Some foods are hard to find in Portugal. Blinding newsflash: That’s because it’s a different country with its own culture and its own products.
Fair Warning: The bagels from the Costco in Seville are basically bread in the shape of bagels. #disappointed
You might be surprised at the things you can find here. Oreo cookies and Ruffles potato chips are ubiquitous. Ben and Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs are in just about every market—but the flavors are different—definitely more fruit and caramel options. I have yet to find coffee ice cream but I have found coffee gelato. It works for me.
Facebook expat groups are a great place to find help and get referrals, especially when you first arrive and everything is new and confusing. The question of where to find specific foods comes up on such a regular basis that the normally patient and helpful moderators type in the polite equivalent of “Google it.” That comment is often followed by people piling on with “If you want US food, go back to the US” and “You can find that at [name of store] in [name of city].” Facebook groups are a mixed bag.
Moving to a new country is stressful and it’s normal to crave comfort foods. So what’s hard to find?
This seems to be the big one. I’m not a huge ranch dressing fan but apparently it’s a staple for most Americans. I’ve used it for dipping hot wings so I like it, but it’s not something I crave or miss.
Salad dressings in general are hard to find. I’m used to a wall of salad dressings in US supermarkets with a wide variety of flavors. I lean towards creamy dressings because, well, I’m a three year old child when it comes to most foods. In the US, salad was something I picked at while waiting for the real food. I look at lettuce as a dressing delivery system and oil and vinegar don’t cut it. Most of the available dressings are vinaigrette-based. Can you find ranch dressing in Portugal? Probably, especially in the larger cities. A quick check of Amazon Spain shows options for Hidden Valley Ranch delivered to your door in a few days for around €8 to €10 a bottle. A six-pack of Ken’s Honey Mustard for €45 caught my eye, too. I’ve found an equivalent creamy honey mustard at the local market for about the same price as in the States. Maybe less. Paying €10 a bottle for ranch or €7.50 a bottle for Ken’s is not going to happen anytime soon at Casa Grassey.
If you don’t want to pay huge amounts for your ranch dressing fix, you can make it in five to ten minutes. It will taste better and be healthier than the bottled stuff. I’m not a cook (why do I hear the knowing laughter of every ex-boyfriend?) but even I can make the stuff. And when you’ve made something once, the second time is even easier and after that it’s old hat—just something you do.
Mac n’ Cheese
I get it—there are certain comfort foods I miss, too. More than that, there are certain convenience foods I miss. I love boxed mac n’cheese. The really crappy kind with the powdered “cheese product” that is all chemicals. (See eating habits of three year old child, above.) I have found boxed mac n’cheese at the Costco in Seville and at a supermarket in Olhão (at double the US price and a thirty minute train ride away). I also love homemade mac n’cheese and I understand it’s probably not that hard to make. But you know what? I’ve never made it. You know what else? I will probably learn to make it in the next few months. I’ll end up with something less convenient, but slightly healthier and much better tasting. I’m just putting off grating all that cheese.
Where’s the Bacon?
Bacon is different here. For starters, it’s cut a lot thinner. It’s also just not as prevalent as other meats (and I suspect fish is more popular than meat here).
I am a crispy bacon girl and the Portuguese think it is a sin to serve bacon anywhere close to the charred mess I prefer. Most of the time, when bacon appears on your plate or on your burger, it will look half done and limp. I have learned to ask for well-done bacon in restaurants, but because it starts so thin, if they cooked it super-crisp, it would pretty much disappear. I am good with it just being close to crisp.
My limited access to bacon is probably good for me. And truly, if I wanted bacon every day of the week, I could have it. It’s not that hard to find. The thin cut variety is in every grocery store. Thick cut bacon is a bit harder to find, but not impossible.
Your Favorite Coffee or Tea
Of course there are different brands here. From what I’ve seen in the grocery stores, it seems that most people use coffee pods and there’s a wide variety of coffees available in pods, including Starbucks. You can, from time to time, find Starbucks beans or ground coffee, too. I am not a Starbucks fan and I have not yet succumbed to the pod-people. The vast majority of coffee sold and served here is robusta bean. It has a whole different taste and if you’re not used to it, you’ll miss your favorite blend. Kind friends have both shipped and brought me my Peet’s coffee and I have felt like Dorothy staring at the red sand in the hourglass as my supply has run out. But… Amazon Spain to the rescue. I found some Arabica coffee at a reasonable price that comes in canisters. So, now I have fairly good coffee AND a canister set!
I grew up on Tetley tea and it is widely available here in a variety of flavors. I get the té negro aka English Breakfast. It’s a slightly different flavor from the plain black Tetley I grew up on, but close enough. If you’re into herbal teas or medicinal teas, there are plenty of shops for that as well as online sources.
I swear, there is a conspiracy afoot in Portugal to keep us healthy. Baked goods are different here. I live next door to a bakery and most days my major purchase is a croissant. (I also get a weekly loaf of fresh bread that is OMG so good.) They have delicious pastries (including the national treasure, pastel de nata), but most are not to my taste. They are big on fruit and use a lot less sugar in their baked goods. (I do not consider fruit a dessert.) Now, I enjoy a pastel de nata from time to time, but I grew up in a Hostess Bakery town. I am a chemical kid.
You will not find buttercream frosting here. I love the type of buttercream frosting where you can feel the sugar granules creating cavities as you eat. I may not be able to cook, but I sure as hell can whip up a batch of buttercream frosting!
In addition, pastries are not super-sized. Muffins are not these huge, 500+ calorie monstrosities like those served up in the States. Cookies are… small? How about normal sized? And not 400 calories a pop. Do I miss fresh chocolate chip cookies? Yes. (You can get a fantastic chocolate chip cookie fix at Time Out in Lisbon if you’re really jonesing.) Can I make chocolate chip cookies? Yes, though chocolate chips are not as easy to find here as in the States. You might have to go to a couple of stores to find them. The same with confectioner’s sugar. And yes, you can make confectioner’s sugar. Who knew?
The Portuguese love their desserts and they make wonderful confections. They just haven’t been dosed with massive amounts of sugar all their lives. What is normal for us would be way too sweet for them. The American tolerance for sugar is not normal. The great thing is that the less sugar you eat, the less you crave it. Breaking my sugar addiction is hard, no lie. But it’s a lot easier when tempting treats aren’t in front of my face all the time. From time to time I will whip up a batch of brownies or cupcakes. I’m not a monk. But I am eating fewer chemically laden sugar bombs. I am not sure how I feel about that.
Portugal is Yogurt Heaven
Yogurt is not my thing. Yeah, from time to time, when I was trying to diet or be healthy, I would buy the sugar-laden yogurt at the store, eat a couple and end up throwing out the rest. If you like yogurt, Portugal is your place. There is a wall of yogurt in every grocery. All kinds of yogurt, including liquid yogurt (I don’t even wanna know). Greek yogurt, regular yogurt, yogurts of every flavor, consistency, whatever. In a year of living here, I have yet to buy yogurt. I suspect it is healthier than the stuff offered in the US, and will not taste as good to me. The stuff in the US didn’t taste that good to me. But I’m not exaggerating when I say Portuguese stores offer a wider variety of yogurt choices than just about any other food item.
Sometimes You Just Have to Know Where to Look
One reason new-to-the-country people can’t find their go-to foods here is that they are sometimes packaged differently. Hot dogs come in glass jars and are not refrigerated. Eggs aren’t refrigerated either. Baking soda comes in a spice packet. Canned soups are not a thing.
The biggest difference is size. The US serves up everything in jumbo sizes. As a single person, it was frustrating to pay a higher price per ounce for a smaller size. In Europe, things naturally come in smaller sizes. Refrigerators, for the most part, are smaller. There’s not a ton of space (or a whole extra pantry) for food storage. Containers may be shaped differently or smaller. I couldn’t find sour cream and thought it just wasn’t a “thing” here. It turns out that it is sold in smaller quantities—about ¾ of a cup as opposed to two cup tubs. I was looking for one shape and it comes in a different, smaller shape. (And yes, you can make it easily. Are you sensing a theme?)
Eventually, you figure out where to find the item, find a “good enough” or better substitute, or you gradually allow it to ease out of your life. You sometimes have to go to several different stores to get everything you want. The stores in my village don’t carry whole milk or fresh cream. I have to go to a certain store in Tavira for that. I go to another store for baking chocolate. If I’m really, truly craving a Dunkin Donut, there’s a place at the mall that makes a perfect glazed donut. And if I walk another thirty feet, I can get actual boxed Dunkie Donuts, but not my favorite kind. (Did I mention they are really big on caramel here?)
I try to buy as much as I can locally. When I can’t find it, I’ll turn to Amazon Spain. Sometimes it works, sometimes I go without. But the truth is you can find just about everything you need and for the most part, the stuff I can’t find isn’t all that good for me anyway. I’ve also discovered that I can easily make some foods that I have always bought prepared. Fresh ingredients, no chemicals, and minimal time involved, which is important to me. It turns out, Portugal is, in its own way, conspiring to get me healthy. I’m good with that.