Portuguese Petiscos vs. Spanish Tapas

Many people think that petiscos are just Portuguese tapas, but the culture around when, where, and what to petiscar in Portugal means they’re really not the same. Find out three main differences between petiscos in Portugal and tapas in Spain, and see a list of my top 10 petiscos recommendations.

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Portuguese Petiscos
If you’re an American who has ever wondered “where is Portugal located on a map” or if Portuguese and Spanish are basically the same language (no, they’re not), you might be surprised to discover that tapas is not a Portuguese dish.  It comes from Spain.  There are only two types of establishments in Portugal where you can find tapas: an actual Spanish restaurant, with a chef from Spain or someone who specializes in Spanish cuisine; or tourist spots offering small plate dining for tourists to have something to eat while they guzzle wine and people-watch.  The sign might say tapas because that’s a word most tourists know, but what they’re eating is petiscos.
A Portuguese petisco is broadly similar to a Spanish tapa in that it’s typically a small serving of a savory food, generally served between meals with a cold beer or glass of wine.  But when and where you eat petiscos, and what they are made of, differ quite a bit.
Unlike petiscos, there are many origin stories of tapas in Spain: a kind of lid (una tapa) to tapar or cover up beer, keeping dirt out of it; a way to limit public drunkenness by forcing patrons to eat something while consuming alcohol; or just a small snack served for free along with a beer to lure patrons.  Barcelona and southern Spain are sometimes thought of as the center of tapas culture and cuisine, but tapas are served pretty much all over Spain.  The Basque country, where tapas are called pintxos in the Basque language, gives the rest of Spain a run for its money on variety and presentation.
And unlike the Portuguese, Spaniards are notorious for their late-night dinners, which typically start around 10 o’clock at night, even during the workweek.  Tapas help tide you over the long stretch from when work ends (around 7 or 8 PM; Spaniards often start the workday later in the morning than Americans) until when dinner is served.  And while any restaurant can technically serve tapas, many restaurants are not open until the dinner hour.  (I remember showing up once to a restaurant in Madrid that supposedly opened at 9 PM only to be told that the chef hadn’t even arrived yet and that we could snack on some olives if we wanted to wait for him.)  So, the place to tapear is usually your local tapas bar, and tapas bars are strewn about city centers. 
But to petiscar in Portugal is a different animal altogether, and it has a different cultural and gastronomic significance.  Below, I talk about three main differences between petiscos and tapas, and wrap up with my top 10 favorite petiscos that you should try on your next visit to Portugal.

Tapas Bars Are a Thing; Petisco Bars Are Not

To understand why there isn’t really a Portuguese equivalent of the tapas bar, it’s important to understand two things: first, petiscos are not generally on display pre-prepared for you to pick out like tapas often are at tapas bars in Spain; and second, bars in general are not as common in Portugal as they are in other countries.
In Spain, tapas bars will often have a display case where you can see what’s on offer and select what you want to try, or the tapas are laid out at the bar counter and the bartender will hand your selections to you.  If the place is popular enough, it will probably be standing room only and you might eat the tapa from a napkin with one hand, and drink your caña, or draft beer, with the other.  You can order tapas at a sit-down restaurant in Spain, too, but then you’re not in a tapas bar anymore; you’re just in a regular restaurant, where you’re basically ordering an appetizer and the food will come from the kitchen.  In more urban areas, where you’ll typically find a concentration of tapas bars, a night out might start with a plan to ir de tapas or tapear, which means going out to eat tapas, but often going from bar to bar, sampling a tapa and drinking a caña in each, then moving on for more variety.
By contrast, petiscos in Portugal are generally consumed sitting down in a restaurant or a:
  • tasca, a smaller, more informal restaurant serving traditional Portuguese fair; snobs might call a place they think is too rustic a tasca pejoratively, but tascas are almost always fantastic;
  • taberna, also a smaller, more informal restaurant serving traditional Portuguese fair but with a focus on beer or wine;
  • casa de pasto, an archaic way to refer to a tasca or taberna that served meals and petiscos, but that some newer restaurants use as a historical nod;
  • cervejaria, basically a taberna, though it may also be a brewery that makes its own beer on site;
  • snackbar, sometimes written as snack-bar, pronounced in Portuguese more like “snock bar” and with origins that are completely mysterious to me as an American because snackbars here are typically casual restaurants serving food items they call snacks (pronounced in Portuguese more like “snocks”) but that I would consider a meal in itself, such as hamburgers, hotdogs, a prego (a simple steak sandwich) or a bifana (a simple pork sandwich).  Portuguese serving sizes are massive so maybe that’s why they think a hamburger and fries constitutes a “snack” and not a meal? You figure it out.
  • Or even just a neighborhood pasteleria or café if there’s nothing else around. Cafés are typically open all day, offer pastries as well as salgados — savory, salty, fried foods that people often snack on between meals — and serve alcohol, too.  (I talk about the catch-all nature of Portuguese cafés here).
But these are all just variations on a theme: you sit down at a table and order the petiscos from a menu — or a chalkboard with the day’s offerings, or the server will just tell you what they are serving, if it’s really old-school.  These places will almost always serve petiscos, but not only petiscos.  They’ll generally be full-service restaurants serving regular portions as well, but have gained notoriety as being good places to petiscar or to eat petiscos.
People will not generally move from tasca to tasca eating one petisco, driking a fino (similar to a caña in Spain) or a príncipe (slightly larger than a fino), and then moving on to another place to do the same.  More often than not, a group out for petiscos will hunker down for hours at the same restaurant.  (This is one of the reasons Portuguese servers don’t make a lot of money in tips.  The tables don’t turn fast enough.)
This might be due to the fact that although British- or American-style pubs and bars that only serve alcohol do exist in Portugal, they are not nearly as ubiquitous, and they’re often catering to tourists.  (O’Sullivan’s Irish Pub, for example, a real Portuguese classic.) You’ll often find a concentration of bars in areas that attract a lot of younger people, or are near universities; clubs (i.e., discotecas) are another thing altogether, but there’s plenty of those, too.  However, you’ll find the grownups petiscando in restaurants and cafés, or the occasional wine bar, which have sprouted up in Porto and Lisbon on the heels of the tourist boom of the last decade, and which usually serve petiscos or small plate dishes. 

To Petiscar Is Not a Pre-Dinner Event; It Is Dinner

In Spain, to tapear at a tapas bar is not *technically* to eat dinner.  It’s the pre-game before dinner, although there are plenty of Spaniards who will cenar tapas or just eat tapas and nothing else after.  If you’re an American lightweight like me, you can tapear at 6:30 or 7 and skip the ungodly Spanish dinner hour altogether.  You’re tapeando, not senior citizen-eando.
In Portugal, on the other hand, to petiscar or eat a petiscada (a bunch of tasty petiscos) is, more often than not, to eat dinner at, or a bit earlier than, the normal dinner hour of about eight o’clock at night.  For one thing, the serving size is usually pretty generous, so you’ll get full quickly.  If someone in your party says só me apetece comer petiscos (I just feel like eating petiscos), you’ll probably go to a restaurant that specializes in them or has a small plate-style dining concept.  After a few petiscos, you’ll be stuffed.  Or you might go to a regular restaurant and end up ordering a bunch of entradas, or appetizers, which is just petiscos by another name.  However you end up there, though, you are usually at your final destination of the evening in terms of food.
Now, it’s also possible that around the time the Portuguese typically lanchar, or eat lanche, the afternoon snack, usually somewhere between 4 and 7 o’clock, you just eat something small that might be included on a menu of petiscos, such as a pastéis de bacalhau (in the south; bolinhos de bacalhau or just bolinhos in the north; more on this below) or a handful of tremoços (salted lupin beans) or just a plate of olives.  But that isn’t enough to fill you up for the evening, and it’s not really the spirit of going to petiscar either, which is more about trying a bunch of fun small-plate dishes with a group of friends.  It’s just lanchar.

The Portuguese Diet Isn’t Really Mediterranean; It’s Atlantic

The countries of Southern Europe are sometimes lumped together as one olive-oil drenched bunch whose cuisine consists of variations on the Mediterranean Diet.  However, if you take a look at a map of the Iberian Peninsula, you’ll notice that Portugal is not, in fact, on the Mediterranean Sea.  (It’s not in Spain either.)  It’s all Atlantic Ocean, baby.
For that reason, Portugal, as well as Galicia in northern Spain, hews much more closely to what nutrition scientists have called the Atlantic Diet.  This diet differs from the Mediterranean Diet in its higher consumption of fish (especially cod) and meat (especially pork), more potatoes than other vegetables (although the Portuguese do eat a lot of vegetable soup, and it’s a staple at lunch for schoolchildren), and a lot of rice (often rice and potatoes, which I personally find to be carb overkill but what can you do).   Of course, there is still a decent amount of overlap with the Mediterranean Diet, especially in the liberal use of olive oil and wine with meals.
So, when it comes to petiscos, these tend to have more fish and seafood on average than tapas, and fewer vegetables, but equal deliciousness. 
One thing that petiscos and tapas do have in common is that there are no hard and fast rules about what constitutes a pestisco or tapa and what doesn’t.  If you asked 10 Portuguese and 10 Spaniards to define petiscos and tapas, you’d probably get 20 different answers. They can both be served hot or cold, be a larger or smaller portion, but smaller than a main course dish, and usually – though not always – you don’t need a knife and fork to eat them.  Likewise, petiscos and tapas don’t really have a “high-falutin” Michelin-Starred backstory, though nowadays you can find gastro pubs and upscale restaurants serving them across a wider price range and with more experimental variations. 
I like to stick to the classics, and you can never go wrong with a charcuterie board with Serra da Estrela cheese and Portuguese presunto, but I’ll wrap up below with a list of my personal top 10 favorite Portuguese petiscos in the Atlantic Diet style that I recommend you try here in Portugal.

Pastéis/bolinhos de bacalhau

Savory codfish cakes with potato.  Every restaurant, café, tasca, taberna, grocery store, and gas station carries them.  They form a sort of holy trinity of salgados you’ll often find on offer as a petisco for parties, which includes pastéis/bolinhos de bacalhau, rissois (similar to an empanada but deep fried), and croquetes (similar to the Spanish croquetas, but without the cream).  Of these three, pastéis/bolinhos de bacalhau are the best, in my opinion.
Bolinhos de bacalhau

Amêijoas à bulhão pato

Claims in a garlic and parsley broth.  After you finish the clams, dip some crusty pão alentejano, Alentejo-style bread, in the broth to sop up the garlicky deliciousness.
Ameijoas a Bulhao Pato

Petinga

Small fried sardines you can eat whole.  If you haven’t already tried grilled, full-size sardines, you must.  I talk about them here.
petinga

Caracoís

Snails in broth.  Different from French escargot and mostly available in summer.  I talk about them here.
caracois

Pica-Pau

Sauteed bits of pork (and sometimes sausage) with pickled vegetables that you picar (poke or sting) with a pau (stick, but in this case, just a toothpick).  A pica-pau is a woodpecker.
pica-pau

Percebes

Gooseneck barnacles.  I talk about them here.
percebes

Camarão da Costa

Shrimp from the coast.  They’re small and served with a sprinkle of rock salt.  I just take off the head and the tail and pop them in my mouth.  There’s very little shell and it gives the shrimp a bit of crunch, but you can remove the shell like any other shrimp.
Camarão da Costa

Pataniscas (or just iscas)

Codfish fritters.  This is one of the rare petiscos that people do sometimes order as a main course in a slightly larger quantity, and it’s usually served with tomato rice.
pataniscas

Chouriço assado

Grilled pork sausage nirvana.  The sausage is typically served cut in a spiral shape or into slices.  Sometimes it’s served still flaming.
chourico assado

Chamuças

Samosas.  I’m kind of cheating on this one because chamuças come to Portugal via India and, hence, are not Atlantic, but they are a crispy, spicy delight. If you’re going to brave the line at the famous Pastéis de Belém in Lisbon, don’t leave without trying their chamuças.
chamucas
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