The Grocery Shopping “Experience” in Portugal

Living in a country where English is not the first language certainly takes you out of your comfort zone, especially when it comes to food shopping. Imagine walking into a supermarket and suddenly there are none of your favourite foods and familiar brands; throw the added complication of language into the mix and you may well feel you have landed on Mars – an Alien in a foreign land.

Chickens feet
Chickens feet are not on the menu tonight

Many of the cuts of meat you buy ‘back home’ do not seem to exist here, or if they do, you don’t recognize the description. So much unfortunately gets lost in translation.

There are also things you do recognize like chickens feet, pigs ears, half of a pig’s head and “unmentionables” that you would not want to eat however well presented!

Makes my trotters twitch just thinking about this. Sorry no Pigs head or ‘unmentionables’ photos.

Joking aside quality of meat, in Portugal, especially fresh chickens, turkey and pork, is excellent and far exceeds that of the UK.

The simplest food shopping foray often turns into a ‘mind game’ as you study the labels, product descriptions and pictures for clues. It’s not always easy to find products when you can’t fully understand the language. You ponder for ages and think “what is this for?” or “what does that do?” as you wander up and down the aisles looking for various everyday items such as self-raising flour, caster sugar, short crust pastry, herbs and spices, spray to remove dust from the TV, normal toothpaste (not for dentures as I inadvertently bought once). You scan the shelves looking for inspiration praying for guidance or at least some form of heavenly intervention such as an assistant who can speak English. I have tried asking for help, in my limited Portuguese, but often pronunciation of some words such as massa (pastry) and maça (apple) sound so similar that you are offered completely the wrong product.

A classic example of the above was when I asked an assistant for eggs (ovos) and she directed me to the grapes (uvas). Frustrated, I performed a chicken laying-an-egg impression, complete with full clucking sound effects. The assistant momentarily stunned by my performance then directed me to the fresh chickens. Shaking my head the poor assistant looked at me as though I had just been released from a lunatic asylum such was my enthusiasm to get my point across. More egg laying impressions. She then enlisted the help of another assistant (she probably thought there was safety in numbers) further chicken impression and both dissolved into laughter at my elation when we did eventually locate the elusive eggs. I can just imagine her relating the story of the “mad English clucking woman” that evening to her family. Poor love, probably had too much sun…!

On a positive note since living in Portugal my ‘charade’ skills and animal impressions have dramatically improved, I eat more fresh fruit and vegetables drink more wine and TV dinners are definitely off the menu.

How would you fare?

You may also enjoy:
Bacalhau anyone?
Grocery Shopping – 5 Useful Tips!

Margaret in Chile shares her bad translation experiences. Hilarious!


54 thoughts on “The Grocery Shopping “Experience” in Portugal

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  1. I laughed so much at this post!! I can just imagine you making chicken noises!! I´ve had some funny experiences with language while living for a few years in Germany – I used to take the English/German dictionary with me while shopping, and even then it didn´t always help, I suppose I was too shy and self-conscious to act out what I was looking for. But good on you for trying!


  2. Oh Pip, that’s RICH! I would LOVE to see the egg-laying impression! Come to think of it, I would also love to see the sales staff imitating YOU imitating chickens!
    Seriously though, as you show here, one of the keys to making it as an expat is being able to leave your comfort zone (I’s say chicken-impersonating in grocery stores is pretty far out of most people’s zone!) and being able to laugh at yourself! When we take ourselves too seriously, we just become miserable!
    Thanks for reminding us all of that!


  3. I loved your food shopping experiences, how true but mistakes are usually only made once and taken in good humour by our bemused hosts. Shopping in the Algoz hardware store still causes the owner to scratch his head and point wildly at the vast array of shiny new irrigation valves and taps, and this is after 7 years of my attempting to learn Portuguese ‘by osmosis’. Fun isn’t it?


  4. Hi, Piglet
    Have the shop assistants difficulties to speak English? Because we learn it in the High School…
    I admire your efforts to speak Portuguese. I know how difficult can be. I feel the same when speaking Dutch.
    A Portuguese Supermarket I like very much is “Pingo Doce”. A very good quality/price relation. Have you been there?
    Our cuisine is very rich. Enjoy it!How I miss it…


    1. Hi Sandra,
      Unfortunately many of the older assistants can’t speak English, but then, to be honest, I would not expect them to. They are however, extremely helpful , very patient and most have a good sense of humour. We do use Pingo Doce quite alot. Their prices are reasonable and the products are good quality, especially their own brand.
      I am disppointed as the free Portuguese lessons at the school this year have not materialised, despite my best efforts to promote them with other expats.
      That’s another story 🙂 Still I plod away and can now , when I eavesdrop, understand snippets of conversation.
      I can imagine learning Dutch is EXTREMELY difficult!
      Thanks for dropping by 🙂
      Kind regards


  5. Thanks for the smiles Piglet. The image of you doing your chicken impression is priceless. Also vaguely reminiscent of a similar experience I once had.

    But it’s too long for here. I’ll write it up as a post for tomorrow.

    Thanks for an inspiring read Piglet!

    – Papa Joe


      1. Likewise Piglet. And I do have that post I mention already done and waiting. I’ve been up blogging all night and have hours and hours to go. So I hope you’ll forgive me but I made a different post today and I’ll post your inspiration tomorrow. Hope that’s okay. 🙂


        – Papa Joe


  6. Hi Piglet. I love Cicken foot consomé, we call it “Canja de Pés de Galinha” ….my mother used to cook it when I was a child, so I´m used to it…But I can imagine it easly being strange to English eyes:)


    1. Hi Jaime – thanks for clearing up the mystery as to what they are used for 🙂 Don’t think I will be adding it to my weekly recipe challenge though. However, I did cook Pork and clams tonight. First time in my life I have ever cooked clams. there has been many “firsts” in Portugal 🙂


  7. It is funny this post brought back some funny memories. When I first moved over I just kept eating the same stuff for the first few weeks and avoided stuff I was not used too. I then moved on to reading all the labels in detail which meant I ended up taking much longer doing simple shopping trips.


  8. Hey PiP, you’re clearly bananas and I like that. This post really made me laugh, do they not give you a wide berth now in the supermarket? (hee hee!). I love your writing style, it’s captivating. I’ll be back.


  9. Too funny…I am trying to image the scene! Sitting here eating my lunch salad I came to a stop with the description of unmentionables … give me a moment before I continue. I am sure I would have a pretty hard time explaining what I was looking for…….charade tuneup would be in order! Debbie 🙂


    1. Hi Lisa, LOL 🙂 the egg crisis has passed now as I have now sussed where they hide them. Last crisis was lentils – err not sure that would come up that often in charades – so pictures would have saved a 1000 words! I also now, when I remember, look up unfamiliar words on the internet and add them to my shopping list.
      We have had some fun though, and some very interesting dialogues.


  10. Oh my, this is so funny! But I can just imagine it being not very funny at all when you are out shopping and looking for eggs! Any way to buy those picture cards with food items on them that you would normally give to a child to learn? Just a thought.


  11. lol Pip, I feel for you. I had a similar experience many years ago when we went to a border town of Mexico/Texas. I couldn’t believe they actually had things like cow heads in their meat department. lol I can’t imagine how hard it’d be trying to shop in another country of another language. It sounds like it’s amusingly interesting sometimes. 😉


  12. Hi Piglet,
    Another neat presentation.
    Short of Portuguese, I would have have to learn the names for the food quickly. Like a child at the table, you learn quickly.
    I am just too curious to go long without knowing the words for what I eat.

    As mom often said, “The closest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” and there still rings truth in that saying, as I ponder shopping in your new country.
    I felt very much the same way when I landed in Tokyo, in 1963, the first time. I didn’t understand the “squiggles,” the sounds, and I didn’t have time to learn them. So, I feel your pain as you perambulate through the Portuguese grocery store. Take care, Charlie C. from Forsyth, Georgia, USA.


    1. Hi Charlie,
      I am gradually getting to grips with the language…but very very slowly. I had a private lesons for a couple of years but she was to intent on teaching me verbs and grammar. I just wanted practical info. Still I learn a new word everyday progress is lsow but it’s progress nontheless 🙂


  13. I think I would be walking around like a lost chicken! I’d have my list in one hand and a Portuguese/English dictionary in the other and would muddle my way through with confusion. Too funny PiP.


    1. Sometimes I run round the supermarket and I’m like a headless chicken 🙂 Just looking up a recipe and I’ve now got to find Red Pepper paste…this is going to be interesting…especially as I have never even used or seen red pepper paste before, I am handicapped B4 I start! 🙂


  14. teeheee, too funny. you made me giggle, picturing you imitating a chicken laying eggs in front of an audience of store clerks.

    i live in a small town in texas, and i gotta say, we have some things in the meat department here that i try not to make eye contact with.


  15. Great story PiP, but we all remember the Bird Dance don’t we?

    I remember an experience I had when visiting France. Stopped in a small town restaurant for dinner and three of us struggled with our high school french to order dinner. We managed and had a wonderful dinner but then at the end of the evening we overheard the waiter speaking English!!

    What he made us go through to be understood when we were ordering! 🙂


    1. Fortunately except for one doctor who was a real pig of a man (could speak English and wouldn’t) I have found the Portuguese to be such kind and helpful people. 🙂
      I have to confess I don’t remember the Bird Dance…I’d better look on You Tube


  16. At least you have the courage to do chicken impressions. I would just wander around until I found what I was looking for. Even when there is no language barrier.

    Maybe, as a sideline project, you should start a ‘Shopping in Portugal’ phrase book.


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