Most people are familiar with tapas, and will probably have tried patatas bravas, croquetas, tortilla, or any of the more popular tapas at some point. Petiscos – the lesser-known Portuguese relative of tapas – are another story altogether. There are tapas bars in just about every major city in the world, and probably in yours, but is there a petisco bar (sometimes called a petisqueira)? Probably not.
A petisco (Pe-Tea-Sh-Co) is a snack; something to pick at while you have a beer or a glass of wine with freinds. The petiscos menu varies from bar to bar. Some menus can be quite unimaginative, and a petisco might simply be pão (bread) or azeitonas (olives). Other places put more effort in, serving up dishes like salade de polvo (octopus salad) or pastéis de bacalhau (cod patties, a bit similar to croquetas). Other places, particularly in Lisbon and Porto, are going even further and creating a menu of petiscos that are unique to that bar.
In many ways, it’s a good thing that there aren’t petiscos bars abroad in the same way that there are tapas bars. I’ve gone out for tapas in other countries – like the UK – and the experience is nothing like the experience in Spain.
In the UK, there aren’t so much tapas bars as tapas restaurants. Everyone tends to order a few tapas for themselves, rather than sharing, and you’re expected to order all of your tapas in one go rather than setting up camp at a table for the night and ordering as needed.
Some people might argue that’s not such a big deal, but I think your first experience of anything should be an authentic one. Tapas (and petiscos) are supposed to be something inexpensive to accompany your drink and, if you’re with a group of people, to be shared with friends.
It’s probably a good thing that petiscos haven’t made it outside of Portugal, otherwise restaurants would serve up a low-quality, inauthentic version, and charge you through the nose for it. If you want petiscos, you’ll have to come to Portugal and get the proper experience here instead.
Interestingly, a lot of petiscos bars have started using the word tapas on their menus. Portugal doesn’t actually do tapas, and they’re not called tapas, but doing this allows bar and restaurant owners to reach more tourists who otherwise wouldn’t understand their menu.
What to look out for on a petiscos menu
The following is a sample of some of the items that you can expect to find on a petiscos menu in Portugal.
Pastéis/Bolinhos de Bacalhau
Croqueta or salted fritter-style nuggets that are made up of bacalhau (cod) as well as other ingredients like potato, eggs, parsley, and onion before being fried in oil. They’re a little like a fish cake, although the texture is a lot finer and the taste of the cod a lot stronger.
Pastéis de bacalhau are salgados, an umbrella term for deep fried food like pastéis de bacalhau. Other types of salgados that you’ll see include rissóis (another type of croquette, often creamier), empadas de frango (mini chicken pies), folhados (something in puff pastry, usually cheese or meat), and chamuças (samosas).
Presunto is a type of cured Iberian ham, a little like jamón from Spain. When it comes to Presunto, all pigs aren’t equal: some are more expensive than others. Presunto ibérico, for example, comes from the black or Alentejo pig – a pig that has been fed on a rich diet of acorns.
Pica Pau literally means woodpecker, and the dish gets its name because it’s usually eaten with toothpicks. It consists of small pieces of beef or pork that have been marinated in garlic, oil, chilli, and mustard. It is usually always served with pickled vegetables, such as carrots and cauliflower.
Carrots that are boiled until soft and then marinated in vinegar, garlic, olive oil, and herbs. Algarve carrots are often served as part of the couvert in the Algarve.
Moelas are gizzards. They are usually sautéed in a pan with a spicy tomato sauce, and then served with bread. Sometimes moelas are listed as pipis (yes, that’s fun to say!)
Salada de polvo
Salade de polvo means octopus salad, and you’ll sometimes see some variations on this e.g. salada de polvo Algarvia. Usually octopus salad means octopus that’s marinated in olive oil and vinegar and served with fresh tomato, onion, and chopped herbs.
Chouriço assado is cured sausage that’s cooked, or flame-grilled. This is a fun one to order because it’s usually brought out on a terracotta dish that has been soaked in alcohol and then set on fire and cooked in front of you.
This one can be pretty heavy and it’s best washed down with a good glass of Portuguese red wine.
The French aren’t the only ones to eat snails – the Portuguese do too. Although caracóis are popular throughout Portugal, you tend to see this more on menus in the countryside rather than in the cities. In the rural Algarve, especially, you will often see signs with a picture of a happy looking snail saying “Há Caracóis” (we have snails, or literally: there are snails).
Ovas de bacalhau
Ovas de bacalhau is cod row; the eggs of a female cod fish. Although it’s related to caviar, it’s a lot more congealed and firm and a little like a slice of meat. Ovas de bacalhau is often served as part of a salad, dressed in olive oil and garnished with herbs.
Choco frito is fried cuttlefish, a dish that’s particularly popular in Setúbal. It’s quite rich, like the cod roe above, especially if cuttlefish ink is used as well. Basically, beer or wine is essential with this one.
Sometimes, you’ll see an entire section of the petiscos menu labelled “conservas.” This is tinned produce, for example, tinned tuna or tinned sardines. Now, outside of Portugal, tinned food has a pretty bad, but often deserving, reputation. It’s usually seen as cheap or student-y, and a poor substitution for the real thing.
In Portugal, tinned food is taken very seriously and is often quite expensive. You won’t just find tuna soaked in brine here: you can get tinned cod, mussels, octopus, bream, and cod roe. It can be hard to change your perception of tinned food but, as it’s such a big part of Portuguese cuisine, it’s important to try it.
Alheira is a type of Portuguese sausage that’s made from anything but pork: for example chicken, duck, or turkey, although it’s designed to look and taste like pork. During the period of Inquisition, Portuguese Jews would hang these sausages in their home and pretend to be normal, pork-loving Catholics.
Sometimes this is served as a whole sausage, but it’s also served as croqueta-style balls, with scrambled eggs, or with bacalhau.