Interview: Lisbon in 100 Bites with Zara Quiroga

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Published: February 2017 & Last Updated: July 2021

With the exception of a few dishes, Portuguese food isn’t particularly well-known outside of Portugal. This means that many people don’t know what to order when they visit Lisbon (or anywhere else in Portugal). Thankfully, Zara Quiroga has written Lisbon in 100 bites — a guide to every dish that you’re like to find on a menu in Portugal. It’s beautifully illustrated with photographs of mouth-watering Portuguese dishes, and,most importantly, it provides you with all the information you need to make the right ordering choices when you visit Portugal.

Tell me a little about the inspiration for Lisbon in 100 bites.

Like a good Portuguese person, I love to both eat and talk about food. During my travels around the world, chatting with people from different corners of the globe and diverse walks of life, I learnt that most of them knew little of nothing about Portuguese food. In parallel, I saw the tourist scene of Portugal and, particularly, of Lisbon, booming like never before. I came across foodie guides to Lisbon written by foreigners pop here and there, and the information shared wasn’t always the most authentic. No only I saw bloggers and travel writers suggesting travelers to try things like fajitas while in Lisbon, I also saw touristic restaurants highlighting paella in their supposedly typical Portuguese food menus. I simply couldn’t take it! So I channeled my annoyance into something a little more constructive. This is how Lisbon in 100 Bites – The Ultimate Lisbon Food Guide was born! This book is the materialization of my desire to share with visitors the amazing world of traditional Portuguese food. It’s all about letting readers know more about the dishes, snacks and and desserts they are most likely to come across around Lisbon, while also giving foodie tips to make it easier to eat around Portugal.

I read that you studied in Lisbon. In the UK, beans on toast is considered the quintessential student food. What do students in Lisbon eat?

Most students eat in their university’s canteen for lunch. Meals offered tend to be very affordable and, even though they may not always be the yummiest, they are quite representative of what people eat at home in Portugal. You get preparations of roasted meats, codfish dishes, baked fish and a different vegetable soup every single day.

As for eating out, I think many young people in Lisbon and the rest of Portugal think of bitoque as an obvious comfort food that always hits the spot! This dish consists of a thin pan-fried beef steak, usually cooked with garlic and olive oil. The meat is served with a fried egg on top, and sides of fries, rice and salad. Most regular restaurants serving Portuguese food serve bitoque.

What are you favourite restaurants in Lisbon?

My favorite lunch restaurants in Lisbon aren’t actually restaurants, they are pastelarias! Many typical Portuguese pastry shops are more than simply cafes, as during lunch hours they serve a few dishes of the day (“prato do dia”). The meals offered are a very good representation of what people eat at home. So if you don’t get to visit a local’s house, you can always understand what home food is like by visiting a pastelaria.

During dinner time, if I am craving a good Portuguese meal, I like visiting O Mercado, in the neighborhood of Alcântara. Their menu is very extense, and it covers a lot of the best dishes that are common around Lisbon. From a variety of meats, to fishes and fresh seafood, that vary according to season and the catch of the day. I highly recommend their tuna steak or choco frito, that is, the fried cuttlefish which is served with a saucy tomato rice that complements the crispiness of the cuttlefish oh-so-well!

You travel a lot. Which of these 100 bites do you miss most when you’re travelling?

Bacalhau com Natas! Codfish is to Portugal what pasta is to Italy, what burgers are to the USA, or what curry is to India. There are hundreds of recipes involving codfish in my country, and this creamy baked codfish is simply by favorite. It is quite rare to find salted codfish abroad. As such, not only this is not a dish that I’ll easily come across eating out abroad, but it’s also hard to recreate due to the lack of the main ingredient!

No doubt you’ve seen Portugal’s influence on food around the world. Where’s the most surprising place that you’ve come across where Portugal has left its mark?

Portugal has certainly influenced a lot of food trends around the world, even though I don’t think many people realize that. It was the Portuguese that exported the tempura technique to Japan, for example. Even though some theories explain that the Portuguese had initially learnt how to batter and fry things like vegetables in India, where pakoras were already being made when the Portuguese arrived. And, talking about India, it was the Portuguese who brought chili peppers from the Americas to Asia… can you imagine what Indian and Asian cuisines in general would be like these days without chilies?

The most surprising place that I’ve come across the influence of Portugal when it comes to food was Hawaii. They served us Portuguese sausage for breakfast in a local B&B that my husband and I were staying at. I was so surprised! I later learned that a big group of Portuguese immigrants had traveled to Hawaii to work in the sugar cane plantations back in the 1800s. They brought with them some of Portugal’s food traditions and linguiça, now known in Hawaii as Portuguese sausage, was one of them! Linguiça is a cured sausage, made with pork’s meat and seasoned with paprika and garlic. In Portugal, we normally eat it as a snack with bread, or to add flavor to other dishes like stews. Now, Hawaiians eat combinations like pancakes with a side of linguiça, which in Portugal would be considered a totally awkward combination! But I must admit that the combination of sweet and salty does works!

The world has fallen in love with pasteis de nata over the past few years. What, in your opinion, is another Portuguese dish that deserves the same fame but hasn’t been “discovered” yet?

I think many Portuguese dishes have immense potential! I am positive that we have the best octopus recipes in the world, particularly Polvo a Lagareiro – grilled octopus in olive oil. I know that some visitors who come to Portugal aren’t used to eating octopus, and may feel put off by the look of the tentacles on the tray. They also have the misconception that octopus is hard and chewy. Believe me that, when it is cooked well, octopus is tender and incredibly flavorful.

In the world of sweets, I think Pudim Abade de Priscos would rock the world of dessert lovers! It may not have the portability or pop appeal of a pastel de nata, but this pudding made with ridiculous amounts of eggs, sugar and bacon (yes, bacon!) is decadent and will leave no one indifferent.

About Zara: Originally from Portugal, Zara Quiroga has travelled all over the world with her husband Ashray. In 2011, they set off on a backpacking trip that was only supposed to last a year but has been going ever since. During that time, they’ve travelled through Europe, Asia, Northern and Southern America, Africa, and the Middle East and they’re still going strong.

You can download a copy of Lisbon in 100 Bites no Lisbon Food Guide or follow Zara’s adventures on her blog, Backpack Me.

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