The best Portuguese octopus dishes (and where to try them in Lisbon)
Traditional Portuguese cooking makes very good use of octopus as one of its favorite seafood ingredients. Because of its other-wordly looks and long tentacles covered in suckers, the octopus is often a creature that inspires a certain dose of intimidation to those who aren’t used to seeing it on a plate of food. Yet, in Portugal, it’s a very day-to-day ingredient and we cook in a variety of ways, from chilled appetizers to comforting stews, enjoyed by folks from all backgrounds.
Octopus is believed to be a popular ingredient in Portugal since at least the time of the Phoenicians, that is, around the 12th century B.C. It was them, and later the Romans and the Muslims, and everyone else who inhabited the territory we now known as Portugal, who would capture octopus in the Atlantic coast and, way before the days of refrigeration, would proceed to preserve it by air drying it under the sun or, later on, salting it just like we still do with codfish today. In fact, if you take a day trip from Lisbon to Nazaré, you can still see how the octopi are artisanally sun-dried at the beach, alongside the more popular horse mackerel.
Unlike it sometimes happens in other parts of the world, in Portugal octopus is not eaten raw nor is it prepared while alive. In fact, it’s a common practice to deep freeze octopus prior to cooking it, even if you buy it fresh. This is done to help tenderize the meat, which has to be cooked very carefully in order not to be chewy – it shouldn’t be undercooked, but it also shouldn’t be overdone. When well-cooked, you can expect octopus to be tender and, in some cases, particularly depending on the recipe, even slightly buttery.
In certain parts of the country, octopus is so representative that it also makes it to the Christmas eve table, along with the uber popular Portuguese salted cod, bacalhau. On the opposite side of tradition, contemporary cooking with a decidedly pop approach has brought us dishes such as the octopus hot dog by Sea Me (Rua do Loreto 21, 1200-241 Lisbon or inside Time Out Market), in which the popular Lisbon modern seafood restaurant replaces the usual meat sausage with a similar looking octopus tentacle.
Octopus is one of the best Portuguese delicacies you can enjoy around Lisbon and other coastal regions nearby. In other to help you navigate a Portuguese menu when you’re looking forward to trying a beautiful octopus dish, we are here listing the top Portuguese octopus dishes you can try in Lisbon:
Salada de polvo | octopus salad
This refreshing chilled octopus salad is a perfect appetizer when enjoying a seafood meal in Portugal, particularly during summer. It features tiny pieces of octopus which are boiled until tender, cooled and mixed with thinly sliced onions and bell peppers. The softness of the octopus is make or break in this recipe, and so is the marinade which ought to perfectly balance the richness of olive oil with the tanginess of white wine vinegar. Fresh herbs such as coriander are also added for freshness. When you sit down at a restaurant in Portugal, don’t be surprised if a few small appetizers make it to your table even when you didn’t order them. This mostly applies to a breadbasket with accompanying spreads such as butter and pates, but it may also include cheese, cold cuts, fritters served at room temperature and, particularly in fish focused eateries, cold salads such as salada de polvo. Keep in mind that these items that are listed as couvert or entradas in the printed menu aren’t complimentary. They are like an “in your face” suggestion which you may opt or not to indulge in. At the end, you would only pay for the item you tried, and everything else would be removed from your table at no charge – if you decide that you do not want these items, we’d suggest asking your waiter promptly to take them away to avoid misunderstandings. Anyway, if you come across octopus salad, and you easily will, we would highly suggest giving it a try as it’s a delectable appetizer for you to get your juices running before a more complete meal. Besides being a beautiful starter, Portuguese octopus salad can also be ordered as a petisco along with other small dishes, as part of a tasting meal. One way or another, it always tends to taste best with a chilled glass of white wine!
Where to eat octopus salad in Lisbon:
📍Rua do Arsenal Restelo, 1449-015 Lisbon
Polvo à lagareiro | roasted octopus with olive oil
Polvo à lagareiro is the octopus dish to seek when you’re thoughtfully exploring Portuguese cuisine. This dishe’s name literally translates as octopus olive oil miller’s style, referring to the copious amounts of olive oil used in the making. Even though this is a grilled octopus dish, most octopus recipes call for the creature to be boiled prior to being finished via other cooking methods. As such, tender octopus tentacles are made smoky on the grill (or, if cooked at home, usually in the oven), and drenched in garlic infused olive oil. Lagareiro style octopus is traditionally served with potatoes, more specifically batatas a murro. Portuguese style “smashed potatoes” are small to medium sized tubers, cooked with their skin on, and lightly smashed in order to rip the skin. This is how you guarantee the aromatic oil penetrates making the starch richer in flavor and to the palate. Polvo à lagareiro is arguably one the most representative dishes of the traditional Portuguese cooking repertoire and it is seriously not to be missed while traveling in Lisbon. If you happen to be visiting the north of Portugal during Christmas time, particularly the regions of Trás-os-Montes or Minho, chances are you’ll also come across this classic of Portuguese gastronomy for Christmas eve supper.
Where to eat polvo à lagareiro in Lisbon:
Adega das Gravatas
📍 Tv. Pregoeiro 15, 1600-588 Lisbon
Arroz de polvo | octopus rice
If you’re a fan of loose rice dishes and risottos, arroz de polvo will be right up your alley. In fact, considering that this is a rice recipe which features small pieces of octopus, somehow disguised by the brothy rice flavored with herbs, similarly to octopus salad it may also very well be an ideal introduction to the cephalopode, in case you’re not sure you will enjoy a dish featuring the full tentacles, such as it happens with polvo à lagareiro mentioned above. Arroz de polvo presents the consistency of a risotto with the comforting characteristics of a stew. This recipe is typically prepared with arroz carolino, a Portuguese variety of rice similar to arborio in Italy or bomba in Spain, which is widely cultivated locally for our so-called naughty rices or arroz malandrinho. Portuguese octopus rice stew is prepared with the flavorful broth used from boiling the octopus, before it is chopped up and added to the rice. This is one of the irresistible staple dishes that contributes to making Portugal the highest consumer of rice in Europe!
Where to eat octopus rice in Lisbon:
Tasquinha do Lagarto
📍 Rua de Campolide 258, Lisbon
Filetes de polvo com arroz do mesmo | octopus filets with octopus rice
If you find pronouncing the original Portuguese names of local dishes difficult, you might as well not start with this one. It word by word translates as “octopus filets with rice from the same”, referring to rice prepared with the same octopus, which is in essence, octopus rice. This dish is almost like a two in one. While you can also order breaded and deep fried octopus filets with other side dishes, namely with kidney beans rice or tomato rice, they will sometimes be paired with octopus rice. As such, there’s no doubt that this is a dish for true octopus lovers, as the dominating flavor all across the plate will indeed be that of octopus. The filets are usually deep-fried until golden and crispy on the outside, yet very soft and moist on the inside. Once again, a fairly easy way to get acquainted with the taste and texture of octopus. The rice on the side will be similar to the octopus rice described above, if sometimes a little less generous when it comes to the amount of octopus pieces, as they tend to make up for it with the filets themselves. Filetes de polvo com arroz do mesmo is not a dish you’ll come across as easily as arroz de polvo or roasted octopus with olive oil, as it most usually makes an appearance as a daily special rather than as a permanent presence on restaurant menus.
Where to eat octopus filets in Lisbon:
📍 Rua José Duro 27D, 1700-272 Lisbon
Pataniscas de polvo | octopus fritters
When you see the word pataniscas in a menu, you can safely assume that those are pataniscas de bacalhau, that is, flat codfish fritters. But these aren’t the only pataniscas around! Pataniscas de polvo are a type of cake prepared with tiny pieces of cooked octopus and a batter made with flour and eggs, which is flavored with onions, garlic and herbs. We could almost draw a parallel and say that pataniscas de polvo are to Portugal what takoyaki is to Japan. Unlike takoyaki though, pataniscas aren’t much of a street food snack, mostly because Portugal doesn’t have a street food scene as such. Even though pataniscas, both made with salted codfish or octopus, can be eaten as a starter or petisco, they are much more commonly enjoyed as a main meal, with brothy side dishes such as red beans rice, that is, arroz de feijão. On occasions, octopus pataniscas can also be served with octopus rice, following the same logic of filetes de polvo com arroz do mesmo which we describe above.
Where to eat octopus pataniscas in Lisbon:
Varina da Madragoa
📍 Rua Madres 34, 1200-109 Lisbon
Polvo assado com batata doce | roasted octopus with sweet potatoes
This dish takes us to the south of Portugal, particularly to the coastal Algarve region, where roasted octopus is traditionally served with sweet potatoes. Down south, this dish may come under the name polvo à Algarvia, that is Algarve style octopus, and it is the most typical recipe of the town of Castro Marim. Even though white potatoes are the staple all across Portugal, in the Algarve sweet potatoes are very used for side dishes. The production of these tubers of intense orange color is quite large in the region, namely around Aljezur, a town known as “Portugal’s sweet potato capital”. Polvo à Algarvia features oven roasted octopus (which, like just all other recipes we speak about here, has to be boiled in advance), marinated with white wine, bay leaf, garlic, onions, paprika and, sometimes, tomatoes. The savory meat of the octopus pairs beautifully with the smooth sweet potatoes, sometimes even presented as creamy mashed potatoes, creating a contrast on the palate that elevates each of the flavor profiles while still being able to combine them in perfect harmony. Apart from being roasted in the oven, a similar octopus dish can also be prepared inside a traditional cataplana vessel, which cooks ingredients with steam, and it would in that case be called cataplana de polvo. The Algarve is quite possibly the region of Portugal which most values octopus as one of its quintessential ingredients. As such, it makes perfect sense to try octopus cooked Algarve style!
Where to eat Algarve style octopus in Lisbon:
📍 Rua do Saco 52, 1150-284 Lisbon
Polvo guisado à moda dos Açores | Azores style octopus stew
Octopus stew is one of the essential recipes of traditional Azorean cooking, particularly in the islands of Terceira, São Miguel and Pico, where the dish may be referred to in Portuguese as polvo guisado or polvo estufado. Even though this is indeed a mouth-watering dish of octopus cooked with spices and red wine, for geographical reasons it is not very widespread all over mainland Portugal. To try it, you would have to visit a restaurant specializing in the cuisine from the archipelago of the Azores, such as the one we recommend below. Octopus in polvo guisado is seasoned with a bigger variety of spices as compared to most traditional octopus dishes, including allspice, paprika, garlic, bayleaf, and a local pepper paste known as pimenta da terra. The octopus meat is cooked until tender using vinho de cheiro, a typical home-made red wine produced in the Azores with Isabella type of grapes, which does not make it to the commercial circuit. Polvo estufado à moda dos Açores is traditionally served in a clay pot, with steamed white rice as a side dish.
Where to eat Azores style octopus stew in Lisbon:
📍 Largo da Boa-Hora à Ajuda 19, 1300-098 Lisbon
Polvo de escabeche | Madeira style octopus
From the archipelago of the Azores we head straight to the islands of Madeira, where they also have their local typical way of preparing octopus. Polvo de escabeche, that is octopus in escabeche sauce, is the most common way of preparing octopus in Madeira. More than an actual sauce, escabeche is a preservation and flavor enhancement method which was inherited by the Portuguese from the Moors, such as several of our other now typical dishes and cooking methods. Escabeche is a tangy vinegar concoction used to marinate perishables, particularly fish, thus affecting not only its flavor but also its tenderness. Escabeche is very popular not only in Portugal but also Spain, and it is even believed to be connected with Japanese nanban zuke, also known as Japanese escabeche, via Portuguese influence in Japan a few centuries ago. Polvo de escabeche is somehow similar to chilled octopus salad, but in this case the marinade is more vinegary and may also include white wine, being therefore sharper to the palate.
Where to eat Madeira style octopus stew in Lisbon:
We hope you feel up for an adventure, as to eat polvo de escabeche you may have to travel to Madeira itself! You can try other Madeira dishes in Lisbon at regional restaurants such O Madeirense (Amoreiras Shopping Center lj 3027, 1070-103 Lisbon) or Ilha da Madeira (Rua Campo de Ourique 33, 1250-059 Lisbon), but polvo em escabeche is a petisco you are most likely to come across in Madeira itself.
We hope your curious spirit drives you to order several octopus dishes while you travel around Portugal. We’d love to hear about your gastronomic explorations in our country – get in touch with us via Instagram and share your photos tagging @tasteoflisboa or #tasteoflisboa
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