Fast food in a slow-paced country

In China fried scorpions on a stick are considered a snack, Germany has its Currywurst, in Canada they tuck into poutine and almost every single country in the world has the Golden Arches or some other outlet offering burgers. But what’s typically Portuguese street food? Where do all those sweet pastries come from? And why on earth do they eat donuts on the beach here? Enjoy the Algarve investigates.

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine September 2017

Intro picture by Richard Mcall


It takes about two years to produce a dry-cured presunto, a couple of days to make bacalhau from fresh cod and at least a week of soaking in water or brine to cure fresh olives into ones that are edible. And when it’s all ready and on the table, dinner itself easily takes a couple of hours; eating, drinking, talking, lingering and socialising. On the whole, Portuguese cuisine is rather slow.

The only American-style fast food you’ll find here is in the food court of one of the big shopping centres, where the Sabores do Churrasco and Loja das Sopas can be found next to the Burger King, KFC, and Pizza Hut. The Portuguese version of convenience food is takeaway. From a sushi restaurant to the local churrasqueira, they’re all happy to send you home with a plastic bag containing your meal.

That said, in Portugal, eating is done while sitting down -with ice-cream and roasted chestnuts being the only exceptions to this otherwise ironclad rule. Festivals that offer food, even if it’s only pancakes, also provide benches and tables, and the man selling grilled chicken from his truck on the local weekly markets will have gathered some plastic chairs to create a basic outdoor restaurant setting.



On the beach? Eat a bola

What you eat, depends on the season. That doesn’t only go for fruit and vegetables, but also for snacks. Come the autumn and it’s time for chestnuts, which are roasted on the streets and sold in a paper bag. In the summer, with temperatures of over 40˚C, surely there’s nothing more appetising than an ice cold ice-cream? Wrong. The Portuguese want a custard-filled sugared donut while they’re baking in the sun. Preferably one that’s still warm. Bolas de Berlim (picture below by Carlos Paes), as they’re called in Portuguese, are especially eaten on the beach in June, July and August.

There’s even an app for it, which has been available in the Algarve from this July. Seriously, at you can look for the bolas seller that’s closest to where you’ve parked your umbrella and pre-order the bolinhas with your mobile phone. Just in case you missed them walking along the coastline shouting ‘Olhà bolinha!’ every 10 seconds while ringing their bolas bell. Convenience to the max, seeing as you don’t even have to move from your towel. At night, bolas are replaced by churros. Also fat & sugary, but in a different shape and a must on every fun fair.



Sweet, sweeter, Portugal

Because there’s always time for cake in Portugal! From the quintessential pastel de nata to the salame de chocolate (yes, that’s chocolate salami – don’t worry, it doesn’t contain any meat), the Portuguese love sugar. Despite the fact that these sweet snacks are eaten while sitting down in a café instead of walking on the street, the immense selection of pastéisbolostartesbolinhos and tortascould be described as street food, as there’s a pastelaria on every corner. If you’re feeling peckish, just go for a bica with a pão de ló (spongey cake with a gooey centre), travesseiro (pastry filled with sugar cream), queijada Dona Amélia (honey and cinnamon pastry from the Azores), pastel de feijão (tart with sweet bean puree), brigadeiro (Brazillian pastry made with condensed milk), or a tarte de amêndoa(caramelised almond tart). Also breakfast and dessert is often a coffee with one of the above mentioned pastries.

Most of these doces are local specialties, based on sugar and egg yolks – in the Algarve, almonds and marzipan are also popular ingredients. Why the Portuguese have such a sweet tooth perhaps has to do with all the sugar cane that was brought in from Brazil by the naval explorers in the Age of Discovery. Another explanation has a link with religion. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Portuguese convents and monasteries were quite wealthy and had access to ingredients like almonds, cheese and beans. Since in that time egg whites were used to starch clothes, the nuns had a surplus of egg yolks and used them for baking. Their creations are called doces conventuais (convent desserts or convent sweets) and their religious origin can also be found in their names. For example there’s toucinho do ceu (bacon from heaven; a moist almond-based sponge cake), papo de anjo (angel’s double chin; made of egg yolks & sugar syrup), and barriga da freira (nun’s tummy; breadcrumbs cooked in sugar and egg).

Picture below by Biblioteca Municipal de Figueiró dos Vinhos shows the Fábrica de pão de ló



My bifana is better than yours

Apart from the sweet, there’s of course the savoury. Whether you prefer a deep fried outside layer like the rissol or the croquette, or a flaky pastry outside such as the empada, these savoury pastries can be filled with anything from beef to pork sausage and from tuna to shrimp or vegetables. Equally popular: pastel de bacalhau. Don’t confuse this with pastel de nata, as it contains dried cod instead of custard cream. Also on offer: course a variety of tostas and ham and/or cheese filled croissants.

Portugal’s number one national sandwich, however, is the bifana, which is thought to have its origins in the Alentejo, the town of Vendas Novas to be precise. This is a bun or bread roll with marinated pork slices and some mustard or hot sauce on top (with beef instead of pork, it’s called a prego and there’s also a version with suckling pig, leitão). Despite the fact that it’s fast food, when properly made the pork meat is slow-cooked, in a mixture of garlic, spices and white wine. The bifana is so popular, even McDonalds decided to bring out a version. Although some people might like the McBifana, most connoisseurs, such as the Lagos-based Patrick Stuart consider it a total flop or even a sacrilege, saying it doesn’t live up to the local standard.

Picture below by Alberto González



Slow fast food

If the bifana is number one, then the second place in savoury street food is reserved for frango piri piri. This is especially the case in the Algarve, where it’s a popular market snack and the town of Guia is known as the frango piri piri capital. In Guia, every restaurant offers their own version of this slowly grilled chicken with hot sauce. In the best places, the chicken has lived a happy free range life, while the sauce is homemade from fresh ingredients of their own garden, according to a traditional recipe.

And that’s perhaps the secret to Portuguese street food. It’s not technically fast food. It’s made in the same way it’s served: unhurried. It takes time for the charcoal to heat up, the chicken to grill and the chilies to grow. And that’s OK, because food shouldn’t be stressed. Every self-respecting local Portuguese eatery will slow-cook their pork in a secret bifana marinade recipe that has been perfected over the years. In the case of doces conventuais, the traditional recipes literally date back centuries. Eating is done while sitting down – unless it’s a bola de Berlim, those are eaten while lying on a beach towel. Despite all the examples we’ve given in this article, in this slow-paced country, there isn’t really anything like ‘fast’ food.

Picture below by SofiLayla Thal



See the original article, with some cool videos, in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine September 2017

Posted in Features, Food.