1983 a can of sardines with “1983” on it is much easier than straightforwardly telling them, “I remembered that you like weird food AND I know exactly which year you were born. Here’s a fish-based reminder that you are getting old.”
A young woman born in 2000 was currently watching our two cats in Chicago.
“Should I get her a can with “2000” on it? asked Julia, juggling multiple flamboyant cans.
“She’ll just wonder why you are rewarding her with cat food,” I remarked dryly while staring at cans labeled with early 1900 years. It must be unfortunate to be alive for so long and get rewarded for it with a can of sardines.
As we walked around the store, our heads spinning with all this sardine paraphernalia, we slowly started to realize that sardines are kind of a big deal in Portugal. After getting a little bit dizzy from the bright lights in the store and colorful cans, we decided that it was time to officially enter Portugal, so we headed toward border control. Or we thought we did. The Lisbon airport is confusing. The signs are sporadic and not particularly helpful. We followed the signs, but after making one turn after another, we soon lost the signage and navigated only relying on my sleep-deprived sense of direction. After walking in circles for 15 minutes and not finding the exit, Julia was starting to get nervous, but I kept assuring her that it was just around the corner. When we finally made another turn, we immediately bumped into … the entrance to the same enormous sardine store. I sighed; Julia cursed. Needless to say - we felt as if we were trapped in this airport like sardines in a can. But, eventually, we found our way out.
But yes, sardines are a big deal in Portugal. The local economy and cuisine depend heavily on them. You can find sardines in local dishes, cooked in a number of ways and served with different sides in local restaurants. Just so you understand the importance of sardines to the local economy, we saw almost daily reports on local TV channels regarding sardine catches and other sardine-related news. People in Portugal take their sardines news as seriously as the news about any upcoming soccer games between Benfica and Porto.
The iconic dish of Portugal, however, is made not from sardines but salted and dried cod. Bacalhau, as it is known here, is a quintessential Portuguese dish. There are hundreds of recipes and ways to cook it. We saw giant fillets of salted and dried cod in grocery stores available for purchase, and the locals were buying it to cook at home. Chasing local experiences, we decided to try bacalhau in an upscale restaurant on the first full day in Lisbon. The dish was beautifully served and looked appetizing, but it took me only one bite to realize that it was … absolutely inedible. It tasted so bland and boring as if I was chewing on shredded paper. After another bite, I immediately reminded Julia that we had agreed to share our dishes and requested half of the sardine sandwich. Julia ate her portion of bacalhau in total silence, angrily eyeing the quickly disappearing sardine sandwich on my plate. She later said the entire experience was one long internal debate on whether it was worth simply abandoning it and ordering something else or keeping giving bacalhau another chance. In the end, bacalhau won on a technicality – she ate most of it, but it simply never got better. As we were sitting in this classy establishment with a plate of the mediocre and barely edible salted cod dish, we wondered “Is this why nobody really cares about Portuguese cuisine?”
But we did give bacalhau another chance. On our last day in Portugal, on the way to the airport, we had a stop in Mafra to eat lunch. Mafra, despite having a very impressive royal palace, is not high on lists of must-see sights, and on the day when we visited it, there were almost no visitors there. We found a tiny mom-and-pop food joint, as authentic as it gets. The menu was in Portuguese and the staff did not speak any English. Not sure what to order or how to even read a menu, we saw a familiar word “bacalhau” in it. Although we hated it on our first day in Portugal, we decided to give the dish another try. Surprisingly, it was much better this time. It was cooked like creamy mashed potatoes with a fishy aftertaste. As I mentioned above, there are hundreds of recipes for bacalhau. This one was cooked as home comfort food and even reminded me of my mom’s Eastern European cooking. Who knows, had we stayed in Portugal longer, the dish probably would have grown on us even more.
Our favorite Portuguese food was pastel de nata, a delicious custard tart with an unmistakable yellow top sprinkled with cinnamon. We ate pastel de nata for breakfast, lunch, and as a late-night snack. The tart goes well with coffee and was our go-to food in Portugal. We had pastel de nata in every Portuguese town we visited and even had an unofficial contest for the best pastel de nata and cast our votes in the Lisbon airport on the way out of the country (my favorite was from the city of Evora). On every single day, we ate between 3 to 4 pastel de nata per person. Each of us ate between 20 to 30 pastel de nata during our 8-day stay in Portugal. Despite its small size, each pastel de nata has approximately 400 calories. You can do the math yourself how many calories we consumed by eating only this Portuguese delicacy. All those extra pounds that we brought from Portugal came primarily from this delicious treat.
For all eight days, Portugal tried really hard to impress us with its food. By the end of the trip, the Portuguese cuisine grew on us and we had picked out our favorite dishes. We even Googled whether there are any Portuguese grocery stores and restaurants in Chicago and discussed throwing a Portuguese-themed dinner party for our friends. But a ridiculous surprise was awaiting us in Madrid during our stopover on the way back home. In Madrid, we had time only for one meal and we decided to go to the first place we could find. We walked out of our Airbnb and without having done any research, peeked into the windows of each restaurant we passed until we found a relatively busy place where the locals were eating dinner and watching a soccer match of Spanish La Liga on TV. We sat down, perused the menu, and ordered several tapas, a main dish to share, and a dessert. The food that was delivered to our table was … absolutely phenomenal. Trying tapa after tapa, the main dish, and the dessert, Julia and I were looking at each other in total disbelief - this was the best meal of our trip! The food made us reminiscent of our two weeks in Spain in the summer of 2010, where no matter what and where we ate, everything was ridiculously delicious. As we were sitting in this random restaurant in the suburb of Madrid, enjoying our last meal on the trip, we felt so bad for Portugal. Spain, in its classic move to undermine its neighbor, casually did it again. In a matter of just one meal, Spain made us forget everything we ate in Portugal during the entire 8-day stay and had us returning to the U.S. only to blab to our friends about that amazing restaurant by the Madrid airport.
For the record, we still like Portuguese cuisine and highly recommend it to everyone. Just don’t go to a Spanish restaurant after that.