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.
This article was previously published in catavino.net