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Early last summer, I dined with friends in a dimly lit taberna in Lisbon’s Alfama neighborhood. Several bowls of herb-flecked bean and seafood salads were spread across our table, as well as a basket of bread. The smell of garlic punctuated my nostrils. What exactly was I about to eat?
The answer: Portuguese snacks, or petiscos. In Portugal, petiscos refers not only to modest portions, but an attitude toward dining that is relaxed, improvised, communal, and reflective of Portuguese culture.
“I always think about a shared meal, small servings with variety and three or four dishes to try, not a plate full of food,” says Chef Henrique Sá Pessoa of Tapisco, a narrow restaurant wedged between a cluster of popular eateries in Lisbon’s Principe Real neighborhood. His menu offers a distinct selection of Spanish tapas and Portuguese petiscos.
If you’re wondering whether petiscos are synonymous with tapas, the answer is, not quite. For example, while the extensive variety of tapas is traditionally eaten standing up at the bar or counter before moving on to another (and perhaps another) venue, petiscos are typically ordered for the table from a more limited menu. Often times, a restaurant will specialize in just a few dishes. Meant for sharing, petiscos take the form of the country’s abundance; namely, seafood and pork.
“You’ll often find snails cooked in coriander, garlic, olive oil and white wine, as well as escabeche made with sardines and potatoes,” says Abraham Conlon, a chef/partner at Chicago's Fat Rice, a restaurant inspired by the Portuguese influence in Macau. Pedro Rebelo of Portugal on a Plate, a company that provides culinary and cultural tours in Lisbon, says, “Ingredients tend to reflect local strengths, with seafood being more common by the coast and cured meat being the staple ingredient inland.”
Common seasonings found in Portuguese food, like olive oil, garlic, coriander, and parsley, are mixed into a typical petiscos dish of grilled octopus or salted codfish salad. Many of the spices used, including the hot chili piri piri, saffron, cinnamon, and bay leaves are some of the nation’s most enduring culinary imports. Propelled by the spice trade, Portugal’s early contact with regions like India, Macau, and Mozambique helped shape and diversify their national cuisine.
At the taberna, I ate charred chouriço sausage, flame-grilled over a traditional slotted ceramic dish, with bread. Sandwiches with thin strips of beef or pork—called prego and bifana, respectively—are petiscos-worthy too. There will always be bread, I learned. “Bread is really a must, as a lot of petiscos live off their flavourful sauce,” Rebelo says. In the petiscos section of Rebecca Seal's picturesque cookbook Lisbon (and on this site), you'll find recipes for ovos verdes (deep-fried deviled eggs, in a way) and vinegary mackerel escabeche.
As a verb, petiscar takes the shape of culinary ritual. It is a delectable reason to socialize. Order the house specialty; share it with family and friends. Enjoy a cadence more closely related to grazing than dining, a potluck-style gathering that’s not quite a full meal. While many seek petiscos at a local taberna or tasca, the ritual can just as easily be replicated at home. The key is for time to stretch, aided by beer, wine, and/or meandering conversations.
In this manner, to petiscar naturally leads to lingering at the table long after the last bite, a term the Spanish call sobremesa. A lot of my day-to-day dining experiences at home in California revolve around convenience, as a variety of work and life commitments pull me in all directions. But in Lisbon, time moved slowly while my friends and I consumed ourselves with conversation as we passed little bowls around the table, refilled each other’s wine glasses, hopped from one topic of interest to another. By the time we stepped back out into Alfama’s stone-lined streets, three hours had vanished.
- 4 4-5 oz fillets of oily fish such as mackerel or tuna steaks
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 onion, thinly sliced
- pinch of salt, extra if needed
- 1 bay leaf, torn
- 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 5 eggs
- 2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
- 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
- pinch of salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- 4 1/2 cups (1 liter / 34 fl. oz.) vegetable oil, for frying
- 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 cup (50g) breadcrumbs
- Piri piri mayonnaise (optional, see notes)