Good Things, Small Packages – The Art of Spanish Tapas

Spanish Tapas

Having lived in Spain for a few months, I grew quite accustomed to eating tapas, and can’t even begin to estimate how much I devoured in my time there. There is something quite novel about having lots of little plates of food to pick from instead of one plate of your own. Spanish tapas has been an iconic style of dining in this part of the world for centuries, and the country has stuck to the bread and meat classics, but also continues to evolve to create new styles of tapas all the time.

The word ‘tapas’ drives from the Spanish word ‘tapas’ which means to cover, and the origins of the food comes from that very action. It is thought that it began to come into fashion when workers used giant slices of meat or bread to cover their sherry glasses to keep the fruit flies out. However, there are a number of other theories that tell a different story as to the creation of tapas, including a king declaring small plates of food accompanied by a glass of wine good for the health, and an attempt to stop sailors and soldiers getting drunk by forcing all bars to serve a small plate of food on top of each glass of alcohol served.

Meats and bread were the first kind of Spanish tapas to be served, but the dishes developed and used different influences from around the world. As the Romans invaded, olives started to appear; North Africa started to infiltrate the south, which bought almonds, and spices, and the discovery of the New World lead to tomatoes, sweet chilli peppers and corn, all of which thrived in the Mediterranean climate. These influences combined together to create the kind of tapas we know and love today, which are found in restaurants and cafes all over the country.

Most restaurants or bars specialising in tapas, such as El Rincon del Cava in Barcelona, have a long bar with a glass container running down it, inside of which they place plate upon plate of different kinds of tapas. This allows you to walk in, take your place at the bar, and pick and choose from the plates as and when you want them. As most people in Spain eat dinner much later than when other countries consider to be normal, 9pm at the very earliest, it is not uncommon for people to hop around tapas bars, sampling a few different plates as appetizers before dinner. They are also perfect for something small to eat as a snack, or order a whole range with friends and pick until you are stuffed.

The kind of food you will always see on a tapas menu today are olives, breads, meats such as chorizo or jamon serrano, a lot of seafood such as calamari rings, banderillas, which are small pickled onions, olives and peppers on a tiny skewer, croquetas, which are breaded or fried and a number of different fillings, Spanish tortilla, a thick omelette of potatoes and onion, pimientos de Padrón, small green peppers salted and lightly fried, and patatas bravas, fried potatoes with a spicy tomato sauce and alioli, which is not dissimilar to garlic mayonnaise.

There are some which tapas eaters will never miss out of their personal menus, whereas others are a slightly grander addition to the mix, such as the fancier seafood platters. I, for example, will never have tapas without patatas bravas, because I’m addicted to the mixture of spicy sauce and alioli. The list of tapas could go on and on, and different restaurants will prepare the dishes in slight different ways, so make sure you try a number of places to taste the rich variety that Spain has to offer.

Photo credit: By Elemaki (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Emma Higgins has been writing and traveling on and off since 2009. Her blog, Gotta Keep Movin’ is full of stories and advice from her trips, which include Europe, India, Morocco, South America, the USA and Canada. Her main focuses are budget travel and volunteering, and she has been involved in sustainable farming in Argentina, animal shelters in Peru, and even tried her hand at making goats cheese in British Columbia. Follow her travels on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
Categories: Food

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