Portuguese Cafés: the Secret Handbook (Part 3)

Backdrop of a cloth napkin with a checkered red and white pattern, white plate and three food items arranged diagonally.
Left to right: chamuça, folhado de salsicha and pão com chouriço (mini versions).

In previous posts we’ve covered a few basics about café culture in Portugal and detailed the most common drinks.

For this post we’re diving into a sea of bread, butter, cheese, and puff pastry (among other things). So grab your favourite coffee drink and let’s get to it:

(Disclaimer – Please note these are some of the most easily found items in Portuguese cafés. So yes, the café near your house may not have some of the things mentioned here or it may have others that I’m not referring to.)

Popular breakfast options

  • Torrada and meia torrada = toast and half toast. If you ask for a torrada, you’ll get two slices of toasted and buttered bread; meia torrada is just one slice. Most places will have two types of bread for toast: pão de forma, a fluffy kind of white bread, similar to what is used to make French toast, and pão caseiro or pão saloio, a rustic sort of bread with a thick crust. In some cafés, you can also get pão alentejano, which essentially falls into the latter category. Expect big slices!
  • Pão com manteiga = bread with butter, simply put. Usually, you’ll be served a wheat bread roll, but in some places, you’ll have more options. Please note that gluten-free bread is *not* a common option in Portugal. However, I’ve known people from the USA and Canada who are gluten intolerant (not celiac) and who had little to no problems with wheat-based products in Portugal, Italy, Spain, and France. I’m assuming this has to do with differences in how cereals are processed, but I’m not 100% sure. 
  • Sandes de queijo = cheese sandwich made with the same type of bread roll that is used for pão com manteiga. You can specify that you want it to have cheese *and* butter (sandes de queijo com manteiga). The cheese used to make these is flamengo, which has a very mild flavour. 
  • Sandes de fiambre = ham sandwich. In practical terms, this fiambre is nothing like ham in neither the UK nor across the pond. It’s a kind of processed meat product that is thinly sliced and used for sandwiches, basically.
  • Sandes mista = literally, a mixed sandwich, meaning it’s a bread roll with both cheese and ham. 
  • Tosta = depending on where you’re coming from, you’ll probably call this a toastie or a toasted sandwich. Like the sandwiches mentioned above, you can have a tosta de queijo, tosta de fiambre, or tosta mista. They’re made with the same types of bread that are used for torrada. These are the three most common types, but you’ll find cafés that have more elaborate options. 

Please note: In anything that involves butter, you can always ask for pouca manteiga (just a bit of butter) or muita manteiga (lots of butter).

Portuguese meia de leite coffee drink and a bread roll, on a table inside a cafe
Pão com manteiga e meia de leite – a breakfast favourite of so many Portuguese.

What about meals?

As I mentioned before, quite often cafés serve basic meals at lunchtime: from the omnipresent vegetable soup to simple dishes like omelets, to combos like a slice of quiche with a side of salad and/or rice. These are usually a quick cheap option. 

Other low-cost popular café meals include: a basic toastie or sandwich like any of the options I’ve mentioned above, more complex toasties and sandwiches, or salgados (almost literally, “savouries”). And what is a salgado, I hear you ask?

“Rissol de camarão” to the left, “pastel de bacalhau” to the right. Why choose when you can have both?

The most common types of salgados include:

  • Croquete – you may be familiar with the concept of croquette. The ones in Portugal are usually made with shredded beef or veal.
  • Rissol – a “pocket” of fried dough shaped like a half moon. The traditional filling used to be made with shrimp and a kind of béchamel sauce. These days you can also find them filled with suckling pig meat or vegetables, among other options. 
  • Chamuça – aka, samosa. Not always spicy, you’ll find them in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian versions.
  • Pastel de bacalhau – a patty of sorts, it’s made with mashed potato, onion, parsley, and shredded bacalhau. This mix is then shaped with the help of two tablespoons and deep fried. They should be slightly crispy on the outside and not taste oily. If you ever have the chance of seeing a Portuguese mum or grandmother making these, do not miss it! Also, easy access to just fried pastéis. What’s not to like?
  • Empada – small pies with several possible fillings. Chicken and vegetables are the most common options. 
  • Folhado – anything with the word folhado means it’s made with puff pastry. You’ll find folhado misto (with cheese and ham), folhado de legumes/espinafres (with vegetables or just spinach), and folhado de salsicha (with sausage) among the most popular ones. 
  • Pão com chouriço – a rustic sort of bread filled with slices of chouriço (smoked sausage). Also very easy to find in local fairs and in many bakeries.
  • Merenda – a rectangular or square shaped piece of dough (something in between shortcrust and puff pastry) filled with cheese and ham. This is the only item on this list that I do not recommend eating unless it’s warm. All of the above can be eaten at room temperature, although you can always ask the waiter to warm them up for you. You’ll say, for example, “Quero uma merenda aquecida, por favor.”

I recommend trying these salgados in a few different places first before making up your mind on whether or not you like them. In Portugal you can buy most of these, frozen, in supermarkets. If you really do like any of them, ask around and there’s a good chance someone will know a lady that makes salgados which she sells directly to customers. You can freeze them and fry as many as you want when you want. 

If you think I’ve lost it because I’m not mentioning pastel de nata, please chill: the next (and final) post on this series will be dedicated to the world of pastries.

Yes, I do save the best for last.

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