In Search of Caracois: The Summer Dish of Lisbon

Searching for Portugal's Caracois Snails

Ah, the seemingly allusive caracois! Summer in Lisbon isn’t the same without them… or so I’d read. I had been ticking off all of the must-try foods on my trip to Lisbon, enthusiastically munching my way through notable and neighborhood bakeries that sold the iconic pastéis de nata, or Portuguese custard tarts. But when it came to caracóis, the summer snail dish of Lisbon, I couldn’t find the item on any menu. I’d read blogs heralding the best restaurants to try caracois in Lisbon but the two that were walking distance from my hostel were both shut, either due to time of day or, as it was August, on holiday.

On my final evening in Lisbon, weary and slightly disappointed from a last-ditch effort to find caracois, I followed my nose to an open-air restaurant a block away from my hostel. An older woman tossed full, fresh fish on an open stove, pillows of smoke billowing into the evening air. Trumpets sounded from the radio placed beside her and families clamored around small tables. They laughed raucously, enjoying their Friday meal as the last rays of sunset below the cobbled stoned hilltop.

My Last Chance to Eat Portuguese Snails

The one meal I disdained eating alone was, naturally, dinner. When one is surrounded by lovers, friends, and family, it is surely the loneliest meal for travelers who have not had the time to meet new friends in their hostel. It is doubly lonely on a Friday night dinner.

I took a seat at a table towards the back and scoured the menu for caracois. Frantically, I double-checked with 2G data if there might be another word for the dish. When the waiter came back I asked for whatever fish dish he recommended. Then I hesitated as I gave back the menu and asked, “by any chance, do you happen to have caracois?”

I always feel idiotic asking such a question. Clearly it wasn’t on the menu. I’ve found it to be an American-ism, demanding something more either due to having not bothered to read, study, or comprehend what is right in front of them. Or I see it as a way of asking for special treatment. But I was desperate.

I am a foodie and, doubly, an avid snail eater. My first order of escargots was at the only french restaurant in my town. It was one of a handful of times my parents had taken me out to eat. Rarer still as I was the only one of the four children home to enjoy the experience. The french restaurant was clearly a date night spot, white table cloths, low lighting, and sober jazz playing paired well with murmurs and clinking wine glasses. I was young enough to have proudly taken my two favorite beanie babies to the dinner, the accomplices my parents allowed as I carefully pried my first escargot out of its shell.

Just Ask

“Of course,” the waiter said with a tiny shrug.

“Oh!” I said, nearly jumping out of my seat. “Then a bowl of them and a beer as well.”

This “of course” was a revelation in my travels. Just ask. There is no harm in asking. You won’t seem like an idiotic American! Good. I wondered how many caracóis dishes I had missed by not just inquiring as to whether or not it was available.

The caracóis dish is seasonal, paired well with beer and blaring heat. It is often compared to peanuts at a baseball game but aside from the season and the compulsive act of eating one right after the other, caracóis are full of flavor and, as the aromatic bowl was brought to my table, I realized were far preferable over France’s escargots.

caracois a must try food in portugal

Don’t get me wrong, I love escargots. Not only for the taste but for the sheer ceremony that goes into eating them. I’ve become the master of the tong, gently gripping the shell in one hand, a delicate twist of the fork with the other. Then, once all are fished from their homes, you can tear a piece from a baguette and sop up of the remaining buttery mixture of garlic and pesto with great tenacity from every inch of the caquelon.

Caracóis: An Addictive Snack

Caracóis presented a new ceremonial form of eating. First, the snails were smaller and easier to manage. Eaten with a toothpick, the snails come out willingly. Each tiny bite morsel requires its own devoted moment. The taste of this dish is akin to the moules of France. Soft and supple, these snails are far less chewy than their northern cousins. Boiled in white wine and butter with a hint of garlic, the soupy mixture may make you tempted to pick up the bowl and drink. I have seen that caracóis dishes aren’t often served with much liquid but their preparation is the same.

I have heard that some people are appalled by eating snails. If you are, slurping them out is seen as a reasonable option as you won’t have to face their tiny bodies on the end of a toothpick. If you are considering chasing after this quintessential Portuguese summer dish, I applaud you for being brave and trying something new and hope you enjoy it or are out with someone who can claim the bowl when you decide those hundreds of little shells are more than you can manage.