Portugal’s capital city is pulsing with the life of a new street-food scene. Victoria Stewart digs into fritters, fresh fish and pastries.
Hopping across the puddles on Rossio Square, Lisbon, my tour guide turns to me with a troubled expression. I’ve come to Portugal’s capital city on a street food mission, but given the miserable weather she’s worried today might not be the best for alfresco eating.
Lisbon doesn’t yet offer the enormous variety of food vans, trucks, parties and festivals that Londoners have got used to but, as it turns out after some careful digging, I find street food aplenty.
According to José Borralho, vice- president of Street Food Portugal (yes, that’s a real organisation), 60 per cent of the 250 street food concepts in the country are found in Lisbon. Since April 2015, Borralho has held two successful European Street Food Festivals just outside the capital, and he says the market has grown exponentially.
“Street food in Portugal is more than fashion,” he argues. “It’s inspiring and some big restaurants are trying out the model as a way to promote their food. I think street food is like a new vitamin that generates more people and entertainment in cities.”
On a serious journalistic mission to corroborate these claims, I start my research at Mercado da Ribeira, the city’s oldest fish and fresh produce market near Cais do Sodré station. Back in 2010 it had begun to struggle, so in a bid to save it the city council decided to offer someone the chance to manage a portion of its vast space. Scoot forward to September 2014 and international city guide brand Time Out opened its first — colossal —street food court: long tables surrounded by semi-permanent stalls serving dishes made by some of the city’s best up-and-coming and well-known food names, including Alexandre Silva (winner of Portuguese Top Chef), haute cook Marlene Vieira and “Portugal’s Jamie Oliver”, Henrique Sá Pessoa.
“This has really helped the fresh market to continue, as it was dying,” explains my guide Célia Pedroso, author of Eat Portugal and part of the Culinary Backstreets organisation offering local food tours. “So now the Time Out market runs alongside, and some of its stalls get their fish supply from the fresh part, and the street food area brings people to the market.”
On a Saturday afternoon the market is buzzing, filled with people stuffing themselves with chorizo sandwiches, pizza, raw fish, entrecôte and burgers. Minutes later and we are outside nearby Café de São Bento, settling into peixinhos da horta — or tempura green beans — which are strikingly good: a crisp jacket on the outside, a comforting sogginess on the inside, and the familiar taste of fresh beans. The name means “fish from the garden”, as they resemble (albeit green) fried fish.
“Peixinhos da horta is tempura in its most traditional form,” says Pedroso, explaining that when the Portuguese travelled to Japan they brought with them their tradition of deep frying. “You eat them with a dip — in this case it’s got onions, mustard and mayonnaise in it. You never found these before but a new wave of chefs has brought the dish back and we eat it like Portuguese tapas.”
Next we try another Portuguese classic: codfish and chorizo fritters from a stall called Croqueteria. For €1.50 these deliver such a rich, intense and salty hit that I immediately want a second and make a note of the other flavours — monkfish, chicken, goat’s cheese — to try next time.
By late afternoon I’m ready for another famous Portuguese snack: the pastel de nata, or custard tart. Its most famous seller is Pasteis de Belem, to the west of the city, home of — so the story goes — the original recipe. But Pedroso has other ideas, and soon we have stomped up the hill to a younger business, Manteigaria. Outside is a small queue, and inside visitors can peer through windows to men making vats of custard and rolling out pastry.
At Manteigaria more than 4,000 tarts are made daily, and most people stand outside to eat theirs. Plunging in to one is a defining moment of our trip as we bite through illustrious flakes of pastry and buttery custard with spikes of vanilla and cinnamon. I buy more to take home.
Mercado de Campo de Ourique is next on the list for Sunday brunch, and a pleasant half-hour stroll from the city centre. The market dates from 1934 but after a smart refurbishing job in 2013 it has turned into a selection of slick food stands — selling everything from cured meat snacks to pies and patisserie — reminding me of Copenhagen’s Torvehallerne market. Various sugary, eggy pastries go down well, swiftly followed by delectable chicken empanadas from Castico.
Popular with Lisboetas seeking beer and snacks at the end of the working day is the “fusion market” Mercado de Fusão in Martim Moniz Square. The area is known for its various immigrant communities, and the street food here reflects that multicultural mix; some stalls are open during the week, while once a month there’s a weekend street food party where the fragrances of Chinese stir-fries, succulent meat on sticks and Indian samosas billow from food trucks.
But perhaps the city’s best-known street food parties are in June, during sardine season. “Every year we celebrate Saint Anthony, our most beloved saint,” explains Pedroso. “On June 12 it gets crazy, as there’s a huge parade up Avenida de Liberdade, with music and people and dancing.
“And then, until June 14, the people in Alfama and the old parts of Lisbon set up stalls serving grilled sardines, potatoes and chorizo. Often they will serve wine or Sangria too, and there are amazing smells and smoke everywhere.”
To give you an idea of just how popular these sardine street parties are, the tourist office claims 193,048 kilos of sardines were sold between June 6 and 17 this year at the two fishing docks that serve Lisbon.
Before I head off, Pedroso leaves me with one more nugget. Everyone knows about Saint Anthony’s festival, she says, but it would have been better — and less busy — to go on June 23 for the party celebrating the night of St John the Baptist. “The sardines are far more succulent then!” she winks.
The Lisbon Eats Culinary Backstreets Essentials food tour (no phone; culinarybackstreets.com) costs US$110 (around £85) for 3.5 hours and runs from 10.30am-2pm, except on Sundays when it runs from 5-8.30pm.
easyJet flies to Lisbon from Luton and Gatwick (0330 365 5000; easyjet.com).
This article was originally published in Standard.co.uk
Victoria Stewart’s blog about street food can be found at londonstreetfoodie.co.uk