Eating sardines in Lisbon is not as easy as it seems! Here’s why…
I look down at the three eyeballs staring blankly back at me. I then glance back up at my server, a graying and busy-looking man who – while not unfriendly – hasn’t smiled much in our few minutes of interaction. He’d just delivered my Lisbon food to my table.
I smile widely to show my thanks and try to remember how to say thanks in Portuguese. “Afagato!” I say proudly.
He gives a brief murmur of a grunt (he doesn’t speak any English) and then turns to walk back inside to the kitchen and small interior of the restaurant, leaving me alone with my three staring sardines.
Before examining my Lisbon food more, I quickly and as surreptitiously as possible peek into my guidebook at the language section. Thank you = Obrigado. Great. I cringe before chuckling at myself and my failed attempt at not speaking English and wonder if the server was grunting thanks as I originally thought or trying to tell me I was talking nonsense.
When deciding on a restaurant to eat at during my one day in Lisbon, I had three criteria:
1) Sardines on the menu. I had heard they are a specialty of Lisbon food.
2) Outdoor seating. It was a gorgeous, sunny day, plus it was better for people watching and experiencing the ambiance of Lisbon.
3) Outdoor grill. I had noticed these rickety grills outside quite a few restaurants while wandering around Alfama and decided I couldn’t get any more authentic Lisbon sardines than ones that were cooked on an open grill.
The eatery I ended up finding was perfect and didn’t appear to be full of tourists so I sat down and examined the menu of Lisbon food, which was of course all in Portuguese. Definitely a good sign. (English Menu + Tourists = Subpar Food. This is the case even in Italy, land of amazing comfort food). One problem of a non-English menu is that I can’t understand any other languages, one of my less fine traits. Luckily, sardines translates easily and I recognized vino blanco so ordered that as well. I personally think it’s a crime to be in Europe and not order wine with your meal. There’s just something so… romantic about it.
Even if eating by myself.
Prior to my main course arriving, I was served an appetizer of bread with a sardine spread. I was going to be on sardine overload by the time I Ieft this place. Speaking of which…
Back to the eerily intact sardines staring at me. Now, I have eaten whole fish before so getting over the head and eyeballs being attached to the body wasn’t the problem here. What was the problem was that I had no idea how to eat these. These sardines were HUGE! Relatively speaking anyway. I was expecting them to be the size of canned sardines – these were those multiplied by ten. Last time I had been presented with a whole fish was in Croatia and the son of the family whose agriturismo I was staying at expertly and in a manner of seconds had separated the fish into one neat pile of meat with a side of bones and the egg case in case I was brave enough to try some really weird looking caviar. (I was. I did. It was…interesting.)
Since I don’t have any one to help me this time around, I take a deep breath, pick up my knife and fork and gingerly poke the fish apart.
And it’s not going well.
The bones are stuck in the meat. Seriously stuck. How on earth do people eat these things?
My first bite is full of bones. For half a second I think maybe I’m supposed to eat the bones. Er…no. I cautiously pull them out of my mouth and am glad I have a perimeter table and am not facing any of the other restaurant dwellers trying to enjoy their Lisbon food – who probably know how to go about eating it. I switch back to the tactic of trying to get the bones out before putting the bite into my mouth. Which results in a mess on my plate. I look like I killed the fish. Which is a hard feat to accomplish considering it’s already dead.
The server passes by my table and I don’t think it’s my imagination that he gives my plate a funny look. I give up on the first fish and move onto the next. I attack it from the side and things go a bit better. I’m able to take my first bite I can actually enjoy without worrying I’m going to choke on a small sardine bone.
I’m impressed. The sardines taste amazing.
Considering I’m not a huge fan of canned sardines, I didn’t think I’d like this, but it tastes salty and fresh and crispy all at the same time with a hint of the grill. The fact that I actually really like the taste of the fish makes me wish I wasn’t such a dunce at actually eating it so I could enjoy more of it. I eventually give up and move onto the potatoes they came with. Just like the fish, they’re grilled to perfection and even have a couple bits of tinfoil still stuck to them. They taste slightly salty and I wonder if they were grilled alongside the fish.
If sardines aren’t your cup of tea, here is an article featuring eight other traditional Portuguese dishes to try in Portugal and a fun article about learning to make Portuguese tarts during your time in Lisbon.
I glance at my watch. 30 minutes until I need to leave to make sure I make it to the airport on time. I was in Lisbon on an eight hour layover from the states to Barcelona. It typically takes forever to get a check in Europe, but 30 minutes should be plenty of time.
I catch the server’s eye. “A conta se faz favor,” I say, asking for the check. And yes, I confess I looked it up in my guidebook right beforehand.
He nods. I think, anyway.
15 minutes pass…
20 minutes pass…
Darn, I even asked for it in the correct language! Of course – there’s a small chance I managed to mispronounce it like I did with “thank you” and I actually told him I was in no hurry and please, is it alright if I sit here all day?
I know I could just put down a 20 euro note and leave as it should easily cover everything, but I don’t want to risk somehow looking like I dined and ditched and consequentially arrested. I need to get to Barcelona after all!
Just as I begin calculating the odds of getting arrested, the check arrives briskly in front of me. I happily pay (only 10 Euros – with tip!) and make it to the bus with minutes to spare.
And use that time to buy a bottle of water. Apparently I could figure out how to order wine, but not water during my meal. With a full (enough) stomach and my thirst now quenched, I head to Barcelona and hope I get back to Lisbon – and delicious Lisbon food – soon.
This time with someone who knows how to eat grilled sardines.
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