If you’re heading to Portugal this summer, make sure you order a plate (or five) of petiscos; the traditional “tapas” food scene is undergoing a renaissance.
The fashion for small plates knows no bounds but while everyone has heard of tapas, few have a clue about the Portuguese equivalent: “petiscos” (say: pe-tish-cous). The style is a bit different. The petisco (singular) doesn't sit on a piece of bread, and we tend to enjoy petiscos that are cooked and not very sophisticated. It can be anything from cheese or presunto (ham), but we love simple dishes such as caracóis (snails; eating snails boiled with garlic and oregano is a very popular summer sport in Lisbon and southern Portugal, not so much in the north). Certain deep-fried savoury snacks are similar to Spanish tapas, such as beef croquets and cod cakes, and we also eat bread with our petiscos but most of the time it's a sourdough and rustic bread served on the side, different from the Spanish.
Petiscos are found everywhere in Portugal but are very different from region to region. In the Algarve they traditionally serve carrots in vinegar, oregano, olive oil, garlic and paprika, and lots of seafood. In the Alentejo, one of the best regions for petiscos, you'll find toressmos (pork scratchings), a lot of different chouriços (chorizo) and pork dishes, as well as a variety of scrambled egg dishes. In the north you'll see a lot of moelas (gizzards). Sausages such as chouriço and paio (loin) are found all over the country just with different seasoning, cured or smoked. Salt cod petiscos are found all over the country too.
If Alentejo has the best petiscos, Lisbon’s petiscos scene is Portugal’s most vibrant. It's changing fast. I think chefs such as José Avillez were very important at modernising the concept. Many other chefs are making lots of interesting versions of traditional petiscos. You’ll find them serving inventive plates in Lisbon’s Mercado da Ribeira and Mercado de Campo de Ourique food markets. Also "petiscar" – to snack with some wine or beer – is becoming a hard and fast habit with young people. At the same time, tascas are still doing great traditional petiscos. Tascas are simple restaurants, with great homemade food that often reflects the regional heritage of the owners and chefs. Theirs is an honest and traditional way of cooking. Sadly some are struggling to survive as a new rent law has made life hard for the owners of old tascas and independent shops.
In Lisbon, I like new venues such as Boi Cavalo (their black pig secretos ham with chestnut chips is a must). But I also love more established places such as Tágide Tapas Bar (some restaurants will adopt the Spanish name for ease of international recognition) for their eggs with farinheira (flour), and Cantinho do Avillez for the green beans and the pies. I also love traditional tascas such as Zé da Mouraria (for the squid), Merendinha do Arco (the cod fritters and the cuttle fish), Esquina da Fé (for the beef croquetes and the alheira, the smoked sausage), while Taberna da Rua das Flores and Fábulas do fabulous share dishes. The prego and clams at Ramiro are wonderful, as is the prego at By The Wine, and also at Sea Me. The latter has an amazing nguiri sardine: a creative, sushi-style way to eat our beloved sardines.
When it comes to ordering – how much and what – it really depends on where you are and how hungry you are. Some petiscos can be quite filling while others are lighter. When it comes to cheese dishes, you must try queijo de Azeitão (cheese from the Azeitão region), or queijo da Serra: two excellent soft sheep’s milk cheeses. Usually for a group of four we order four-five different dishes but you can always order less then ask for more if you still feel hungry. This is above all a sociable, leisurely way of dining. Be aware of the "couvert" – the charge for the seemingly complimentary bread/olives/cheese/sardine paste and such that lands instantly on restaurant tables. You have to pay for these, so if you don’t want them, send them straight back.
Make it at home: Octopus salad (pictured above)
Ingredients (serves four)
One small octopus
Red and green bell pepper
A big handful of parsley
Generous olive oil
White wine vinegar
Salt to taste
This is really easy to do. Clean the octopus and drop it into boiling water in a deep pan. Do not add the salt yet. Lots of Portuguese cooks will also place a raw onion in the pan. After about 20 minutes, check if you can stab it with a fork. If you can, it’s done. Let it cool then chop in small pieces or fine slices if you prefer.
Finely chop the vegetables and parsley and toss with the octopus pieces. Dress with the oil, vinegar and salt, and serve.
CLASSIC DISHES: A petiscos glossary
- Ovos com farinheira: eggs with a flour smoked sausage, something we love here.
- Pica-pau: beef with pickles, bay leaf and a garlicky sauce, traditionally eaten with a toothpick (the name pica-pau means woodpecker).
- Ovos com espargos: eggs with asparagus.
- Peixinhos da horta: green beans in tempura. The Portuguese introduced tempura to Japan. We don't have as much variety but green beans are still a beloved item.
- Pataniscas de bacalhau: cod fritters.
- Pastéis de bacalhau: cod cakes.
- Salada de polvo: octopus salad.
- Chouriço assado: the sausage is served flaming in a special clay dish, to burn off some of the fat.
- Chamuças: samosas, Goan style.
- Prego: steak sandwich.
- Bifana: pork sandwich.
- Pastéis de massa tenra: beef pastries.
- Moelas: gizzards.
- Broad beans with chouriço
- Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato: clams with coriander and garlic.
- Jaquinzinhos fritos: fried horse mackerel.