Vegetarians Can’t Enjoy Portuguese Cuisine

A few years back a vegetarian travelling to Portugal, asked me if it would be difficult eating out given his dietary requirements.  He is a lacto-ovo-vegetarian which means he eats both dairy products and eggs.  I said yes and no:  it wouldn’t if he chose non-Portuguese restaurants but nearly impossible at traditional Portuguese establishments.  He was sticking to major cities like Lisbon and Porto along with a visit to the Algarve so he wouldn’t go hungry, but he really could not experience Portuguese cuisine given his dietary constraints.    Portuguese cuisine is built around meat and seafood protein in such a way that even soups can pose a challenge for a vegetarian.  The silver lining is that most vegetable side dishes are OK but don’t really offer much in the way of flavor or options.  A typical Portuguese restaurant also isn’t likely to fundamentally alter the dish on the spot.  If they do they are not likely to have a pantry full of umami alternatives and are just going to boil whatever vegetable you ordered.  If you travel to Portugal the Portuguese restaurants come in 3 flavors: (1) fancy high end establishments serving traditional Portuguese food along with some non-Portuguese dishes. Typically associated with a hotel or resort these are high priced establishments and not financially accessible to many.  You may find a willingness to adapt a dish to be vegetarian or you may encounter a vegetarian selection but otherwise it is meat and fish based.  (2) A family run establishment offering a plethora of Portuguese dishes with daily specials which are hardcore (like cozido, arroz de cabedela, leitao).  Unless you see a soup, rice or salad that meets your dietary requirements there isn’t much to choose from if you are a vegetarian.  They may be able to “whip something up” for you in the kitchen but don’t count on it especially if it is a busy time of the day.  (3) The last option is small cafes, specialty places or restaurants along the coast in the Algarve that serve a limited fish menu.  Many places in the Algarve specialize in grilled/bbq fish and don’t even have a menu.  They basically tell you what fish they have and you choose whether you want it grilled, boiled or fired.  Other places specialize in leitao (suckling pig) or bbq chicken and have a limited menu.  These places will not make something special for you.  Cafes offer sandwiches, soups and salads and may feature one or two cooked meals.  They don’t really have a kitchen per-se as the food is prepared offsite and brought into the establishment. So, unless it is a soup or salad that is not fish or meat based you won’t be catered to.  Since our cuisine is protein based, I am hard pressed to come up with a main Portuguese dish that is vegetarian.  The potato is probably the most prominent vegetable in Portuguese cooking yet there is no main course of potatoes or any other vegetable for that matter.  Eggplant is not and option like in say Spain, France or Italy since it isn’t a typical Portuguese ingredient.   Yes they sell them at supermarkets but there is no eggplant dish in Portuguese cuisine unlike our Iberian and European cousins who have some delicious alternatives.  There are some vegetable dishes that can serve (and often do) as a standalone course (Favas com Coentros a Portuguesa, Favas a  Moda de Lisboa etc.) mostly made with broad beans but a major component to them is bacon, chourico or fat back.  Some rice dishes are also vegan friendly. They can be adapted say with mushrooms or some other umami like ingredient but that is an adaptation and it’s not really Portuguese.  Salads are perhaps the best option for a vegetarian but that can get old quick.  So, if you are a vegetarian it’s going to be tough and if you are full blown vegan you really cannot eat any Portuguese food.   There are some options if you want to taste some Portuguese cuisine.   Katie Foote, in her online article for Epicure&Culture (entitled “Hold The Pork: Vegetarian-Friendly Finds In Portugal’s Land Of Meat And Fish”) came to the same conclusions and listed some dishes that were vegetarian friendly like caldo verde (minus the chourico garnish), acorda, migas, carrot and pumpkin/squash soup.  I am not going to cover dessert too deeply here but will say that for vegans (strictly no animal-based ingredients) they may be limited to fruit as most Portuguese desserts are egg based.  It’s a hard thing to write since I have vegetarian friends and acquaintances but Portuguese cuisine is virtually non- accessible to vegetarians.  Most of the world’s cuisine, except for certain Asian countries, is not vegetarian friendly.  Some, like Italian cuisine with its many non-meat-based pastas, lend themselves better to vegetarians but most don’t.  That is the challenge facing vegetarians daily.  I disagree with the concept of vegetarianism (unless it is for religious observance) because I truly believe that as carnivores, we require some animal protein.  In today’s affluent age we likely eat too much meat, but it is still an important part of a healthy diet. I also disagree with the concept of limiting choice.  The age we live in means that all sorts of cuisines are readily available to us without driving vast distances.  Never has so much food been available to humans so why limit yourself to just eating plant-based dishes?  Having said that I do have a deep respect for those that choose it as a lifestyle choice.  The challenges they face when eating out or travelling are daunting especially when eating with non-vegetarians.