A Lisbon Welcome


In the throes of speechwriting for next week’s World Food Tourism Summit, I realize quite suddenly that I am starving. It’s a beautiful sunny day, so I leave my notes on the table and wander around the corner, down the cobbled alleyway and its yellow, faded buildings, past the neighbour who stands at her window, watching everything. I walk and I walk, waiting for my sense of smell to dictate where I ought to eat.

I come upon a small, family run restaurant with no name. Inside there are half a dozen old men wearing felt fedoras or newsboy caps. Their faces are deeply lined, eyes crinkled from too much smiling. Cautiously, I walk in and lean over someone’s table to look at the menu, which is predictably in Portuguese.

With French and Spanish in my arsenal I’ve been able to get by, but not without embarrassment. Like Greece, people seem to assume that I am Portuguese, which makes two countries where I seem to fit in within Europe. Many of the women here are of short stature, joking to me that I will feel at home. When I inquired about my apartment, my landlady enthusiastically replied “I too am small and love soup!” A match made in heaven.

Bracing myself for miscommunication, I stammer a question about the plate of the day, since the menu indicates that it is available in half portion. The lady of the house is confused. When I’m nervous about offending someone with language, my voice softens and becomes almost inaudible. One of the grandpas bellows “metade porção!”  to compensate, letting her know that I wanted the half plate. At least someone understood me, even if he’s staring at me suspiciously from his position under the menu.

It’s a grilled pork chop, and it comes with fried potatoes. Since I am new to Portugal I don’t yet know if the fries are safe for celiacs, as my limited communication skills do not yet include “so how contaminated is your oil, exactly?” Instead, I ask the woman of the house for salad with my half-portion. “Sem batatas?” she repeats, incredulously. I nod my head. “Yes yes, no potatoes. Just salad and pork, half portion please.” She gives me a lingering side eye and then spins on her heel and huffs into the kitchen.

Her husband cooks in the kitchen, shooting me bemused glances. When the meal comes out, the half portion is enormous. Three large pork chops smothered in garlic, and a giant salad on a separate plate. Dubious, I ask if this massive plate is truly the half portion. Laughing she says it is.

At this point all of the old men in the joint are turned around and watching me, yelling out that I am teeny now but I will have to eat more than I am used to here in Portugal. “Cuidado,” they say, watch out — your waistline will improve.

Blushing, I dig into my lunch under the gaze of the entire restaurant.

I make it through one of the pork chops, and the salad. The rest, there is just no way. I’m used to many small meals, an ideal for Saigon’s streets — not the norm here, I know. Long ago I trained myself to stop eating when I am feeling full, and I felt full.

I timidly walk up the counter, brandishing my plate. Can I take it to go, I ask? Faux pas. She looks at me, eyes wide. She looks over at all the old men. In unison, they all crack up. One of the men comes over, leaning heavily on his cane.

“Where are you from?” he demands.

Montreal,” I reply, “but not for some time.”

He wants to know why I can’t eat more. “You are elegant,” he tells me, “but you need more food.” Smiling I reply that when I am full, I stop eating.

“Practice harder,” he tells me. “You can eat more.”

After fumbling around in the kitchen, the lady of the house emerges with a tiny plastic container, shaking her head at my ineptness. I put the remnants of my pork chops inside of it, face burning. I try to explain to my audience that I’m here for a month, and that I live nearby.

“Come back,” she says, “but bring someone with you. So you can actually eat the rest of your meal.”

Everyone laughs.

I’m offered mint chocolate candies, which at first they take away thinking I am on a diet. I try to explain it’s not a diet, it’s just the size of my stomach. No one seems to understand. Hopefully when I return later in the month I will have a better grasp of Portuguese and can be a bit more communicative.

I wish everyone a great afternoon, and then wander home to put the pork chops in my fridge.

Hours later, profoundly lost in a separate part of town, I see someone walking up the stairs toward me. It’s the old man who told me to try harder and eat more. His eyes must be weak with age, because it isn’t until we are almost face-to-face that he realizes who I am. Shocked, he inhales sharply and then throws his head back and cackles loudly. Patting me on the arm he says, “boa tarde e boa sorte“. Good afternoon and good luck.

I might need it to eat here.

First afternoon on my own in town and it is already extremely entertaining. I’m really excited to get to know Lisbon better in the coming weeks.

* * *

And finally, my Portuguese food maps are complete and in the shop!

Hand-drawn map featuring all the delicious Portuguese foods you love, placed around the shape of the country itself. Check it out here! While a bit more complicated than my map for Vietnam, we did include the Azores and Madeira on the maps. I am currently using the tote bag for my food shopping.

food map portugal
Sometimes I want to eat my food maps because I’m just so happy with how they turned out! <3

I hope everyone has had a good long weekend. Happy Easter, or Chag Sameach, as the case may be.



38 thoughts on “A Lisbon Welcome”

  1. That story made me smile. Reminds me of my visit to Lisbon last November. All the food was delicious but, yes, everything came inn super-sized portions! I adore the seafood there. If you like seafood you have to try Cervejaria Ramiro. It’s a popular place, tourists and locals, because the food their is incredible.

  2. Louise Choquette

    I’m moving to Lisbon where it is acceptable, even praised, to eat and be voluptuous. Adding it to my travel bucket list :)

  3. Yap that’s portugal indeed. Everyone loves to eat and the older generations love eating until they can’t stand anymore. I always struggle with my grandparents and food when I stop eating as I had enough. For me but not for them. In their minds there’s always space for more and they get really happy knowing that someone had an amazing meal at their place

    1. Yes, I think it is the same for many cultures! :) What surprised me here was that the restaurant portions were enormous as well, and of course that attitude might play out in them. Hah. A nice welcome for me.

  4. Oh man, I can never finish a meal but now I’ll try my best to when I go to Lisbon this summer! I loved the story btw!

  5. They have large appetites in Portugal for sure! We went to a small family run Restaurant with Portuguese friends and they ordered a massive selection of dishes that were laid out in front of us, I don’t think I have eaten so much in my life. We grazed for hours and they kept encouraging me to eat more. What a wonderful night

  6. I laughed aloud when reading this post and then began to read it aloud to my husband. I was brought up in a Greek-American family and our get-togethers consisted of food, food, and more food. I learned to pace myself and to eat (with a capital E). Even still, I get defeated by food- particularly during Chinese holidays when I used to live in Kunming.

    1. Thanks Elizabeth! Definitely part of the fun to try and unravel the fun cultural quirks surrounding food in a new place. My family serves big portions too, but nothing like this. :)

  7. I think that the “half portion” you had is what we call “meia dose” the name is a bit misleading because that’s usually a portion for one person, and in most places it will be a lot of food.

    Here the fried potatoes are usually done with potato, vegetable oil and salt and nothing else, hope this helps.

    “Boa sorte” in your food adventures here in Lisbon.

    PS: We have a lot of different soups, but unless it’s something like “Caldo verde”, and despite they are probably different every day, most of the times the menu will only tell you that it’s “vegetable soup” :)

    1. Thank you Pedro! My concern with the soup is that oftentimes (I was told) it has flour in it, unless cooked at home. That restaurants will use flour to thicken it quickly, in lieu of letting it reduce slowly.

      The fried potatoes don’t have wheat in them elsewhere but my problem is if someone fries potatoes in the same oil as they use for anything that is breaded. However in my brief time here I don’t see many breaded things fried (croquettes, breaded meat, etc) at the tavernas so perhaps they are safe! Good for me, bad for my waistline.

      Good to know about the meia dose – It was only 4 euros but ENORMOUS. I think it was definitely meant for one but in my case perhaps 4 Jodis ;)

      Thanks so much for your input!

  8. Old people are always the most fun everywhere in the world aren’t they? Looking forward to more of your Portuguese exploration :)

  9. I just found your blog through another Blogger from Perth who had shared your previous post. Wow, what an amazing life you lead, I wish I was that brave! I’m Portuguese but live in Australia, and just returned two weeks ago from visiting family in Amsterdam and Lisbon. Portugal has amazing food, specially fresh fish. The food is what I most miss about Portugal in Australia. Enjoy!

  10. It’s always an adventure trying to order when you don’t have a grasp of the language. Makes it a joy yet obviously for health reasons you have to be cautious. Good way to paint the picture for us.

  11. I really enjoy your blog. I will be going to Italy in September and I think I will have the same problem. I too am small, eat little and with multiple food allergies but would not give it up for anything! I will be going on my own and the surprise of friends, family and colleagues is intense. You (along with a friend or two) show that I can do it on my own, thank you.

  12. Beautiful post about your lunch adventure, Jodi! You are a marvelous storyteller. I only visited Lisboa once, almost a decade ago, but still have dreams sometimes about the main avenue that leads to the big statue and the sea.

    Even though I am gainfully employed I was tempted to apply for your job posting! I’m sure whomever you choose will be wonderful and very excited to be given the opportunity.

    (This is the Berlin-Ramadan Dinner-Thai Park-Sophia by the way :) )

  13. I just smiled through all your post. I am also from Montreal but my dad is Portuguese. Since my teens, I have spent a lot of vacation in Portugal and have been exactly through the same story. If you don’t eat all your plate it’s because you are on a diet. And then even if you can’t eat another bite, they’ll convince you to order desert. A “pasteis de nata” or “pudim flan” won’t kill anyone… But at the end of the meal, you just feel like exploding!

  14. thanks for the forewarning on the size of the meals. :) the boyfriend and i were recently in belgium. the portions were larger than what we were used to, and i am definitely one who stops eating once full, so we learned to look around and scope out the dishes around us before committing to ordering one or two dishes between the two of us. :P

  15. Hi Jodi
    I should say that I had quite a laugh out there. Most of the miscommunication comedies happen when you don’t know the language and that’s actually funny to be a part of. Well written and the incident is flavored with more simplicity. Wishing you loads of luck and adventure, as you stride down the bricked- streets of Lisbon.

  16. Thanks for sharing your experience in such a funny post! I loved Lisbon and ate way to much! It’s not really expensive either :)

  17. Love this post Jodi!!! Definitely want to visit Lisbon soon and this makes me want to go even sooner lol. xx

  18. I found this post while looking for inspiration on where to eat in Lisbon (we are going there next week) and really enjoyed reading it: for how you recount the atmosphere in the restaurant, but also because you say people assume you are Portuguese – that happens to me too in Spain, Portugal and Greece (I am Italian). Locals give a quick glance at my Irish husband presuming attempting communication is pointless and proceed to talk to me as if I was mother tongue…to quickly discover it is totally pointless too! So yes, your post gave me a giggle and thought I’d stop by to thank you for it :-)

  19. Lovely post! I read this after coming back from Lisbon last summer. Such a beautiful city and GREAT food on every corner. I’ve recommended it to so many of my friends and would love to go back one day.

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