If you think about Spanish food, for most people it won't be long before you talk about tapas. Along with paella, it's probably the best known part of Spanish cuisine. But what are tapas, and what are some typical, traditional examples?
What are tapas?
Tapas are basically small plates of food. They're essentially bar snacks served alongside beer or wine. Traditionally they would have been free with each drink but times have changed.
You will still often get the odd plate in some places, particularly in Southern Spain, but it's more likely to be olives or chips than something more elaborate, although there are a few places you'll be pleasantly surprised. However even if you have to pay for them, it's well worth it as you'll normally find lots of tasty options.
Tapas make a great snack before a late dinner, as is common in Spain. Alternatively, go bar hopping and make a meal out of a range of tapas as you go. One of the best things about tapas is if there are a few of you, they're a great way to sample a range of dishes without over-ordering and/or spending a lot.
At home, tapas are great for casual entertaining. Most are easy to make and they're a great way to offer a range of tasty bites to suit different tastes.
The origins of tapas
As with many long-held traditions, the origins of tapas are a bit vague. There are some tall tales about former kings, but the most plausible story links to the name.
'Tapa' means 'lid' in Spanish and many stories go that some bartenders started using a piece of bread as a lid to keep flies out of the glasses of beer. Over time food was added on top. and tapas were born.
Different types of tapas
In Spain, you'll see tapas in a few different forms. The main groups are:
- cheese and charcuterie platters
- cold tapas
- hot tapas
Let me walk you through a bit more about each
Pinchos (spelled pintxos in Basque) are probably what many people think of when you talk about tapas. These are slices of bread with various different toppings.
The name comes from the Basque Country in the NorthEast where you'll find bars dedicated purely to pinchos. Often the bar is lined with plates of them, you get a plate and help yourself.
Each pincho has a cocktail stick in it and when you are done, the bartender counts up your sticks and charges accordingly. San Sebastian in particular is where you'll find some incredibly creative and delicious toppings. So much so, you'll hardly believe you're just eating a piece of bread with stuff on it.
Cheese and charcuterie platters
Despite manchego being the best known Spanish cheese, there are in fact many more that are worth trying. You'll find both hard and soft cheeses, blue cheeses and ones made from different milks. See my Spanish cheese board for more on some classic Spanish cheeses.
Charcuterie, known in Spanish as "embutidos", also comes in a broad range of varieties, from jamon serrano (serrano ham) and chorizo (a kind of salami with paprika) to more regional cured meats like fuet (a thin cured salami-type sausage from Catalunya/the Balearics).
It's worth looking out for "Iberico" versions of both jamon and chorizo for something a little special, too. These are made from pork where they have fed purely on acorns and the meat has a wonderful slightly smokey flavor and is extra tender.
A few favorite examples are in my no cook Spanish tapas, including pan con tomate which is a base for many simple open sandwiches (and sometimes pinchos). In Catalunya, you might have dishes like escalivada (roasted vegetables) served at room temperature to add to bread.
Many cold tapas, like potato salads and seafood, are all ready to go in dishes behind the bar to make things easier, but they are usually very fresh. At home, they're great for a quick, light lunch and snacks.
This, to me, is where tapas is the most interesting. Yes, you can get creative with pincho toppings but they are almost still more of a snack. These dishes, meanwhile, you can combine to make a meal of sharing plates. Some typical dishes include:
- patatas bravas (potatoes with a spicy sauce)
- blistered Padron peppers, pimientos de Padrón
- gambas al ajillo (shrimp in garlic)
- pinchos morunos (Moorish pork skewers)
- chorizo al vino (Spanish chorizo sausage cooked in wine)
- salt cod stuffed piquillo peppers
- paella, and it's variations including arroz negro
- albondigas (meatballs, recipe from Love Foodies)
- croquetas (croquettes, ham, cheese or salt cod the most popular - ham recipe from Curious Cuisinere)
- pulpo a la Gallega (Galician-style octopus)
Despite what you may think from the above, you do get some vegetarian ones but in fairness, not a huge number, at least traditionally. Even another common tapas of sautéed mushrooms usually has ham in it.
Do you get dessert tapas?
Traditionally tapas don't include sweet dishes per se, but there are some common desserts that may feature on the menu to enjoy after tapas or mains. Crema Catalana (similar to creme brulee), flan (like creme caramel), arroz con leche (rice pudding)) and natillas (a kind of custard) are some of the most popular.
Tapas are such a key part of eating in Spain, and come in such a variety. Of course the same idea exists in other cultures, like meze in the Eastern Med/Middle East. It's an idea being adopted and adapted around the world too. And why not, it's a fun way to eat! So next time someone asks what are tapas, your next question is what tapas do you want to enjoy first?
And if you want a broader taste of Spain, get many more Spanish recipes in the archives.