The Difference Between Pintxos, Pinchos, and Tapas

Pintxos in San Sebastian
Damian Corrigan

'Pintxo' is a 'Basque-ified' take on the Spanish word 'pincho', which itself comes from the verb 'pinchar', which is 'to pierce'. Pinchos are traditionally pierced with a cocktail stick to attach it to the piece of bread that they invariably came attached to. However, as Basque cuisine has evolved, the food is now less likely to be pierced to a piece of bread than before.

Pintxos (or Pinchos) vs Tapas

The difference between a pincho and a tapa is complicated and depends largely on context and location in Spain.

A significant minority of Spaniards who have not traveled extensively within their own country have the idea that a pincho is paid for and a tapa is always free. This is simply not true.

The basic uses of 'pincho', 'pintxo', and 'tapa' are as follows:

  • In the Basque Country, you are served 'pintxos'. It is never written 'pinchos' and they are never called 'tapas'. This is the case regardless of whether it is served 'pinchado' to a piece of bread with a cocktail stick or not. Even if you're served a plate of risotto, it's still a pintxo. You will always pay for your pintxo.
  • In Salamanca, particularly on Calle Van Dyck, you are served pinchos. They are almost always a piece of meat served on a piece of bread. Though not actually 'pinchado' with a stick, this is still close to the original idea of what a 'pincho' is. However, here they are free.
  • In Granada and Leon (and in some other nearby cities) as well as in some bars in Madrid, a small portion, whether served on bread or not, is a tapa. It is free.
  • In Seville and other parts of Andalusia, all small portions are called 'tapas'. They are not free.
  • In many cities in Spain, particularly Madrid, a large portion of, say, calamares, will be called a 'ración', with a half-size portion called a 'media ración' and a quarter-size portion a 'tapa'.
  • In most parts of Spain, when trying to informally say 'a bit of', for example, "Can I have a bit of tortilla please?" you will ask for a 'pincho' -- so 'un pincho de tortilla'.

    How to Order Pintxos in the Basque Country

    One of the 'novelties' of pintxos is that you don't order, you take. It's not the most hygienic practice in the world, but it's a bit of fun to order your beer and just start nibbling at what you see on the bar. You then normally just tell them at the end how many you've had and the barman will charge you accordingly.

    However, it is not always done like this. In some bars, the barman can be very protective of his pintxos, you have to ask. How do you know whether you can help yourself or not? Well, it seems that the Basques have a psychic connection with their pintxos—they just know. For the rest of us, a good tip is to ask for a plate ('¿Tienes un plato?' tee-EN-es oon PLA-to)—if the barman just gives you a plate, you are free to help yourself. If he holds onto it and looks at you expectantly, it's time for you start pointing!

    Pintxos in San Sebastian

    Pintxos in San Sebastian are said to be the best in the Basque Country. They too have the canape type things on the bar, but many bars in San Sebastian also have a menu. This means fresh pintxos cooked to order, which is a lot more hygienic (and tasty) than the normal ones, though perhaps a little less fun.