While most people visit the Algarve for its warm weather and beautiful beaches, the region’s gastronomy is a hidden gem, offering a rich array of regional Portuguese dishes that you probably have never heard of before. Even within Portugal, Algarve cuisine isn’t particularly renowned, particularly when compared to the food of the North and Alentejo. Yet, there are quite a few regional dishes that are absolutely deserving of your attention — and your palette.
So what is Algarve food like?
Algarve cuisine is an interesting mix of seafood and meat dishes, which has been influenced by the region’s rule under both Portuguese and Arabic rulers. Seafood and meat dishes dominate the menu, but it’s the use of local ingredients like almonds, figs, and carobs in traditional desserts that adds a distinct touch.
While the Algarve proudly presents iconic dishes such as cataplana and piri-piri chicken, it’s also a gateway to the broader flavors of Portugal. If you’re visiting, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to try the famous pastéis de nata, black pork from the Alentejo, and grilled fish dishes that are common throughout most of Portugal. However, it’s also an opportunity to try a few regional dishes, like the cataplana, that are often difficult to find in other parts of Portugal.
Dishes Typical to the Algarve
The following are some of the dishes that are most typical to the Algarve region. You won’t find these on every restaurant menu, but they’re worth seeking out.
The cataplana is not just a dish; it’s a symbol of the Algarve’s rich culinary tapestry, weaving together centuries of history and flavours. Resembling a clam in its design, this unique cooking vessel, traditionally crafted from copper, serves as both a pot and a serving dish. Its distinctive shape allows for a tight seal, ensuring that all the flavours and aromas are locked in, resulting in deeply flavourful and aromatic stews.
Dishes prepared in the cataplana bear its name, with variations like “cataplana de marisco” (seafood stew), “cataplana de peixe” (fish stew), “cataplana de peixe e marisco” (fish and seafood stew), and “cataplana de carne de porco com amêijoas” (pork and clam stew). Each rendition celebrates the bounty of the Algarve, whether it’s the fresh catch from the Atlantic or the succulent meats from its hinterlands.
Tracing its origins back to the Moorish era, the cataplana is a testament to the Algarve’s multicultural past. The Moors, who once ruled the region, are believed to have introduced this culinary marvel. Over time, it has seamlessly integrated into the Algarve’s gastronomic identity, standing as a proud emblem of the region’s ability to absorb, adapt, and celebrate diverse culinary influences.
Piri-piri chicken, frango da Guia, or frango piri-piri as it’s locally known, is a dish that’s become emblematic of the Algarve’s culinary landscape. Pinpointing the exact moment when the Portuguese first savoured this spicy delight is a challenge, but there’s no denying its deep-rooted association with the region. The fiery marinade, a blend of chillies and spices, infuses the chicken with a zest that’s both tantalising and addictive.
The town of Guia, nestled near Albufeira, proudly claims the title of the piri-piri chicken capital. It’s here that many believe the dish was perfected, drawing food enthusiasts from far and wide to experience its authentic taste. However, Guia isn’t the sole purveyor of this delicacy. Venture across the Algarve, and you’ll discover “churasqueiras” – traditional grill houses – in nearly every town, each boasting its own rendition of the famed piri-piri chicken.
Oysters (and seafood)
Seafood is a big part of the Portuguese diet, and Algarvian cuisine, given its proximity to the sea, is very seafood-focused. If you’re visiting the Algarve, this is a fantastic opportunity to try all kinds of creatures including lobster, tiger prawn, crab, prawns, perceves, and local oysters from the Ria Formosa.
Sardines are eaten throughout Portugal but Portimão, a small city in the Western Algarve, has a long history of catching them, canning them, and also eating them. Every year, the city hosts a big sardine festival along the waterfront (Festival da Sardinha) which normally takes place in August. As well as grilled sardines, you’ll also find plenty of live music, street food stalls, and vendors selling locally-made arts and crafts.
While seafood is a big part of the coastal Algarve’s culinary history, the inner Algarve is more focused on meats and sausages. Several sausage festivals take place throughout the year including the Festa das Chouriças which takes place in January in Querença and the Feira dos Enchidos which normally takes place in March in Monchique.
Caracóis à Algarvia
Caracóis à Algarvia is a quintessential dish from the Algarve region, capturing the essence of Portuguese culinary traditions. At its core, this dish features meticulously cleaned snails, simmered gently in a blend of water and oregano sticks. While this basic recipe remains true to its roots, variations abound, with some chefs incorporating additional herbs, ripe tomatoes, or a hint of chili peppers for an extra kick. As the moniker suggests, the Algarve is the heartland of this delicacy, with snail harvesting being a seasonal affair, typically from April to June.
The preparation of Caracóis à Algarvia is an art in itself, beginning a full eight days before cooking. The snails are first purged in a ventilated container, often sprinkled with flour or bran to aid in detoxification and growth. After multiple washes in salt water to ensure the absence of slime, they are gently simmered. The water level is maintained a few inches above the snails, and the heat is gradually increased, coaxing the snails to extend their heads. Coarse salt is added, and as the dish nears completion, oregano sticks are introduced, avoiding the leaves to prevent a bitter undertone. Some aficionados might also sprinkle in pepper or chili for added zest.
Doces finos do Algarve
Doces finos do Algarve are ornate Algarve sweets that are made from marzipan and crafted into shapes like fruits, vegetables, and small animals. You’ll find them in pastelarias throughout the Algarve and across the whole of Portugal, as well as in the supermarket and speciality food shops.
Because they’re so pretty, they make fantastic gifts to bring to friends and family back home. Of course, you could eat them either.
Dom Rodrigos is an Algarvian sweet that comes from Tavira on the Eastern side of the Algarve, near Faro and the Spanish border. It’s made from fios de ovos, almonds, and cinnamon and, like a lot of Portuguese sweets, it’s incredibly sweet but delicious at the same time.
Queijo de Figo
Queijo de Figo is a very common cake that you’ll find in markets across the Algarve, as well as in local specialty shops. It’s a simple raw cake that’s primarily made from almonds and figs (two popular Algarve ingredients), but also includes sugar, cinnamon, chocolate powder, and aniseed.
Medronho (Aguardente de Medronhos) is a spirit, and often quite a high alcohol spirit, that’s made from the fruit of the medronho tree. Although Medronho is produced throughout Portugal, it’s particularly associated with Monchique and the inner Algarve.
You’ll find Medronho is most Portuguese supermarkets, but a lot of what’s drunk in Portugal tends to be made locally. You’ll often get given a glass after a meal and some people even believe that if you drink medronho first thing in the morning, it’ll wake you up and get you going.
Queijinhos de Amêndoa
Queijinhos de Amêndoa is a testament to Portugal’s rich culinary tapestry, where historical influences meld seamlessly with traditional flavours. This almond-based confectionery, a legacy of the Arab presence and the age-old tradition of conventual sweets, is a delightful blend of textures and tastes. Encased in a shell crafted from ground almonds and egg whites, the heart of this treat reveals a luscious filling of Ovos Moles de Aveiro – a classic Portuguese custard made from a velvety mix of egg yolks and sugar. Each piece is then dusted with a snowy layer of powdered sugar, adding a touch of elegance and sweetness.
The name “Queijinhos de Amêndoa” intriguingly translates to “small almond cheeses”, a nod to their cylindrical shape and pristine white exterior that bears a striking resemblance to miniature cheese wheels. Predominantly savoured in the Algarve region, these sugary delights not only captivate the palate but also evoke a sense of nostalgia, making every bite an invitation to revisit and relish the experience.
The dishes above all come from the Algarve, but no trip to Portugal would be complete without eating other Portuguese foods like bacalhau and pastéis de nata. Be sure to check out the full list of Portuguese foods from across the whole of Portugal, most of which will be available in most Algarve restaurants.
Pastel de Nata
The pastel de nata, a golden custard tart crowned with a delicate layer of caramelised sugar, is one of Portugal’s most cherished culinary treasures. Originating from the monasteries of Lisbon in the 18th century, these tarts were crafted by monks using leftover egg yolks from starching clothes. As monastic life waned, the recipe found its way into local bakeries, and the pastel de nata began its journey from a humble convent treat to a national icon.
Today, whether enjoyed with a sprinkle of cinnamon and powdered sugar or savoured in its classic form, this creamy delight is a testament to Portugal’s rich gastronomic heritage and the timeless allure of simple ingredients transformed into culinary artistry.
Bacalhau, often hailed as the Portuguese ‘faithful friend’, is more than just a dish; it’s a culinary emblem that has woven itself into the very fabric of Portugal’s gastronomic identity. Originating from the Iberian Peninsula’s age-old trading routes with Northern Europe, this salted cod has evolved into countless delectable variations.
From “Bacalhau à Brás,” a delightful mix of flaked cod, onions, and straw fries, to “Bacalhau com Natas,” where the fish is baked in a rich cream sauce, the versatility of bacalhau knows no bounds.
While its origins are steeped in history, its presence in contemporary Portuguese cuisine remains undiminished. For any traveller venturing into Portugal, tasting bacalhau isn’t just a culinary experience; it’s a rite of passage. The sheer importance of this dish to Portuguese culture means that to truly understand the nation’s palate, you must indulge in bacalhau at least once.
Leitão, a succulent roast suckling pig, stands as one of the culinary crowning jewels of Central Portugal. Revered for its crispy skin and tender meat, this dish is a celebration of flavours, often seasoned with aromatic herbs and garlic before being slow-roasted to perfection.
While its roots lie in Central Portugal, the allure of Leitão has spread to the sun-kissed terrains of the Algarve. For those traversing the region, the N125 offers a gastronomic trail of eateries that specialise in this delicacy. Each establishment along this route brings its own touch to the traditional recipe, making Leitão not just a meal, but an experience that varies yet remains consistently delightful.