It’s impossible to describe the francesinha without offending someone. A quintessentially northern Portuguese dish from Porto, “francesinha” loosely translates into “the little French girl” and consists of an abundance of what Anthony Bourdain called “the immortal combination.” That is, meat, cheese, fat and bread. Specifically: bread, cheese, ham, sausage, steak, mortadella, bread, egg and cheese, drowned in spiced tomato and beer sauce.
Layered and assembled like an elaborate sandwich, the francesinha has been called many things by foreign food and travel writers over the years, from “gut bomb” (Rick Steves) to “gut buster” (The Guardian).
Regardless of whether you call the francesinha “immortal,” like Bourdain did, or—unimaginatively—iconic (as I do), it’s a dish that has invited controversy since its inception. As is the case with all iconic foods, people argue about its origins and where in the city you can sample the best francesinhas (most will point you to Café Santiago; Bourdain recommended O Afonso).
Although some believe that the francesinha came to Portugal with French troops invading the north of the country during the Napoleonic wars, most agree that the story goes that the francesinha was invented by a man named Daniel da Silva in the 1950s. Here, the story branches into two. First, some say it was called the francesinha because local people had trouble pronouncing “croque monsieur,” the dish which reportedly inspired the francesinha. (It’s worth pointing out here that the addition of the egg actually made the sandwich a croque madame, however.) Supposedly, da Silva—a Belgian and French emigrant—adapted the croque monsieur to Portuguese tastes, dressing it up with zing and tomato alongside linguiça (smoke-cured pork sausage). Meanwhile, others say the name was a tribute to his French girlfriend, who da Silva (ever the romantic) believed to be “strong and spicy like no other woman in the world.”
What’s perhaps more interesting about the dish is that it was subject to a gender divide when it was invented. In his 2020 paper, “The Slow Cultural Cooking of the ‘Francesinha,’” Manuel Teles Fernandes notes that when the dish first came on the scene, it was considered a snack. Throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, it remained a dish to be enjoyed by young men; it was to be “served after hours when groups of friends gathered to have a bite to eat late at night.”
By contrast, writes Fernandes, older men were “conservative” in their food choices, but women who dared to try it got a bad reputation. At the time, it was believed to be unbecoming for women to be seen eating spicy foods in public—a cultural taboo spawned by the myth that eating spicy foods changed a woman’s behavior.
Today, the dish is enjoyed by men and women alike with an estimated 1,500 restaurants throughout Porto listing it on their menus. Accompanied by a gravy boat containing the beer-tomato sauce (which vary in taste owing to closely guarded recipes that vary from establishment to establishment) and a mountain of French fries (with which to sop up extra sauce), the francesinha is perhaps best described as comfort food. The remedy to a hangover, a broken heart and a piercing winter afternoon, the francesinha is, in my mind, an embodiment of the Portuguese approach to most things in life: to eat with unabashed enjoyment, to fix life’s problems with food and, of course, to always add fries.