When thinking about what to eat in Madeira the first thing that comes to mind is probably the famous Madeira banana and to drink the no less popular Poncha, but Madeira has so much more to offer.
Blessed with fertile soils and a mild climate, Madeira is rich in exotic fruits and sugar cane, not to mention abundant fresh fish from the Atlantic. So when you come to Madeira, in addition to the levadas, waterfalls, and wonderful views, you also have to explore its gastronomy and the various typical dishes.
In this article, we will examine the most typical Madeira dishes, the ingredients used, and the various traditions associated with them. Madeira has a favorable climate but it is also very mountainous. Life on the island and land exploration is rough and laborious. Being isolated in the middle of the ocean meant that Madeirans had to find ways to be self-sufficient which is also reflected in Madeiran cuisine.
What to eat in Madeira – Soups
Wheat Soup – Sopa de trigo
The Madeiran wheat soup is an authentic meal that feeds you all day long. It is a consistent soup, with a gummy texture and is very nutritious. It is closely associated with country life.
This soup has everything one deserves: salted pork or bacon, buckwheat, potatoes (called semilhas in Madeira), pumpkin, sweet potatoes, beans, cabbage, and turnips. As you can see, it’s a very complete dish that will satisfy your hunger.
It is not very easy to find this soup in restaurants. It is only found in a few specific places.
Tomato Soup and Poached Egg – Sopa de Tomate
The Madeira Tomato Soup is one of the most popular soups among Madeirans and tourists alike. This soup appears on the menu of almost every restaurant, especially in Funchal. It’s a soup that takes tomato and poached egg can only be good.
Great in summer or for a light meal, this soup has tomato, onion, garlic, and finally poached eggs. It is ideally accompanied by a slice of bread.
Chicken Soup – Canja de Galinha
We have included chicken soup in this list as it is part of a unique Christmas tradition, very different from mainland Portugal. On Christmas Eve after the Midnight Mass, in Madeira, it is traditional to eat chicken soup accompanied by a bolo do caco sandwich with chicken leftovers or meat in a garlic vine (see also below).
This soup takes the usual ingredients of chicken soup, chicken and offal (gizzards, neck, heart, paws, and liver), rice or pasta, onions, and sometimes can take turnips and carrots. It’s just comforting.
Typical Madeira dishes – Fish and seafood
The Madeira archipelago is the ideal place to eat fish or seafood. Surrounded by the sea, it is easy to find different types of fish. And really fresh ones. In addition to the high quality, it is relatively cheap, especially when compared to other European countries.
Grilled limpets – lapas grelhadas
Grilled limpets are one of Madeira’s most iconic and unique dishes. Cooked and seasoned in its shell, this bivalve mollusc is ideal as a starter or snack. It is made in a typical, round, low-walled skillet with a handle, made of iron. Grilled in the skillet with the skin facing down. They are seasoned only with butter and garlic and served in the pan while still warm. And accompanied by a few slices of lemon that are sprinkled on top.
Almost all the restaurants on the coast serve grilled limpets, but when the sea conditions are adverse you cannot catch it, as it is necessary to do it with low tide. So, it is likely that sometimes there are no limpets to eat.
Black scabbardfish – Espada
For many years it was thought that the black swordfish only existed in the ocean near Madeira, but its existence has been identified in several oceans. This predatory fish lives in the depths of the ocean, 600 to 1600 m deep. Fishing on the high seas required a very long line that had several hooks and the fish was pulled to the surface. Being a fish that exists in abundance in the Madeira archipelago, it has been fished a lot since 1839.
Black scabbardfish, scabbardfish, or Espada, as it is known in Madeira, is part of the staple diet of Madeirans, so there are many ways to cook it. The most common is simply breaded black swordfish fillets, with or without fried banana, and sometimes also with passion fruit. Two ingredients that also exist in large quantities in Madeira. Black scabbardfish in a loaf of bread is also very popular.
For all these reasons it is a must-eat dish when you come to Madeira.
The sea that surrounds the island of Madeira is rich in several species of tuna. Tuna fishing is one of the main economic activities in this region. Fishing takes place from April to October and it’s done in an artisanal way with a pole.
This traditional fishing consists of pulling the fish with a rod into the boat and catching each fish individually. It is a ecological form of fishing as it prevents fishing small tuna or capturing too many fish. Much of the tuna caught is exported, especially to Japan, as they love tuna.
Thus, tuna is one of Madeira’s main fish. Tuna steaks accompanied by sweet potatoes or fried corn are especially appreciated. Madeira tuna steaks are impressive – tasty and fresh. It’s probably one of the best destinations in the world for tuna steaks.
One of the most interesting things to do in Madeira is to go to Mercado dos Lavradores and enjoying the fruit and fish available. It’s fascinating to see the great tuna and tuna steaks for sale. They are huge.
Castanhetas are small/medium and found fish that exist in large numbers in the Sea of Madeira and Azores. They are served in restaurants as a starter and are fried accompanied by lemon.
It’s well worth a try for those who enjoy fresh fish and trying new things.
We had to include stuffed trout in this Madeiran cuisine list because we ate the best trout ever in Madeira. No exaggerations. It’s not that trout is the most famous fish on the island, but the stuffed trout we had at Casa de Pasto Justiniano was wonderful. This restaurant is located in Chão da Ribeira near Seixal. The trout comes from a trout pond which is closeby.
Note that in addition to Chão da Ribeira, there is also a restaurant that serves trout from the trout farms in Ribeiro Frio near Ribeiro Frio. We have never tried this one but we are told it is also very good.
Traditional Madeiran dishes – Meat
Skewers on laurel sticks
Skewers on laurel stocks (Espetadas em pau de loureiro) is the meat dish you have to try in Madeira. In addition to being really good, it is a memorable experience.
Espetada consists of pieces of good-quality beef cut into cubes, interspersed with bacon, and skewered in a laurel stick. The meat pieces are grilled over coals and served with fried corn, fries, and salad.
Formerly, it was a characteristic dish of festivals and pilgrimages, having originated in Câmara de Lobos. The laurel wood gives the meat a unique flavor. Nowadays they are served in restaurants, with many specialized restaurants in Câmara de Lobos.
Some no longer use the laurel stick but an iron and aluminum skewer. The stick is attached to a support in the ceiling, allowing people to take a piece of meat to their liking.
Prego in bolo do caco
Prego is a typical Portuguese dish that consists of a sandwich with beef tenderloin seasoned with mustard and meat frying sauce. In Madeira, the dish was perfected, and instead of using regular bread, it is used bolo do caco with butter and garlic.
Often, the prego in bolo de caco will also have fried egg and cheese and ham. It’s a great snack to eat on a terrace with a cool drink. Well, if the regular prego is already delicious, with bolo do caco it’s divine.
Meat in a garlic vine – Carne em vinha d’alhos
Meat in garlic vine, or carne em vinha d’alhos, is a traditional Madeiran dish at Christmas. On Christmas eve it is eaten in a bolo do caco sandwich with chicken soup, and on Christmas day it is served with fried corn or potato.
To make this dish, marinate the pork in white wine, vinegar, garlic, bay leaf, salt, pepper and savory. After 2 or 3 days, fry in lard. The dish is quite similar to the typical rojões from the Minho region in northern Portugal.
It is not easy to find this dish in restaurants or tourist areas.
What to Eat in Madeira – side dishes
Bolo do Caco with Butter and Garlic
Bolo do caco is a type of bread very appreciated in Madeira. You can find it all over the island served as an aperitif with butter, garlic, and parsley. Or in the form of sandwiches with cheese and eggs, or with pork steak (prego). It’s simply divine, and it’s a must to eat in Madeira.
Its name comes from the fact that it is round and flat, about 3 cm high. It is thought to have Arab influence. It is a bread with light dough and thin crust, a little leavened. Formerly it was cooked on a stone (caco) but nowadays it is cooked on a metal plate or frying pan. It is made with wheat flour but there are many recipes that use boiled sweet potatoes in addition to flour.
Served warm, with garlic butter and parsley, you won’t want to miss an opportunity to eat this delight.
Sweet Potato Bread
One of the most produced vegetables in Madeira is the sweet potato, which is exported to several European countries. Thus, it is no wonder that sweet potatoes are abundantly used in Madeiran cuisine.
There are several types of sweet potato, with white, yellow and orange flesh. All of them have a sweet taste and are great roasted or boiled. Plus, it can also be used to cook bread like bolo do caco and for fillings.
Sweet potatoes bread is delicious, it takes as much wheat flour as sweet potatoes. It is a light and fluffy bread that has pieces of sweet potato. But it doesn’t have an intense sweet potato flavor. Don’t miss the opportunity to try it when you go to Madeira.
Fried corn is one of the most frequent and exclusive side dishes in Madeira. It is quite addictive and very crispy. Ir is used to accompany both meat or fish, often appearing with a skewer on a bay leaf.
To make fried corn it is necessary to first make cornmeal porridge with water until it is cooked and dry. Allow it to cool and solidify on a tray. Cut into small cubes and then fry in hot oil. There are many recipes that also use finely chopped cabbage as for the caldo verde (a typical portuguese soup). But in restaurants they usually don’t use cabbage. Or at least we were never that lucky.
In the past, due to the lack of wheat, they ate a lot of maize porridge, but it is not so frequent these days.
Traditional Madeira Sweets
Bolo de Mel
Bolo de Mel is the most famous dessert in Madeira. This cake is closely associated with Christmas, as it used to be offered at Christmas. But nowadays it is available at any time of the year. Traditionally, the cake used to be made on the 8th of December, the day of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, and consumed at Christmas. This way the cake had time to absorb and refine all the flavors.
This cake is made with sugar cane honey (molasses), flour, Madeira wine, oranges, walnut, almond kernels and various spices such as cinnamon, cloves, star anise, fennel and nutmeg. Bolo de Mel has a dark color that almost looks like cocoa, but it’s not. It gets dark because of the sugar cane honey. Besides being delicious, the cake has another advantage, it is preserved for a year, which makes it an excellent souvenir of Madeira.
In Madeira there are several sweets that use cane honey. This tradition goes back to the fact that the island was a major sugarcane honey producer, since the 15th century, supplying the continent and Europe with sugar, which potentiated the creation of delicious convent sweets. Today, Madeira’s sugar cane is used mainly for the production of cane honey and cane brandy.
A peculiar curiosity of this cake is that tradition dictates that the cake is not cut with a knife but by hand, with pieces being removed by hand.
Family Cake – Bolo da Família
The Family Cake is similar to the Madeira Honey Cake, but with some key differences. This is the typical cake made by grandma at home for family gatherings. And although it has almost the same ingredients as the famous sugarcane honey cake, such as port wine, raisins, nuts, and of course sugarcane honey, the family cake is softer and less dense. It doesn’t have the Honey Cake spices, like cloves, star anise and nutmeg and it’s not made with baker’s yeast.
This cake is not so famous and is usually not for sale in the most touristy places as it is a more homemade cake. We found them for sale at the Santo da Serra Market, a local market that takes place on Sunday morning in Santo da Serra. It is a delicious, moist and light cake that ages very well.
Note: if you have the opportunity, visit the Santo da Serra Market, it is a very different experience from going to the Lavradores market.
Broas de Mel
Broas de Mel are another variant of a sweet that uses sugarcane honey, they are a kind of biscuit and they are also very traditional at Christmas. But, you can find them at any time of the year and they are very famous.
They are made with the normal ingredients used to make cookies but they also contain sugarcane honey, cinnamon and lemon zest. They usually accompany Madeira liqueurs.
Queijadas of Machico
Each region of Portugal has a version of a Queijadas-style cake, and Madeira is no exception. It is believed that the Madeira Queijadas had a conventual origin, in the Convento da Encarnação, in Funchal. But, nowadays the most prestigious Queijadas come from Machico.
The Queijadas of Machico have a flattened and rounded shape, made with thin dough and filled with goat’s milk cheese, sugar, eggs and flour. They are covered all around with the dough and brought to the boil. They are quite different from the also famous Queijadas de Sintra. But they are delicious.
Malassadas is a Typical Carnival sweet from Madeira. They are consumed, especially on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday – the first day of lent. They are balls of dough made with flour, eggs, milk, sugar and baker’s yeast. They are fried in oil and accompanied with cane honey. They look like small, round donuts, or the traditional sonhos de natal.
There are also malassadas in the Azores which are very similar to the ones from Madeira. They are made with the same dough but have a cylindrical shape with a concavity in the middle. And they’re coated with granulated sugar and cinnamon instead of cane honey.
There are also the malasadas in Hawaii, which were taken by immigrants from the Azores, also becoming a tradition in the American state. There is even the “Malassada Day”, at Mardi Gras. There are several bakeries in the Hawaiian Islands that specialize in malassadas.
Passion fruit pudding
Passion fruit pudding is a Madeiran dessert that appears on the menu of almost every restaurant. And it’s well worth a try because it’s delicious. This dessert is not really a pudding (at least it is not similar the portuguese pudding) but a mousse, made with the common ingredients of mousses, such as cream, condensed milk, gelatine leaves and in this case a lot of passion fruit pulp.
Passion fruit is a popular fruit in Madeira and is abundant in spring and summer. Despite being a temperamental fruit – it does not grow easily in any terrain – it adapts well in Madeira. The most common passion fruit in Madeira is the purple passion fruit, but there are other variants such as banana passion fruit, pineapple passion fruit, and lemon passion fruit. In addition to being used to make passion fruit pudding, it is also used to make juices and the famous Poncha.
Typical Madeira exotic fruit
Madeira has a subtropical climate and a fertile soil that is ideal for the production of a variety of exotic fruits, giving rise to a huge variety of delicious exotic fruit. The best known fruits of Madeira are:
- Madeira banana – smaller than the South American bananas, but it is very sweet. It takes 12 to 14 months for it to grow and mature. There are also varieties of silver banana and banana apple.
- Anona – a fruit with a very sweet white pulp and plenty of seeds, it is very nutritious and tasty.
- Avocado – world-renowned and used in all possible ways, Madeira is a great producer of this appetizing fruit.
- Passion fruit – one of most popular fruits in Madeira. Used in several dishes, there are several varieties of passion fruit in the island.
- Pitanga – a small, sweet and acid fruit with an orange and red color. It is a very delicate fruit and it treads easily.
- Papaya – produced in the south of the island and ripe in summer.
- Adam rib or Monstera deliciosa – is the strangest and rarest fruit on this list. It is a fruit with very sweet white seeds but it can also chop a little.
Bonus – What to drink in Madeira? Poncha
Poncha is a spirit drink much appreciated by Madeirans and the rest of the world. It is made with Madeira rum (produced from the distillation of sugar cane – it can also be called brandy) to which orange, tangerine, passion fruit, or lemon juice is added (it is inconclusive which is more traditional) and bee honey. Everything is mixed with a typical stick called “caralhinho”.
There is also the fisherman’s poncha, which instead of taking honey, takes sugar and is made with lemon. And as the expression goes: “Drink a Poncha and it will go away!!”