"The main issue with pintxos is they're so beautiful and so well presented. When it actually comes down to eating them, it's not beautiful," explains travel vlogger Marko Ayling. He's right--these tiny Basque dishes skewered on toothpicks are gorgeous. If they weren't so delicious, it would be a tragedy to eat them. Read on to find out more about pintxo (pronounced "peencho") culture.
I've Heard Of Tapas, But What Are Pintxos?
Spain is famous for its "small dishes," called tapas. Pintxos are undeniably similar--in fact, sometimes one establishment serves a particular dish, calling it a tapa, while another sells the same thing as a pintxo. There are a couple of ways tourists can tell the difference between the two, though.
Tapas are more popular in southern Spain, especially in Madrid. Basque Country and Navarre, both in the north, along the Bay of Biscay and border with France, prefer pintxos. Euskadi (another way to say Basque Country) is famous worldwide for its culinary arts.
The word "pincho" means skewer in Spanish, but in Basque Country, they replace "ch" with "tx." So, people call these small dishes pintxos because of the toothpick or skewer that keeps them together. Tapas don't always come on a toothpick, although they can.
Did you know...? Gilda was the first pintxo recipe developed in Euskadi. This skewer comes with an anchovie, pickled guindilla pepper, and olive.
A final difference is that tapas generally come free to accompany a glass of wine or beer. Diners need to specifically order and pay separately for pintxos.
Culturally, pintxos and tapas both occupy the same space. Groups of friends go out to enjoy the evening, and stop at several restaurants for drinks and small dishes. Depending on where they are in Spain, they'll consume either pintxos or tapas while they gossip about life and blow off steam.
Did you know...? The messier the floor in a pintxo bar, the better the establishment. This is because customers throw down their napkins and toothpicks instead of leaving them on the table. If a pintxo bar is busy, by the end of the night, plenty of trash should litter the floor.
Where Can I Try Pintxos?
Foodies hoping to join the pintxo crawl on a Friday evening (or whichever day they can) should head to the city of San Sebastian (called Donostia in Basque) or Bilbao.
San Sebastian is a beach city with stunning architecture and is the cultural center of the region. This urban center has a huge concentration of bars which makes it a fantastic place to go out on the town.
Bilbao, on the other hand, is the largest city in Basque Country. It's a port and former-industrial town known for its metalworking. Famously clean and orderly, Spaniards have rated it as one of the best places to live in their country. It's just about an hour and a half between the two cities, so visitors should be able to hit both in a single trip.
Travelers can explore pintxo bars on their own or choose a guided pintxo tour. Going with a guide tour has the advantage of being part of a group--the more the merrier! Also, the locals who work with these agencies know the best pintxos and bars to try. Annie Ross wrote this Google Review about her experience on a pintxo tour: "Was a perfect thing to do to get our bearings of the city, learn about traditions and try some of the best pintxos."
San Sebastian Tours:
- Eat One Feed One Food Tours - This company donates a meal for every person who goes on their tour.
- San Sebastian Pintxo Tours - They also offer cooking classes and wine tastings.
- Aupi Hi Experiences of Happiness - This group offers highly original tours focusing on traditional Basque culture.
- Tours By Basques - This company's tours have won several awards from travel associations.
- Bilbao Food Safari - They offer tours based on the premise that the best way to learn about a culture is through their cuisine.
- Secret Bilbao - Miguel, the owner and guide, creates totally personalized, thoughtful experiences for his customers.
Each pintxo is a work of art. One food blogger, Marti Kilpatrick, explains that each one has the complexity of an entire entree, but shrunken down into bite-size. "If you can't spend 150 euros [at a high-end restaurant] you can come and spend 5," she explains to aforementioned blogger Marko Ayling while picking out pintxos at Bar Zeruko, one of the fanciest in San Sebastian. The two, along with local guide Eli Susperregui, end up choosing tomatoes confit--filled with Basque cheese--, stuffed sea urchin, figs with foie, and upside-down squid.