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Portugal: A vegetarian’s oasis!

Walk into any mercado in Portugal and there will be stalls stuffed with large heads of cabbage, bunches of turnip tops, spinach and the young leaves of rapini. Go out to the Portuguese country-side and you’ll see patches of tall couve portuguesa hovering in the middle of gardens and a strip or two of grelos nearby. This often makes one question, what do the Portuguese do with all these vibrant leafy greens?

The use of cabbage and greens are the epitome of peasant food. They became a Portuguese staple because in this climate they grow like, well, weeds! If there isn’t a small plot of land for such things, they are still inexpensive to grab from the local store. These healthy vegetables are also filling enough that you can have a bowl of caldo verde or esparragado with a bite of meat or a hunk of crusty bread and still have a delicious balanced meal.

It’s well known that Portugal has a large assortment of couves and grelos, but it really can be difficult to know what is what if you don’t have your own personal foodie tour guide to give you all the information.

I’ve found when it comes to couve, or cabbage, there are two primary varieties. First is the couve-galega, which is the equivalent to collard greens. It can be found in both the famous soup Caldo Verde and stew Cozido à Portuguesa. The other is couve-lombarda, or savoy cabbage, a cabbage that is good wrapped around uncooked Portuguese sausages and then simmered in rice and tomato sauce. There are many others that are often used instead of these depending on what’s in season.

Grelos is a catchall word for greens, but only rapini is exclusively called grelos. Others that are in the same category are nabiças (turnip greens), mustard greens, and very young cabbage and spinach (espinafres) leaves. In the winter they often accompany fish after having been sautéed in garlic and olive oil. Grelos have a light bitter taste that makes them perfect for cutting rich, fatty meats like alheira and heavy dishes like açorda.

A couple of things to keep in mind:

  • Couves and grelos are always served cooked. There is no such thing as raw or pickled cabbage, spinach or spring greens in traditional Portuguese cooking.
  • Couves and nabiças (turnip greens) go into soup at the end and are never pureed with the rest of the ingredients.
  • Grelos are never in soup. They are often sautéed with garlic and olive oil and added to the side or used in dishes like rice, migas or with potatoes.

Once the translation has been made, it’s obvious that the greens of Portugal aren’t really all that hard to understand. It just takes a little learning and some experimentation in the kitchen to get that Portuguese home-style cooking in your own cozinha! So get going with two of our favorite recipes: Migas de Couve e Feijão (Bread with Collard Greens and Beans) and Arroz de Grelos (Rapini Greens with Rice).

Rochelle Ramos


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