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Petiscos: The Portuguese Cousin of Spanish Tapas

In the American restaurant scene, the Spanish small plates, “Tapas, ” are no conundrum. But say the word “Pinxtos” (generally bread topped with a fish or meat mixture, especially popular in the Basque region of Spain) and you’ll lose a few people. Say the Portuguese word “Petiscos” and you’ll get a whole lot of blank stares. Are they all the same? Yes, kinda. Are they different? Yes, kinda. To make it more confusing, there are several other names by which these “small plate dishes” in Spain are called. But no synonyms for Petiscos come to mind.

There certainly are Tapas bars in Portugal, but they’re an adaptation of the Spanish fare and not interchangeable with Petiscos. In America, I have yet to come across a Petiscos-only bar the way I have with Tapas. Like Portugal itself, which despite making headlines these days with new successful chefs like George Mendes, owner of Aldea in New York City, and Luisa Fernandes, the champ of Food Network’s “Chopped,” it has for a long time often remained an anomaly to folks who mistaken it for a part of Spain or Brazil. Unfortunately, petiscos remain too untapped in the mainstream restaurant circuit in this part of the world. (Flickr photo by Nimages DR)

When it comes up in conversation, the question never fails: “Are they like Tapas?” To simplify, my answer is usually, “Sort of, but with a Portuguese twist.” However, the reality is that Petiscos, like Tapas, aren’t that easy to define. Unlike the image of several small plates served in earthenware that Tapas evokes, my experience eating Petiscos takes me to blue and white tiled taverns, or cafés, that have the reputation of specializing in a particular Petisco. Good examples would be bifanas (thin pork sandwiches) or snails (in an herby broth). Oftentimes, these places, especially the bifana joints, specialize in that particular dish, or maybe, just a handful of others, like soup. Also, the difference between a Tapa and Petisco may not lie so much in how they’re served, but in the seasoning of the dishes. Granted, this is still an ongoing investigation for me, so chances are that we’ll revisit this topic at a later date.

Just as Spain and Portugal’s histories are intertwined, so too are their culinary influences. But when it comes to spices, Portugal, which was once a superpower in the spice trade during the Age of Discovery, garnered a head start in perfecting some of their uses. Unlike Spain, who mostly colonized Central, and parts of South and North America, Portugal marked their presence in places like Goa in India, Macau in China, Mozambique and other African nations. The Spanish, and other European nations, had greater access to the exotic spices from such countries after the Portuguese overtook the spice trade from Venetian and Arab spice merchants and brought down the price of the coveted ingredients (saffron, curry, nutmeg, paprika, black pepper and others); whereby making them more readily available. From Brazil, Portugal’s only conquest in the Americas, it imported a variety of fruits and vegetables, including the tomato that is a base ingredient in their sauces and stews. Naturally at some point, all of Europe, especially the Mediterranean, had access to these spices, and culinary repertoires started resembling each other’s as they had done before the spice trade when the Romans occupied Spain and Portugal, planting their olive groves, while the Moors introduced almonds and figs.

But the one spice that significantly distinguishes Portuguese food from its neighbors is their use of Piri-Piri, made from African Bird’s Eye Chili Peppers. It’s the signature ingredient in the Portuguese and African invention of spicy prawns called “Gambas a Mozambique.” Like Piri-Piri, curry is another strong spice that the Portuguese use sparingly in their dishes. Using such strong spices in moderate amounts is really the key to successful Portuguese cooking. Portuguese cuisine infuses just the right amount of heat, or spice, without dulling the Mediterranean base ingredients of the dish, such as onion, garlic and olive oil. (Flickr photo by Renata F. Oliveira)

The African, Chinese and Indian enclaves in Lisbon attest to this vibrant culinary history and make eating in the city a diverse experience; hence, it’s a shame to commonly see Portuguese and Spanish restaurants in America clumped into one. Or, even worse, when Portuguese restaurants choose to feature Tapas instead of Petiscos on their menus. For the true Petisco experience, a foodie has to make a pilgrimage to the taverns and cafes, especially those hidden gems in the backwaters of the country where rows of bifana houses all claiming to be king of the pork sandwiches. Despite the saturation of the nearly identical businesses, thanks to the Portuguese people’s quirkiness which leads them to pick one place over another based on minor details, they all tend to keep their doors open. (The thickness of a bifana is my pet peeve. Thinner is better, I tell you). And though the Portuguese may visit a bar to “petiscar” a bit of cured ham (presunto), cheese and olives similar to tapas, the ritual of going out for a Petisco consists of ordering the specialty of the house in great quantities and sitting there for hours eating and drinking. Wine is of course a staple on any Portuguese table, but when it comes to Petiscos, an icy cold beer is generally the drink of choice. The light and refreshing sparkling Vinho Verde is also a favorite option for this eating event. However you slice it, going out for a Petisco is certainly a favorite pastime of the Portuguese.

With Petiscos on my mind, I recently put on my chef’s hat and recreated a few of my favorite Petiscos dishes. I served them with a Terras do Sado white wine Dona Helena, a blend of Fernao Pires, Arinto and Moscatel, which had been cooling in my fridge waiting for the right occasion to pop open its cork. This occasion was it! On the table was also an icy cold beer, Sagres, my favorite Portuguese brand. Which drink paired better? Just like picking a favorite Petisco joint, it’s a matter of taste. I say, why not drink both?!

Pork sandwiches (bifanas)

4 thinly sliced pork cutlets
4 garlic cloves
Coarse salt (to taste)
Black pepper
4 bay leaves
1/2 cup of white wine
1 Table spoon of white vinegar
2 ½ Table spoons of unsalted butter (in Portugal lard is customary, but it’s not easy to find in American supermarkets)
3 Table spoons of olive oil

Season the pork with the salt, pepper, minced garlic and bay leaves. Mix in the white wine and vinegar and let it sit over night or at least two hours before cooking. When ready to cook, melt the butter and olive oil in a deep skillet. Remove the pork from the marinade, shake off excess liquid, rub the paprika on the meat, and place it in the skillet on high heat. Turn them until they’re well done and lower heat. Throw in the marinade and let the cutlets simmer until the sauce thickens and seeps into the meat. Turn heat off before sauce fully disappears. Slice open Portuguese rolls and soak the insides in the sauce and top each with a cutlet. Finish it off with a dollop of mustard. Note: the best bifanas I ever had in Portugal were at O Rei das Bifanas in Vendas Novas and a place by the same name in Ponte de Sur. (Flickr photo by Blackwych)

Octopus (polvo)

1 octopus (frozen or fresh)
Fresh parsley
1 onion
2 garlic cloves
3 bay leaves
1/4 of white vinegar
1/4 of olive oil
Black pepper

If using a fresh octopus wash it and throw in a pot. If frozen, thaw it overnight. In a wide and deep pot, add salt to taste (not too much, because you can always add more), the bay leaves, and a table spoon of olive oil (the 1/4 will be added later). Add enough water to the pot so that it just covers the octopus, but don’t fill to the top. After the water boils, let the octopus cook for another 40 minutes or until it feels tender, test with a fork. Tip: Since the octopus will be used in a salad, it’s not recommended that it’s too tender, but enough that a fork can go through it easily. While the octopus is cooking, chop the parsley, the onion and mince garlic and add to a bowl with the olive oil and the vinegar and mix. Once the octopus is cooked cut it into pieces and place in a deep platter and cover it with the mixture, add black pepper to taste and sprinkle a tad of paprika and mix all of it and serve. Note: Start your dining experience at the Lisbon dining staple, Solar dos Presuntos, with an octopus salad.

Chicken livers (pipis)

1.79 pounds of chicken hearts
1.59 pounds chicken gizzards
A few pieces of liver (about 1/2 pound)
1 onion
7 garlic cloves
3 bay leaves
1/2 cup of olive oil
Coarse salt (to taste)
1 cup of white wine
1 cup of red wine
1 table spoon of white vinegar
Dry oregano (to taste)
Black pepper (to taste)
Fresh parsley
3 tea spoons of Tabasco sauce (Piri-Piri to taste if available)
1 cube of chicken Knorr
Tomato paste

Using a scissor or sharp knife cut the fat of the hearts off and snip the fatty piece on the tip of the heart and cut the heart across. Cut the fatty tissues off the gizzards as well and only keep the meaty parts and cut in to bite-size pieces. Cut the liver in to smaller pieces too. (chicken feet and necks are generally added to this dish, but in the Portuguese supermarket, A&J Seabra’s in Newark, NJ, where I bought our ingredients they were all out. If adding the chicken feet, clean the fat and access skin on them and cut off the nails. Cut the necks in two or three smaller parts). Wash everything a few times with warm water, drain and set aside. Chop the onion and garlic and put in a pot add the bay leaves and olive oil and sauté until the onion and garlic are golden but not burned. Add the chicken hearts, gizzards and liver and salt to taste and let that sauté. After a minute or two, add the white wine and a table spoon of tomato paste and let simmer uncovered for 10 minutes, and then add the red wine and the vinegar. Let it simmer in medium heat uncovered for another 10 minutes. Add oregano, parsley, Tabasco and Knorr cube and a half a cup of water, add lid and let cook on low to medium heat until the hearts and gizzards are tender (some of the liver pieces will dissolve and thicken the sauce); if it still needs more time to tenderize add a bit more white and red wine and cook for a few more minutes. Total cooking time will probably take 40 minutes, but it depends, so check the hearts and gizzards with a fork. Add the black pepper and serve with plenty of bread to sop up the thick gravy. Note: This Petisco pairs well with red wines and beer, but the white I selected wasn’t bad either, since it wasn’t overly fragrant or fruity with a balanced acidity that didn’t clash with the strong wine flavors in the gravy. (Flickr photo by FriskoDude)

Snails (caracoes)

Snails (about 2 pounds)
Salt and black pepper (to taste)
1/4 cup of white wine
Dry oregano (to taste)
2 table spoons of olive oil
1 onion
3 garlic cloves
2 bay leaves
3 tea spoons of Tabasco sauce (Piri-Piri to taste if available)

If buying a bucket of imported frozen snails like I did at A&J Seabra’s, the slimy suckers will likely have been cleaned, but if buying them fresh like most people in Portugal do in markets throughout the warmer months (the city of Setubal is known for its caracoes) or in many cases pick them right off grassy fields on a foggy day when the slugs tend to come out, the cleaning process is really the most tedious part. It requires submerging the snails (kind of brutal, I know, but there’s no other way) in a bucket filled with room temperature water, salt and vinegar. This will cause the snails to release their snot (yes, I said snot). You do this until there is no more snot or the least possible. In a wide and deep pot add the chopped onion, garlic, bay leaves, oregano, Tabasco sauce (three tea spoons or to taste) and sauté until the onion and garlic is golden, add the white wine and after a minute or so, add the snails and just enough water to cover the snails and add salt (if using frozen snails, cook in the water in which it was packaged and add more if needed). Let boil and then cook on low heat for 20 to 30 minutes. Add the black pepper and serve with plenty of napkins and tooth picks. Note: The white wine I selected for our Petiscos paired especially well with the snails, which have a hint of grass to their taste, and so opened the wines subtle fruit bouquet, mostly melon, a bit more when it otherwise remained mostly dormant with the other dishes.


Sonia Andresson-Nolasco

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