All there is to know about Tapas! The ultimate way of life for Spaniards and also a delicious way to explore and get the essence of beautiful Spain.
Tapas are not a simple meal nor a snack, it’s a social event, a way of living, a philosophy in Spain. A great way to meet friends to chat around a beverage, whether a wine, beer or vermouth, while eating up a small bite. Many believe tapas are those many small plates you accumulate in the middle of the table to share in between a group of people but truth be told a “tapa” is originally thought for one person only and by tradition eaten standing up at the bar. If you want to share plates you’ll need a “ración” which is a slightly bigger portion.
Back at its origin, you wouldn’t order “tapas” per se, you would order a drink and a free small bite would come by magic with it. Nowadays the formula changed quite a bit. You still can find the old traditional tapas way here and there, especially in Granada, although now you’ve got to pay for it and choose which one you’d like. Today everything is permitted and sitting at the table and ordering many “tapas” or more precisely “raciones” to share is fairly common. Some tapas can be shared between 2 persons but usually a ración is a better deal if you plan to share between 2-4 persons.
In Spain, they love their tapas so much, you’ll often hear those few expressions: ir de tapas (going for tapas), A tapear! (Let’s go eat Tapas!), algo para picar (something to nibble on), etc. This delicious social ritual is a great way if not the best to experience Spain and its people!
The origin of Tapas
Tapas comes from the South of Spain, somewhere in Andalusia, although its precise origin isn’t clear. There are many versions as to how it all started, here are a few:
- The most popular story : a simple way to cover the glass of wine (back then fortified sweet wine) and prevent bugs from entering the glass. Because nobody like those drunken flies in their drinks… The barman would cover the glass with a slice of ham, cheese or possibly a small plate to prevent the enemy from reaching the wine. By the way the word “Tapa” in Spanish means “lid”, so this story makes lots of sense.
- The King Alfonso X de Castilla would have been prescribed by his doctor to drink wine and eat small bites in between meals. Once recovered from his mysterious illness he would have made it a law throughout Spain to serve a Tapa with every drink served.
- Some say it was a trick from a Barman to give salty snack with wine to make their customers thirstier. This one is still relevant today…
- The King Felipe III would have pass a law to prevent sailors and soldiers from getting too drunk in bars. He ordered every bar to serve a piece of food with every given drinks in order to slow down the effect of alcohol and keep the peace.
So the truth will never be known, but in my opinion, there would be traces of those king’s laws somewhere and truthfully Tapa means “to cover” or “lid” so the first option is my bet.
The many names of Tapas
There are many varieties of Tapas around Spain, basically they are all small bites that you enjoy with friends while sipping on drinks but they come in different formats, customs and names. Nowadays, you can find all those variants all around Spain. Here they are:
Pintxos / Pinchos
“Pintxos” (in Euskara) or “Pinchos” (in Spanish) are from the North of Spain, the Basque country. Those bars are easy to spot, because all the “tapas” are displayed on the bar’s counter, no menu in sight. These are made of various ingredients stacked over a slice of bread or pastry base which is holding up with the help of a toothpick. You can find all kinds of toppings going from croquetas, chorizo, goat cheese and tomato, tuna, salmon, tortilla de patata with aioli, gulas (mini eels), etc. The way it works with those Pintxos Bars is so simple, you take an empty plate, usually on the counter in the entrance, and pick up whatever tapas displayed at the bar. If you are lucky you’ll see some fresh tapas coming out from the kitchen and grab a nice warm one before it hits the bar. Every pintxos cost whether the same price or have different types of toothpicks for different prices, the waiter will let you know. In the end your waiter will count the toothpicks left in your plate in order to make you pay. So don’t drop them!
*If you go for pintxos, you’ve got to go all the way, by drinking whether a light Basque white wine called Txacoli or their famous hard cider “sidra”.
Those are mini sandwiches often without the topping bread. The word montadito comes from “montar” meaning “to stack”, like putting ingredients one over the other. You can get again all kinds of toppings in there, usually larger than pintxos but quite similar.
*A top place to try this type of Tapas is the famous Quimet & Quimet in Barcelona, Poble Sec. Those montaditos are made with some of the best quality conserve food and frankly a “must -try” if you ever visit Barcelona. Don’t be scared of squeezing in this place!
Cazuelas / Cazuelitas
Those are warm tapas traditionally cooked in the same small clay pot it is served in, other times a way to get a small bite of a “usually bigger” elaborated dish. In some menus there are part of the “warm” tapas category. Usually served in a liquid, you’ll find the most rustic types of tapas dishes like gambas al ajillo (shrimps in garlic), Chorizo al vino or en sidra (chorizo cooked in red wine or cider), Bacalao al pil pil (salted cod in an emulsified olive oil sauce), chipirones en su tinta (mini squids in its ink), Albondigas con sepia (meatballs with cuttlefish) and many others… The cazuela is bigger than a typical “tapas” size, it’s more a “Racion” size so better to share this one. Don’t be shy to drop a piece of bread in there in the end to eat all that flavorful broth, it’s the Spanish way after all!
Those are mini cold skewers of pickled ingredients going from gherkin, small onion, Guindilla chile, olive, anchovy, pepper, shrimps, cheese, etc. It’s a simple and colorful way to nibble on something light before going out for dinner. Easy to eat standing up, you won’t only find them in many tapas bars around Spain but also markets. The most famous banderilla is called the “Gilda” a Basque version consisting of pickled Guidilla chile (mildly spicy), manzanilla olives and top quality anchovy. This is the incontestable favorite around Spain and you’ll find it for sure in many Tapas bars.
*In Mercado de Villa de Vallecas, in Madrid, there is a stand which serves up to 50 different types of Banderilla. Otherwise just check around any market and you’ll find some for sure.
Embutidos, Jamon and cheese
Those are slightly different, not really considered “Tapas” in Spain although it is doing the same exact purpose as Tapas. Plus the origin of Tapas is probably coming from the Ham slice over the wine glass so in my opinion I do consider them “Tapas”. Embutidos are all the different types of transformed meat, dry sausages and cured meats of all kinds. Because in Spain, they do have tons of them, and frankly they are masters in the art of embutidos! Often you’ll find them on the Tapas menu but also in the bodega, or wine cellars shops, just check if there are tables in the back and the chances are: they serve embutidos with wine.
The ham isn’t considered a “embutido” it’s got a category of it’s own because sincerely it’s just the ultimate tapa to try in Spain. You’ve got all kinds of hams from the Serrano, the Teruel, the Iberico de bellota, etc. It can be quite a journey to try them all, but if you’ve got to do just one go for a Jamon Iberico de Bellota. It’s those acorn fed Black Iberic pigs which is simply divine! A definitely top food to try on any foodie “Bucket list”!
Spain has a ton of delicious cheeses to explore! Manchego is by far the most popular one you’ll get as a “tapa” although many good tapas bar will offer different cheeses. Some highlights to try would be the goat cheese marinated in olive oil, the payoyo, a strong tangy blue cheese called Cabrales, the smoked Basque cheese called Idiazabal and many more. Spaniards like to mix up milks to create their cheese, you’ll often see a mix of goat and sheep milk and frankly it’s a treat!
The last but not the least is pretty much all the rest going from Pescado Frito (fried fishes) passing by chipironnes (mini squids) to Patatas Bravas and many more… Tapas can be whether cold or warm, traditional or modern, on the bar or from the kitchen, from the sea or the mountain, there are as many tapas as there are colors. Some restaurant even do whole degustation menus of tapas like at the famous Tickets bar from Albert Adriá which is an unforgettable event of molecular food at its best. Reserve in advance for this one!
Every major city like Sevilla, Barcelona, Madrid or San Sebastian have there own Tapas quarters where people fill up the bars at night, up to the street and go from bar to bar to try different tapas in good company. Good tapas bars are easy to spot: simply go to the full ones, it might scare you to be squeezed in there but don’t worry there is always a spot for you. Each bar has their own specialties, if you are adventurous simply ask for it at the bar. Another tip: pay in the end. They are magical in Spain, they remember every single plate you’ll order.
Vermouth; The new way of doing tapas
This is the latest trend in Spain, forget about Sangria, now it’s all about vermut! Usually Tapas are accompanied by whether a small beer called “caña” or a glass of wine/cava. Nowadays, there is an old friend that came back in the mix… vermouth! It’s the new trend right now. There are many tapas bars that are now called themselves vermuteria, which serves delicious sweet red or white vermouth accompany with an olive, orange slice on ice. A great afternoon drink that goes to perfection with any salty tapa. This mix of salted and sweet will stay imprinted on your memory!
A final recommendation
Just for the sake of finishing on a high note… Tapas are a way of life, so if you want to see the real essence of Spain, go mix in with the locals and eat tapas. The chance you’ll make new friends and see the beauty of this art of Tapeo will reveal much more than a succulent night out!
Vamos a Tapear!