A lot of people are super familiar with tapas, the word is part of our vocabulary for a long time, and probably some or many of you already have tried some patatas bravas, croquetas, tortilla, or any other popular tapas at some point.
Petiscos, the Portuguese relative of tapas that much less people know—and that sometimes we simplify as Portuguese Tapas—are a different story altogether. Here, we are going to show you some of the petiscos you have to try while visiting Portugal.
There are tapas bars in just about every major city in the world, probably in yours, and also in Lisbon or other Portuguese cities. But where you come from, is there a “Petiscos” bar (sometimes also called a Petisqueira)? Most likely not. Petiscos is something that you probably have to come to Portugal to try.
What are Portuguese petiscos?
A petisco (petʃˈiʃku) is a snack, something to pick at, meant to share, while you have a beer or a glass of wine with friends, sometimes also present in some restaurant menus as appetizers, but frequently can easily compose a full meal.
For the Portuguese, it’s an experience.
While the petiscos menu varies from bar to bar, from restaurant to restaurant, there are some that you may find almost anywhere and that are a part of the typical Portuguese cuisine.
Although some menus can be quite unimaginative, serving as a petisco simply pão (bread) and/or azeitonas (olives), other places put more effort in, serving up dishes like salada de polvo (octopus salad), croquetes (meat croquetas) or pastéis de bacalhau (cod fritters), or our favourite peixinhos da horta (literally means little fish of the garden, and it’s a tempura of green beans that makes them look like little fried fishes).
Other places, particularly in Lisbon and Porto, go even further and creating a menu of petiscos that are unique to that bar. If you can find a good petiscos bar, it’s a good opportunity to try a few different Portuguese dishes and it’s really one of the top things to do in Lisbon.
There is even a verb, petiscar (petʃiʃkˈaʁ), which essentially means to savor something special. And that’s what a petisco is — a special treat. You shouldn’t keep it to yourself though, petiscos are made to share.
Interestingly (or not so much), a lot of petiscos bars have started using the word tapas on their menus, but it’s only something to attract people that otherwise would not know what petiscos are.
Portugal doesn’t really do tapas, the dishes are not the same, and they’re not called tapas, but tapas is just a word that everyone understands and a petisco is essentially a Portuguese word unfamiliar to most people. If you’re visiting Portugal and just want something light to pick at, why not give these petiscos a try?
So gather a group of friends, order some beers or wine and pick your favorite petisco, we’ll join you there!
Pestiscos you should try when travelling in Portugual
Here is a sample of some (it’s impossible to describe them all) of the items you can expect to find on a petiscos menu in Portugal.
Pastéis 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. The first record of it’s existence dates back to the monarchy times, more precisely 1904, in a cookbook. One of the final contestants in the 7 Wonders of the Portuguese Gastronomy competition, held in 2011, it’s always present in a lot of the petiscos menus. There are places in Portugal where you have them with a soft, mountain cheese, and in Lisbon and Porto you can find places where they serve this variation, but originally it is just the codfish cake. Definitely one of the petiscos you have to try while in Portugal.
Pastéis de bacalhau are salgados, an umbrella term which actually means savory for deep fried small pastries/food like pastéis de bacalhau. Other types of salgados that you’ll see include rissóis (another type of croquette, often creamier, stuffed with shrimp or meat), empadas de frango/vitela (mini chicken/veal pies), folhados (something in puff pastry, usually cheese or meat), and chamuças (samosas).
Ameijôas à Bulhão Pato
You’ll find clams in many Portuguese dishes, like Carne de Porco à Alentejana (pork with clams) or the Cataplana (seafood stew). But it’s in the Ameijôas à Bulhão Pato that they shine.
What’s so special about this petisco? Well, it’s all in the sauce. First, they cook the clams with a bit of garlic, olive oil, and white wine. Then they add fresh coriander and drizzle it with lemon juice. That’s pretty much it. So simple, yet so tasty and so definitely a signature of the Portuguese flavors, so it’s one more of the petiscos you have to try while in Portugal.
The best clams are served straight from the pot!
Presunto (smoked ham) 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. Normally served in very thin slices and can be accompanied with cheese.
Pica-Pau literally means woodpecker, and the dish gets its name because it’s usually eaten with toothpicks. It consists of small pieces of fried beef or pork that have been marinated in garlic, oil, wine, piri-piri (ground chilli), or mustard. It is usually always served with olives and pickled vegetables, such as carrots, onions and cauliflower.
Cenouras à Algarvia
Carrots that are boiled until slightly soft and then marinated in vinegar, garlic, olive oil, and herbs. Like the name suggests, they are more frequently found in Algarve, where this carrot salad is often served as part of the couvert in the southern part of Portugal.
This typical Portuguese soup is the definition of comfort food. Made with simple ingredients, potatoes, cabbage, olive oil and pork sausage, it’s originary from the north of Portugal, but available throughout the country is a simple recipe to make and therefore is present everywhere.
Curiously enough there are even places that sell only Caldo Verde and Chorizo Bread, which become a typical meal in late hours when people come out of night clubs in Lisbon. Nothing satisfies us more than a clay bowl of hot caldo verde soup in the winter. This soup was elected in 2011 one of the Portuguese 7 wonders of gastronomy. Another one of the petiscos you have to try while in Portugal.
Moelas are chicken or duck 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!), although pipis are not only gizzards but also other small chicken or duck parts.
Peixinhos da Horta
Like we said above they’re called peixinhos (little fish), but there’s nothing fishy about them! It’s probably one of the few vegetarian petiscos in Portugal. The name peixinhos da horta translates as little fishes from the garden, and it’s basically green beans coated in batter and fried.
There’s no way you can have just one, as they always come in pairs. How else could you share them? And here’s something you might not know: this dish was introduced to Japan by the Portuguese missionaries and navigators that reached the country in the 16th century and gave origin to the tempura.
Salada De Polvo or Salada de Bacalhau
Salada de polvo means octopus salad and Salada de Bacalhau means Cod Salad, and you’ll sometimes see some variations on this e.g. salada de polvo à algarvia in specific regions. Usually octopus salad has boiled octopus that’s marinated in olive oil and vinegar and served with onion, and chopped herbs.
One thing an octopus salad must have is the herbs. Coriander or parsley, it’s really up to the cook to decide. Its codfish counterpart is basically the same replacing the octopus with cod. Most restaurants will serve it with a bit of bread, if they don’t, make sure to order some because you will need it to soak up all that sauce at the end!
Summer in Portugal always calls for at least one salada de polvo (octopus salad). First-timers might be put off by its appearance, but trust us, this is one of the best seafood dishes you can try in Lisbon!
Another of the 7 Wonders of the Portuguese Gastronomy, Sardinhas Assadas or grilled sardines is the reason we even exist as a country. Ok, this may be a bit exaggerated but it’s true that the quality of the Portuguese sardines is renowed since before the 16th century. The high season of the sardine coincides with the typical festivals in the major cities of Portugal in June, and is the symbol of the Lisbon festivities. In Lisbon in June you’ll find anywhere throughout the city small improvised places selling grilled sardines and bifanas (a steak sandwich) like there is no tomorrow. Eaten on top of a bread slice or as a more complete meal with boiled potatoes and bell pepper salad, one of the petiscos you must try if you come between the end of May and July.
Chouriço assado is cured pork 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, white wine, beer – anything really, but you’re going to need something as it’s very rich.
The French aren’t the only ones to eat snails – the Portuguese do too. If you visit Portugal in the fall, winter or spring, you won’t find them on the menu. But when the summer reaches the city, so do the signs for caracóis (snails). Suddenly, you’ll get a bunch of invitations to go out and eat snails over a beer or two.
Although caracóis are popular throughout Portugal, you tend to see this more on menus outside of the more touristic areas. Tipically a dish of tascas (a very Portuguese kind of neighborhood snack bar that serves normally only wine, beer and a few dishes that can be previously cooked). In the rural areas sometimes you can see signs with a picture of a happy looking snail saying “Há Caracóis” (we have snails, or literally: there are snails).
Unlike the French, Portuguese don’t use butter. Instead, we cook the snails with olive oil, onion, garlic and lots of oregano. Sometimes the hardest part is getting them out of their shells, that’s why they give you toothpicks!
The Portuguese petisco by excellence, a bifana is a pork steak sandwich (yes, specifically pork, if it is beef it’s a whole different thing, with a different name and all). This can be made in many different ways but one of the most typical is to stew them in a tomato, wine, piri piri, garlic and olive oil sauce. Then is just drop them in a carcaça, one of the most common buns we have in Portugal, add mustard or chili sauce to your liking, grab a beer and you’re ready to go.
The “lover” of the grilled sardines in the Lisbon festivities in June, it was one of the things that made Anthony Bourdain fall in love with our country in 2012. It’s not sure that this was invented in Vendas Novas, a small town 100 kms to the south east of Lisbon, but at least they get the credit, although you’ll find them everywhere.
Ovas De Bacalhau
Ovas de bacalhau is cod roe; the eggs of a female cod fish. Although it’s related to caviar because they are eggs, it’s a lot more compact 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, a town 40 mins south of Lisboa. Served also as a meal with french fries and salad in restaurants it’s basically sliced of deep fried cuttlefish, a common catch throughout the country but specially around that area. Basically, beer or wine is essential with this one. Definately one of the petiscos you have to try while in Portugal.
Sometimes, you’ll see an entire section of the petiscos menu labelled “conservas.” This is tinned produce, for example, tinned tuna, cod or sardines. 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 a whole industry thrived on tinned, preserved fish for decades, and in the 1940s Portugal was the largest exporter of this type of food in the world, with more than 400 companies, a few of which still exist and there are stores that only sell tinned food (now even more because of the growth tourism had in the past years). Naturally it is not strange that these appear also on some bars or restaurants menus.
In Portugal, tinned food is taken very seriously and is often quite expensive. Not all of them are like that but you can find in stores cans of Portuguese “caviar”, which basically is Sardine roe preserved in olive oil for more than $40 a tin. So, you won’t just find tuna soaked in brine here: you can get tinned cod, turbot, bream, sole, bass, sardines, or mussels, octopus, and cod or sardine 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 like pork. During the period of Inquisition, Portuguese Jews would hang these sausages in their home and ate pretending 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 cod.
A lot of these petiscos are found in Lisbon or Porto, some are more regional but in general most of them will always be a part of the Petiscos bars and restaurants.
While in Lisbon you will have the chance to taste at least some of these nice petiscos but if you have a tour with us and want us to reccomend some of these, be sure to tell us and we will include this in the trip. It is definately a nice addition to our Full Day Lisbon Tour
So what is your favourite? At least from the descriptions… Have you tried any of these petiscos before? What did you think? Let us know your thoughts, reviews, and recommendations by leaving a comment below.