Portuguese Christmas recipes

This year we spent Christmas in "lockdown" and we tried to make ourselves our full traditional Portuguese Christmas recipes from scratch -- while not being in Portugal. Herein lies the first issue: there are many different "traditions", but these are the ones that me and my partner are used to.

Traditionally, Christmas celebrations in Portugal start on the night of Christmas eve and carry on during Christmas day. The main meals are then dinner on the 24th December and lunch on the 25th December.

Christmas eve dinner

As mentioned, we will follow two separate traditions. From my family's side, originally from the north of Portugal (Porto), we typically have boiled salted cod with vegetables (cabbage, onion and carrots), seasoned with olive oil, vinegar and garlic. From my partner's side, the meal typically consists of octopus rice, accompanied with salted cod fishcakes ("bolinhos de bacalhau") and pan-fried octopus ("filetes de polvo").

Salted cod

Salted cod is a staple from Portuguese cuisine, with possible origins in the cod salt-curing methods of Basque fishermen that ventured into Newfoundland in the 1500s1. Going through the centuries, even as recently as 1884, Portuguese writer Eça de Queiroz wrote in a letter to Oliveira Martins about his love of a "bacalhau de cebolada"2.

The salted cod needs to be soaked in water for at least four days to remove the excess salt (picture above, on the left).

It's a really simple dish: just put everything on a pot and let it boil for approximately one hour. Since the salted cod has a really firm fleshy texture, it won't fall apart like fresh fish when boiled for a long time. Usually there's no need to add salt, since the cod will probably still have quite a lot of salt in it, but it never hurts to double check.

We will cook around two to three times the amount of cod and vegetables that we need for the actual meal. The reason for this is that the starter for the next day (Portuguese Christmas recipes) is made from the left-overs of the Christmas eve's dinner. So essentially, we have to make sure we have plenty of left-overs!

And here it is: ready to tuck in. As you can see, I like my salted cod with a very generous amount of olive oil and vinegar.

Octopus rice

Octopus is another northern Portuguese tradition, especially in the Minho and Trás-os-Montes, possibly due to the proximity with Galiza (Galicia) where octopus fishing has been historically a very important activity.

Next it's the octopus rice. Boil the octopus with just some salt for seasoning. Knowing when the octopus is ready is really an art. Make sure its not undercooked, but don't overcook it either since it will be quite chewy. Brown chopped onions in olive oil and add the water from boiling the octopus along with rice, the octopus and chopped parsley. The rice should have a fair amount of water and not end up dry.

Part of the octopus goes into the rice and the rest is pan-fried ("filetes de polvo"). They are battered, with eggs and flour, and deep-fried.

We then proceed to the cod fishcakes ("bolinhos de bacalhau"). These are done by shredding some salted code and mixing it with mashed potato, salt and parsley and then deep-fried.

Christmas day lunch

Roupa-velha

The reason why we cook way more quantities than we need for the salted cod, is to make something called "roupa-velha" (literal translation "old clothes") as a starter on the 25th. This a left-over dish and we use all the left-overs from the Christmas Eve dinner.

Start by shredding the cooked salted cod and removing all the fish bones and skin.

We then add a good amount of garlic (two or three cloves at least), and prepare a pan with some olive oil. We put first the garlic and let it brown.

When the garlic is brown we add all the left-overs (potato, sliced egg, carrot, cabbage and shredded code). We stir it for at least 15 minutes and add vinegar. Lots of vinegar.

And here it is. Must be eaten while pipping hot.

Lamb roast

Usually on the 25th of December we eat a roast (turkey, lamb, goat or pork). We went for a lamb roast. It was seasoned with lemon, rosemary, garlic, paprika, olive oil and salt for four days.

It is accompanied by roast potatoes and carrots and (optionally) some white rice.

And here it is!

Desserts

Aletria and arroz doce

Aletria is a typical Christmas dessert which is quite similar to rice pudding in taste, but instead of rice, it is done with vermicelli pasta.

The preparation is quite similar to rice pudding, but adding some lemon peels to the milk mix.

A cinnamon decoration is a must, here shown with a festive "Feliz Natal" (Merry Christmas).

"Arroz doce" (literal translation Sweet Rice) is very similar to rice pudding, also with the addition of some lemon.

Filhós

Filhós are a type of slightly sweet doughy pancake, usually sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, traditional during Christmas. These are specific type of filhó called "Filhó tendida no joelho", traditional from the Beiras Portuguese region, where the dough is stretched on top of the knee.

The dough has to be proven at a certain temperature. Here is the contraption we've used: a heating fan, heater and an Hibernate (!) book.

The dough must be proved (in our case at least 10 hours) so it can be stretched and fried lightly in olive oil on both sides. After draining any excess oil, they are sprinkled with a sugar and cinnamon mix.

Rabanadas

"Rabanadas" are in essence very similar to "French toast". The way to prepare them is to leave dried bread soaking in milk and drained before deep-frying. After draining, until they are mostly dry and without much excess oil, they are sprinkled (generously) with a mixture of sugar and cinnamon.


  1. Silva, António José Marques da (2015), "The fable of the cod and the promised sea: About Portuguese traditions of bacalhau", in Barata, Filipe Themudo; Rocha, João Magalhães (eds.), Heritages and Memories from the Sea, Évora, Portugal: 1st International Conference of the UNESCO Chair in Intangible Heritage and Traditional Know-How: Linking Heritage 

  2. "A comida como hábito e identidade: o bacalhau e os portugueses", (ISCTE-IUL, Departamento de Antropologia, Escola de Ciências Humanas e Sociais), em 28 de fevereiro de 2013