The French Origins Of One Of Portugal's Most Decadent Sandwiches

If you've ever stopped for lunch on the streets of Porto on the northern coast of Portugal, you may have seen a decadent-looking sandwich covered in cheese and seemingly floating in soup. This is the francesinha: An overstuffed sandwich from Portugal made with lots of ham, sausage and steak, and then drizzled in broiled cheese and served in a tomato-and-beer sauce. Over the past several decades, the sandwich has become a regular sight in Portugal, but it only dates back to the 1950s. So where did it come from?


The hint is in the name: The word francesinha literally translates to "little French one." The sandwich is a Portuguese version of the croque monsieur, a hot French sandwich made with ham, gruyere cheese, and béchamel sauce. As the story goes, the francesinha was created by a Portuguese chef named Daniel Silva, who tried a croque monsieur while living in France and eventually returned to Porto to recreate the dish with local ingredients. He made his first official francesinha in 1953, and it soon became a staple of Porto lunch menus.

Portugal's most decadent sandwich

When it comes to the francesinha, all the meat goes between two slices of thick bread, but other ingredients go on the outside. This may stretch the limits of a "sandwich," but the end result is indulgent enough that you won't mind. While recipes can vary, a francesinha generally contains ham, sliced sausages, and steak. Cheese is melted over the bread, and then you add the sandwich's unique sauce: Tomato paste, wine or beer (recipes usually don't call for specifically light beer or dark beer, so take your pick), and often something spicy like chili peppers. Many Porto restaurants have their own secret sauce recipes with meat stock or port wine.


Unlike other, drier sandwiches, the francesinha is served in a wide, shallow bowl with the sauce all around the sandwich. It's often served with a side of french fries. Despite having "little" in its name, everything about it is big and cheesy. The taste of a francesinha varies between cafes from Porto to Lisbon, but it's always considered a savory, slightly spicy "bomb" of meat, cheese, and calories. Many tourists trying one for the first time find that they can't finish the whole thing.

Francesinha vs croque monsieur

Despite the francesinha's clear inspiration from the French croque monsieur, eating the two make for very different experiences. The croque monsieur, which is French for "mister crunch," dates back slightly further to the 1900s in Paris. The proper way to make a croque monsieur is with a modest amount of French ham and melted gruyere cheese, often alongside a creamy béchamel sauce (a white sauce with butter and milk). While it's still plenty savory, it's a lighter snack that's not considered a "belly-buster" like the meat-loving francesinha.


Another big difference is that you can't eat a francesinha with your hands, because it's coated in thick cheese and sauce. A croque monsieur can go either way: Sometimes the outside of the sandwich is dry enough to pick up, sometimes the butter or béchamel makes it just a little too gooey and a knife and fork is required. Its sister sandwich, the croque madame, cannot be eaten with your hands because it has a fried egg on top. By coincidence, or perhaps not, some restaurants serve their francesinha with a similar fried egg on top. Either way, dig in using a fork.