From a humble petisco (“snack”) in tascas to a fancy dish in elegant restaurants, peixinhos da horta are experiencing a revival in Lisbon. Chefs have perfected their crispy texture and experimented with dipping sauces, turning them into a simple and delicious starter or a snack to pair with a cold glass of white wine.
Peixinhos da horta (which translates as “little fish from the garden”) are nothing but green beans deep-fried in a batter. As a child, I often ate them on summer holidays in the Algarve; my granny fried them in small batches of four or five, similar to how she prepared small horse mackerel, in a delicate batter and served them with soupy tomato rice on the side. After a morning spent on the beach – where usually ate only fruit or bola de Berlim (doughnut) – this meal tasted heavenly.
When I started to work in newspapers in Baixa and Bairro Alto, I remember seeing peixinhos da horta in tascas and snack bars, sitting cold and lifeless next to “green eggs” (a Portuguese petisco in which the egg yolk of a boiled egg is mixed with parsley and some olive oil before being stuffed back into the egg, which is then breaded and fried), horse mackerel in sauce and cod cakes. But the key is to eat them hot, or else you’re left munching on a soggy and unappetizing dish. In Bairro Alto I tried them in what was supposedly a nice restaurant, and they were so greasy and tasteless that I stopped eating them for years.
Peixinhos and I were reunited when José Avillez started cooking them at his first restaurant, Cantinho do Avillez, in Chiado. They were crispy, flavorful and light. Avillez was one of the first chefs to realize the potential of petiscos – once limited to tascas and tabernas – and began incorporating these small plates into his menus. Nowadays peixinhos can be found everywhere, and while I’ve tasted some really nice ones in modern tascas, I still prefer Avillez’s or the ones at Café de São Bento (either from the restaurant or their kiosk in the Time Out Market).
Frying fish has been a popular preparation in Portugal since the Middle Ages; it’s still common today to find fish fried in a batter (including bacalhau, or salt cod). Likewise, frying vegetables has a long history. The landmark 1903 cookbook Tratado Completo de Cozinha e Copa by Bento da Maia contains recipes for frying potatoes and turnips in a batter. But even before that, fish and vegetables were important elements of the diet in Catholic countries, as there were numerous fasting days – when consuming meat was forbidden – in the Catholic calendar, including Fridays, religious holidays and Lent.
Deep-fried green beans became popular under the name peixinhos da horta, although when exactly this occurred is unclear. What is known, though, is that they served as the inspiration for tempura. The Portuguese – mainly missionaries and merchants – were the first Europeans to contact Japan, in 1543. With the help of the Jesuits, the Portuguese eventually controlled Nagasaki, introducing new vocabulary – words like botan (botão, button) or pan (from pão, bread) are still in the Japanese language – and foods such as egg-based cakes and desserts (pão-de-ló, a soft Portuguese sponge cake, is said to be the inspiration for castella cake, also called kasutera, which is still very popular in Japan). The missionaries brought their culinary habits, conditioned as they were by religion, which included frying fish or vegetables for the meat-free days in the calendar. These periods were called têmporas – and some historians believe this is the origin of the word tempura, though the Portuguese word for seasoning – tempero – is also very similar.
The Japanese adopted tempura and developed a remarkable technique, ultimately elevating it into an art form. But when I’m craving fried veggies, I turn to this recipe from the book I wrote with my friend Lucy Pepper, Eat Portugal: The Essential Guide to Portuguese Food.
For the batter, some recipes mix flour and cornstarch while others add hard liquor like vodka or aguardente, or white wine. This one, which is more traditional, calls for flour only (although I make sure to sieve it) and cold sparkling water or beer. It’s better not to stir the batter too much or the mixture will lose its lightness. For the frying, I use peanut oil but any good quality vegetable oil will do. Most importantly, make sure to eat the beans as soon as they are out of the frying pan, when they are still crispy.
If you like tempura, then take this chance to fry some other vegetables to pair with the green beans. This time I used what I had in the fridge: leeks (leaf by leaf), carrots and sweet potato (both cut horizontally), celebrating spring in lockdown with a frying fest.
Peixinhos da Horta Recipe
500g green beans or French beans
200ml sparkling water (or beer)
Good pinch of salt
Vegetable oil for frying
Top and tail the beans, and remove the strings. If using flat green beans, slice each bean in half, along its length. Boil for 3-4 minutes with some lemon juice in the water, which helps keep the beans green. Drain them and put them to one side while you make a simple batter, beating together the flour, cold sparkling water, egg, salt and nutmeg.
Heat an inch of oil in the bottom of a deep pan. When the oil is hot, dip two or three beans at a time in the batter and drop carefully into the oil. Fry until the batter is lightly golden. Drain on kitchen paper.
Eat as a starter or with drinks.
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