What are Tapas?
Tapas are small portions of food that you can enjoy with a drink or sometimes as a complete meal. They can be cold, like cheese and olives, or hot, like calamari and croquettes. You will often find something that looks like tapas in different countries of the world; There’s Meze in Greece, Bocas in Central America and Botanas in Mexico.
The History of Tapa
There are a few different opinions about the origin of the name tapas. The primary one is that the word comes from the verb ‘tapar’. This means “to cover”. In pre-19th century Spain, tapas were a way for innkeepers to sell their food. Because they could not write and the guest could not read, they gave the guests a sample of the food. This sample of food came as a ‘tapa’ or a pot/glass cover.
So, the original tapas were thin slices of meat or bread which were used to cover glasses between sips; A simple way to keep the fruit flies out of the sweet sherry. The meat was usually ham or chorizo, which was very salty, and resulted in making the patrons thirstier. Bartenders and restaurant owners wanted to increase their alcohol sales and thus started creating snacks to serve with the sherry. Eventually, the tapas became just as important as the sherry.
Photo by Ticker Eats The World
Where and when do you eat tapas?
You can find tapas at a lot of places in almost all the cities and towns of Spain. From bars and small local restaurants to big touristic spots, tapas are an integral part of Spanish gastronomic heritage. Tapas is especially prevalent in Murcia, Andalusia, Extremadura, León, and Ciudad Real. Here, tapas are a traditional food.
As dinner is very late in Spain, between 9 and 11 p.m., there is a lot of time between work and dinner. As a result, locals go from bar to bar after work eating some tapas and enjoying a drink or few.
Over the weekend, lunch is between 1 and 4 p.m. Tapas is a way to fill the time up until noon. Just as a little snack between meals.
The tapa was typically free in the olden days if you bought a drink. Nowadays, you have to pay in most places. A simple tapa is around 1 or 2 euros and the more special ones about 3 to 4 euros. The price depends on the ingredients, the location, and also the portion size.
You can choose between three different sized portions:
Tapa: A small plate with just a few bites. For example, a small bowl of olives or 3 croquetas.
Media ración: Half a dish. This is just a bit more and would consist of around 5 croquetas.
Ración: A complete dish. This is a bigger plate, often shared. If you are with a group, order a few racións and try them all. It will be cheaper than ordering a lot of different tapas.
Different Kinds of Tapas
There are many different types of tapas. You have them with vegetables, chicken, pork, or fish. Basically, whatever you can think of, there is probably a tapas version of it available.
The most famous cold tapa are olives. They can be pitted or filled with anchovies, almonds, or even bell peppers.
Jamón Iberico is also very popular. With or without bread, this dried ham tapa is always delicious. Similarly, different kind of cheese make for excellent tapa, eaten with some crackers or bread.
Salads are often served as tapa and range from Potato salad to an exotic goat’s cheese salad.
A unique form of tapas is the sauce tapas. Aioli, a garlic mayonnaise, Verde, parsley and garlic sauce are just a few different variations. These appetisers, best eaten with some bread, chicken or seafood, make for a yummy and quick snack.
Photo by Raghav Modi
Warm tapas are my favourite. I love meat and fries and anything that goes along with them. So, it’s always warm tapas over the cold one, even though I appreciate them both.
Very much like the cold tapas, the warm versions are quite distinct and varied. Ingredients for these consist of fish, meat, or vegetables.
There are the Pinchitos or the skewers. Most of the time you get some fries with it, but not necessarily. They are always well seasoned and prepared on the grill or BBQ.
While the chicken skewer – Pinchito de Pollo – will mostly have pieces of grilled chicken with some flavouring sauce and chips, the vegetarian version – Pinchito de verduras – has a few different ingredients. Although these tapa-sized bites vary from restaurant to restaurant, Onion, Bell pepper, Eggplant and Zucchini are common in this dish.
Croquettes are awesome. I love them, and I even make them at home after trying for the first time last summer. Most families make them at home with leftover food from the previous day. In restaurants, they are prepared from scratch every day. The recipes for croquettes are often passed from one generation to another with some modification, and every restaurant makes a slightly different version which is unique to them.
A full portion of ración or croquettes will have approximately eight pieces and is enough if it is the only thing that you order. I love them so much that I can eat a whole portion for lunch. The more traditional ones are with jamón of ham. But you also have them with spinach, pine nuts, chicken, fish, shrimps, cheese and more.
Some of the other well-known tapas are:
Albóndigas: Meatballs in tomato sauce
Calamari: Fried and battered squid rings
Chorizo al Vino: Chorizo slowly cooked in Wine
Empanadas: Meat and vegetables filled turnovers
Patatas Bravas: Fried potato dice with a spicy tomato sauce
Tortilla Española; A Spanish omelette made from potatoes with egg and sometimes onions.
Montaditos: Small filled buns, often toasted. A lot of different possibilities for the topping.
Spain has more unique tapas than anywhere else in the world. The best way to discover these culinary bites is to go to a bar and simply try some.
I recommend not even asking for the English menu. Instead, start ordering random Spanish things. Then, take pictures of the ones you like, and ask the staff about them afterwards.
This is definitely a more exciting and adventurous way to learn something new, and simultaneously appreciate the culinary culture of Spain that is as vibrant as its many tourist spots.
So, it’s now time to enjoy some tapa and of course the many drinks that comes with it.
About the Author: Hi! I am Caitlyn, and I am from Holland. I fell in love with travelling a few years ago, and now I have also started writing about it. My goal is to get others to fall in love with travel. Feel free to follow me on Facebook or Instagram, and take a look at all my adventures on my blog With Caitlyn.
Ed. Note: All words and photos, unless otherwise mentioned, are by Caitlyn.