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Let’s be honest, when planning a trip to Spain one of the top priorities is to know were the best tapas are. If you’re from the States and you live in or near a major city you’ve probably been to a tapas restaurant. How can you not enjoy ordering a plethora of small plates of delicious eats? Ashley and I sure do! We ate at our local tapas place in Healdsburg all the time (an obscene amount, truth be told). They are fun restaurants to go with friends on a hot afternoon, enjoy a few drinks, some food, and you’re set for the rest of the evening
Most likely what you’re eating back home are not traditional tapas, but appetizers being advertised as tapas. Now don’t go storm the place with pitchforks and torches demanding traditional tapas. It just means that you might have somewhat of the wrong idea of what tapas actually are. In America we eat tapas as a shared meal between multiple people where traditionally in Spain it’s not supposed to be your meal but instead a small bite during cocktail hour.
Let’s digress, the bags are packed and Spain is in sight and you want to dive stomach first into the tapas scene. You want to eat tapas like the Spanish do and not stick out like a sore thumb. Well here is the good news, this is what this guide is here for, we already made fools out of ourselves for you. We are here to give you an insight on how to navigate the tapas culture before you arrive in Spain. This is just an introduction though, a way to feel a little bit more confident in picking a tapas bar, and once inside how to handle yourself.
What Are Tapas
In the most simplistic explanation, tapas can be anything, especially when it comes to ingredients. Think of tapas as small bites that accompany your drink. Traditionally when you would order a drink, like sherry or vermouth, a complimentary tapa would accompany the drink and every drink there after. Tapas were simple: olives, chorizo, almonds, and that’s it. It was not about the food, it was about the drink as culturally the Spanish enjoy eating while they drink.
Today you won’t find many places that still have complementary tapas, but they do exist (like La Bodega in El Born, Barcelona). Tapas have expanded today to encompass briny sardines, sweet peppers, fried fish, and so forth. Tapas bars have evolved as the tapas culture in Spain grows, including now having small plates and not just simple bites. They’re still not appetizers but I’ll explain that later. Just think of it like this, it is what you eat at the bar with a drink before you go to dinner.
History and Etymology of Tapas
Tapa derives from the Spanish word “tapar” which means “to cover.” The meaning of the word directly correlates with how the original tapas were severed. When one would get a glass of wine or a glass of sherry they would have a tapa like bread with some ham placed on top of the glass to accompany it. There have been a few stories on how this name came to be:
One explanation is the fact that since tapas are eaten at bars, one needs a place to set the plates so it was convenient to just set them on top of the glass.
Some believe that taverns served food on top of glasses of wine to mask the smell of wine that might be off.
Another story says that King Alfonso XIII of Cádiz walked into a tavern for some wine and when the the cup of wine was brought to him it was covered with a piece of ham to keep out sand because the city was so windy. After he finished his drink, he ordered another one and said “the one with the cover.”
My favorite story is that tapas were invented when King Alfonso X of Castile became ill. Supposedly he got better by eating small bites of food with wine between meals. When he regained his strength he declared that all taverns must serve a small bit of food with wine for its restorative properties.
There are a few more theories on how the name came about but in reality nobody’s quite sure. We do know that tapas originated in the province of Andalucia which is in southern Spain and the tradition is quite old. Tapas spread throughout Spain and today is really an integral part of their culture as the tapa has evolved with Spanish culture and cuisine.
When to Eat Tapas
Tapas are the purgatory of the food world; they are there to fill in the gaps of the day. Unlike an appetizer, it does not accompany a meal or take the place of a meal. They are served at bars called tasca and people indulge themselves in these treats before lunch and before dinner. Most likely when in Spain you will enjoy tapas time in the evening before dinner. Dinner is served later in the evening and you often don’t see people sitting down for dinner until 22:00 or later. After work the Spanish head off to the tapas bars for a pre dinner drink and snack. I suggest going around 20:00 but you can see places serving tapas as early as 18:00.
How to Eat Tapas
Well, I suggest with your hands but it is up to you. All joking aside tapas is more like bar hopping. You start at one order a couple with a drink and then move on. Start by ordering a glass of wine, sherry, or vermouth and then pick a tapa to eat with it. Once you are done you head off to the next place and repeat the process. Personally I have a few tapas and drinks at each place and stick to about two or three bars before dinner but in Barcelona a few places I went to were so good that before I knew it I was stuffed and had no room for dinner. The way you go about it is really up to you; just jump into one of those busy bars and get involved with the energy of the place.
What to Eat
Today the creativity of tapas have grown, so there are many dishes for one to try. The focus of tapas has always been about fresh and in season Mediterranean ingredients and typical Spanish delicacies. That is what you will be looking for as your browse the bars. If you see canned food at the bars don’t let that throw you off. Spain is known for the best canned seafood in the world. Don’t be afraid to indulge in the sardines, cockles, clams and so forth as they are a highlight of Spanish cuisine.
There are three main groups of tapas: cosas de picar, pinchos, and cazuelas. Cosas de picar are finger foods like olives and jamon. Pinchos are the tapas that are accompanied by a toothpick such as a piece of spanish tortilla pinned with a toothpick on a piece of bread. Cazuelas are small plates of food that might have a sauce and have a little more substance like shrimp off the grill, meatballs, or a whole spanish tortilla.
*A quick fact, in the Catalan region tapas are not traditional even though today you can find many tapas bars especially in Barcelona which is an epicenter of all kinds of Spanish cuisine.*
Here is a list of traditional tapas you can find almost anywhere to get you started when ordering:
Pan con Tomate
A regional specialty in Catalonia, it is bread that has been toasted with olive oil and then tomato and garlic are vigorously rubbed on the hot bread. It’s the quintessential tapa in Catalan however its popularity has spread to other regions in Spain. You will also find pan con tomate (pab am tomàquet in Catalan) served for breakfast in Catalonia.
You’re in Spain so you should be eating all the olives you can; it’s a very Spanish thing to do. Sometimes the olives are stuffed with bell peppers or anchovy which is quite scrumptious.
If they are in season then get a plate of these. The sardines are marinated in olive oil and are sweet with a slight brininess to them. They combine perfectly with pan con tomate as the acid in the tomatoes mellows out the brininess of the sardines.
Pimiento de Padron
These are small padron peppers that have been fried. I had these every night. They are not usually spicy but every now and then you catch a hot one (especially if you are Ashley, who cannot handle spicy food). This was a staple of my diet while living in Barcelona.
Serrano and Iberico are the best and are must haves while in Spain. These are thinly sliced pieces of ham with amazing marbling in them. You can get a whole plate of them or on a piece of bread it does not matter. If you are veggie, I am telling you won’t regret eating this animal, it might just convert you.
Tortilla in Spanish cuisine is completely different from what it is in Hispanic cuisine. Spanish tortilla is in fact eggs, potatoes and sometimes chorizo cooked like a frittata and served on a plate. I don’t need to say anymore; you will have this once and be hooked the rest of your life.
These are small little fish that are fried and eaten like chips. They are salty and sweet and in my top three dishes to try. Don’t shy away from eating these guys whole either. If you want to try the best ones in Barcelona head to Bar La Plata in the Gothic Quarter where they only serve 4 tapas including this one.
The fan favorite and the tapa people are most familiar with. Patatas Bravas are fried potatoes served with a spicy tomato sauce and aioli.
Meatballs in a sauce. This is a classic tapas so it is a must try. The sauce may vary but it will always be good.
If chorizo is in the name then order it. It can be cooked up a few different ways but you can’t go wrong with iconic Spanish chorizo. I suggest chorizo cooked slowly in cider though or diablo style where they are served on fire.
Shrimp, whole shrimp that will take you straight to cloud nine.
Same idea as the pescadito frito but it is fried baby squid instead of fish.
This is a very small list of what is out there, but it is enough to get you on your way. I picked what I thought are the “must try” when it comes to eating tapas. Don’t stop yourself at this list, explore and be adventurous when eating tapas. Believe me there is a lot out there.
What to drink
Partaking in tapas in Spain is an event and is what got me hooked on the Spanish culture. Going out for tapas was the highlight of my time in Barcelona and I want to make sure you enjoy it as much as Ash and I did. This is just a quick introduction to the world of tapas, there is a lot more out there to explore and learn.
I am sure I have missed a few things but this should keep you on your feet and give you the confidence to walk into a great tapas bar. Just look for the bar were the food goes quickly, the wine pours freely, and everyone is celebrating being alive. Once you’ve experience the tapas culture in Spain everything else will fall short. The energy, the noise, the amazing food and drinks will keep you coming back for more. When you arrive in Spain make sure not to miss out of this key part of the culture.
Is there anything I missed? Please let me know in the comments below I am always willing to learn more. Also have you gone out for tapas in Spain? If you have let me know your story, I would love to hear all about it.
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