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Cozinha Portuguesa Vegetariana: Eating Vegetarian in Portugal

Portuguese SoupRegardless of where you are in the world, someone wants to know,  “Are there vegetarian options available?.” When I first think about Portuguese cuisine, vegetarian or vegetables are definitely not what come to mind, while fish, meat and rice are more common.  But as a foreigner, I am no expert. So I decided to take a poll of every Portuguese mama and grandmama I could get my hands on, as well as their twenty to thirty-something year old sons still living at home and enjoying their cooking.  To no surprise, much of the answers were the same, “Cozinha vegetariana?  Uhhh…… I don’t think we have that”, with a peculiar expression that inferred, “why would anyone want to just eat vegetables??” And true to point, most of Portugal’s famous dishes contain some form of protein and starch, and although vegetables are included, they are almost never the main feature of any dish.

This being said, if you look at Portuguese cuisine from a historical perspective, it has very much kept to its classic, traditional style, coming from the roots of a poor country whose farmers could only utilize the natural resources available to them. This country has always had ample natural food sources such as fresh fish, rabbits, wild game, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, and not to be forgotten, fruits and vegetables! In Lisbon alone, you have access to open markets around the city open six days a week with fresh produce sourced from local farmers. Due to the mild winter climate in Portugal that hardly ever sees snow, except in the far north, some vegetables are grown locally almost year around including a variety of green beans, peas, potatoes, cabbages, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, kale, spinach, cucumbers and zucchini. (Flickr photo by bartb_pt)

Now, while my poll didn’t immediately turn up any traditional vegetarian dishes, when pushed, there was a consensus that, “Well, we have good soups”. It may not be a classic entrée, but soup is one of the main choices for a “quick lunch” during the business week.  Most Portuguese soups are vegetarian, all traditionally prepared in a style which I have come to believe is the quickest and easiest way to make a guaranteed delicious soup every time! The Portuguese soup is thick with a vibrant orange color, derived from pureed carrot, pumpkin, potato and onion, give or take one depending on the soup. Pumpkin may seems like an abnormal seasonal vegetable but you can buy chunks of pumpkin or orange squash in open markets and supermarkets throughout the year, adding a delightful “sweet” richness. Cooks will add vegetables and garlic into a pressure cooker for about 20-30 minutes then pass them through a food mill and voila, a touch of salt and your basic soup is ready to eat!  Many build upon this base by adding cooked green vegetables such as nabiças (kale), espinafres (spinach), feijão verde (long green string beans of the fava variety) and couve (cabbage), which is usually paired with red kidney beans (feijão).

So for all of you vegetarians and veggie lovers, don’t cross Portugal off your list of places to live or travel because of lack of food options! A big bowl of any of these hearty Portuguese vegetable soups makes for a delicious lunch or meal anytime! And if you’re not a big fan of soup, you need not worry in finding an abundance of ingredients for creating your own vegetarian versions of traditional favorites here. Or, if you’re not much of a cook, and prefer to eat out, there are loads of great Portuguese vegetarian restaurants that have opened in Lisbon with positive reviews.  Thanks to a country full of the “fruits of their labor”, or shall we say veggies, Portugal offers a memorable food experience for every preference!

To Versatile Veggies and Sumptuous Soups,

Andrea Smith

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  • http://twitter.com/jnogueira joão n.

    take it from a flexitarian-nearly-vegetarian… there are pretty good veggie dishes in portuguese cuisine (although not traditionally recognized as such). for instance, some bread-based foods from alentejo… and also there are a butload of good veggie restaurants around lisbon… and some of them recreate typical portuguese cuisine only with veggies. the good ones i remember: terra (pr.real), jardim ds sentidos (praça da alegria), psi (campo mártires da pátria), os tibetanos (salitre), paladar zen (são sebastião), green pepper (praça de espanha), hare krishnas (estefânia), espaço da rosa (alvalade), bem-me-quer (chile), espiral (estefânia). good (and-not-that-obvious) theme, andrea! ;)

  • Andrea

    Thanks João! Being practically a “meatarian” most of my life, I wasn't too thrilled to do a topic like this at first but then when I realized how great the soups are here and how much I liked them and such, it wasn't so hard after all. And thanks for posting some recommendations for veggie restaurants in town, I didn't even know you were a quasi-vegetarian hahaha but I'm glad to know someone who's tried them out and give an honest recommendation because I sure wouldn't have tried so many! :p

  • http://herbivoracious.com Michale Natkin

    Good info! I traveled in Portugal about 10 years ago, and it was indeed really tough as a vegetarian. I would have never thought of the soups, since I assumed that they were prepared with animal stock as they are in most of Europe. Mainly I ate eggs, eggs and more eggs every day! It is a beautiful, fascinating country to visit though. I'll never forget our stay in a family friend's farmhouse in the south.

  • http://lagar.wordpress.com Milton

    You didn’t mentioned “papas”. In some regions, as my own, in the pumpkin season people traditionally eat “papas de abóbora”, that are made with pureed pumpkin, flour (corn or wheat), sugar and cinnamon . I love them. I would not say that in these days they are very popular. It’s an old habit and you can’t find them in the restaurants.

  • Andrea

    You're right I didn't! Though papas would be part of the huge dessert/pastry food group in Portugal and after writing several articles on them I believe it's a bit obvious there are plenty of veggie options in desserts but sad to say they don't count as a meal! ;) I've had papas many times last Christmas here and they're delightful and very filling, thanks for your feedback Milton!

  • Ben

    The Portuguese seem ready to add pork (and pork sausage) to almost everything, including stews that are largely vegetable. The frugal peasant way is to use meat sparingly, just as Thomas Jefferson recommended, for flavor. I think there are even some Portuguese custards with pork in them!

  • http://lagar.wordpress.com/ Milton

    I forgot to mention that we have “papas” as dessert and but also as main dish. I usually eat them as main dish while they are still warm.