All there is to know about Tapas! The ultimate way of life for Spaniards and a delicious way to explore and get the essence of beautiful Spain.
What are Tapas? Tapas, are neither a simple meal nor a snack; they’re a social event, a way of living, and a philosophy in Spain. Did you know Spain has the most bar per habitat? Yes, before Ireland and UK! This is where you find original tapas. A great way to meet friends to chat around a beverage, whether wine, beer or vermouth, while eating up a small bite.
Many believe tapas are those small plates you accumulate in the middle of the table to share between a group of people. Still, the truth is a “tapa” is thought initially for one person only and, by tradition, eaten standing up at the bar. If you want to share plates, you’ll need a “ración,” a slightly more significant portion.
Traditional and Modern way
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 “raciones” to share is pretty standard. 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.
A Culture’s Ritual
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 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 of how it all started; here are a few:
- The most famous story: a simple way to cover the glass of wine (back then, fortified sweet wine was served) and prevent bugs from entering the glass. Because nobody likes those drunken flies in their drinks… The barman would cover the glass with a slice of ham, cheese or a small plate with olives to prevent the enemy from reaching the wine. The word “Tapa” in Spanish means “lid,” so this story makes lots of sense.
- The doctor of King Alfonso X de Castilla would have prescribed him to drink wine and eat small bites between meals. Once recovered from his mysterious illness, he would have made it a law throughout Spain to serve a Tapa with every drink.
- Some say it was a trick from a Barman to give salty snacks with wine to make their customers thirstier. This one is still relevant today…
- King Felipe III would have passed 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 drink 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 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, with no menu. These are made of various ingredients stacked over a slice of bread or pastry base, holding up with a toothpick’s help. You can find all kinds of toppings 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 simple; you take an empty plate, usually on the counter at the entrance, and pick up whatever tapas are 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 pintxo costs the same price or has different types of toothpicks for different prices; the waiter will let you know. Ultimately, your waiter will count the toothpicks left on your plate 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 all kinds of toppings again, 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 conserved food and, frankly, a “must-try” if you ever visit Barcelona. Don’t be scared of squeezing into 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. Some menus contain a part of “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 Cazuelas are 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 the end to eat all that flavorful broth; it’s the Spanish way, after all!
Those are mini cold skewers of pickled ingredients from gherkin, small onion, Guindilla chile, olive, anchovy, pepper, shrimp, cheese, etc. It’s a simple, colourful way to nibble on something light before dinner. Easy to eat standing up, you won’t only find them in many tapas bars around Spain but also in 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 favourite around Spain, and you’ll surely find it in many Tapas bars.
*In Mercado de Villa de Vallecas, in Madrid, a stand serves up to 50 different types of Banderilla. Otherwise, check around any market, and you’ll find some.
Embutidos, Jamon and Cheese
Those are slightly different, not considered “Tapas” in Spain, although it is used for 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. Because in Spain, they 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 cellar shops; just check if there are tables in the back, and the chances are: they serve Embutidos with wine.
The ham isn’t considered an “Embutido” it’s got a category of its own because, sincerely, it’s just the ultimate tapa to try in Spain. You’ve got all kinds of hams from the Serrano, Teruel, 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 are simply divine! It is a definitely high gastronomy bite to try on any foodie’s “Bucket list”!
Spain has a ton of delicious cheeses to explore! Manchego is the most popular one you’ll get as a “tapa,” although many good tapas bars will offer different cheeses. Some highlights 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 kinds of milk to create their cheese, you’ll often see a mix of goat and sheep milk, and frankly, it’s a treat!
Last but not least is pretty much all the rest going from Pescado Frito (fried fish) 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 colours. Some restaurants 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 has there own Tapas quarters where people fill up the bars at night. Go to those streets and go from bar to bar to try different tapas in good company. Good tapas bars are easy to spot: 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 its specialties; if you are adventurous, ask for them at the bar. Another tip: pay in the end. They are magical in Spain; they remember every single plate you 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 a small beer called “caña” or a glass of wine/cava. Nowadays, an old friend has come back into the mix… vermouth! It’s the new trend right now. Many tapas bars are now called Vermuteria, which serves delicious sweet red or white vermouth accompanied by olive or orange slices 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!
*If you are about to visit beautiful Barcelona, here is a link to my favourite Tapas places!
Vamos a Tapear!