While the exact historical and cultural details of the origin of tapas are uncertain, there is no doubt tapas in Spain is popular. Served in almost every bar, restaurant and home throughout Spain, tapas is so popular that the phrase ‘vamos a tapear’ (let’s go eat tapas) can be heard almost every day, and the idea of ordering small plates to share has become a trend in restaurants around the world. Here are some fascinating facts about Spanish tapas.
The word ‘tapas’
According to the Royal Spanish Academy, tapas are ‘a small portion of any food served to accompany a drink’, however tapas doesn’t actually refer to a type of food, but a way of eating it. The history of tapas harps back to ancient times and the word comes from the Spanish verb ‘tapar’ which means to cover.
Spanish tapas originated in Spain, including in Andalucia, where the traditional glass of sherry was ‘covered’ with a slice of bread in order to keep flies and other flying insects out of it! Canny bartenders then began adding a salty slice of meat (like chorizo or ham) in order to make customers thirstier, and yes, drink more sherry!
Because the Spanish prefer to eat while drinking, appetizers then began to be offered for free to customers to pair with their beer or wine. This included small plates of savoury foods that required little or no preparation like olives, almonds or cubes of sheep’s milk cheese.
This tradition of snacking while drinking stuck and as the tradition developed, dishes became more diverse and elaborate. Regions began creating their own specialties, and tapas continued to evolve as Spain came into contact with other cultures and countries. The Romans, for example, introduced olives to Spanish cuisine, while the discovery of the New World introduced chilli peppers, beans, sweet peppers and potatoes.
One of the various legends on the origins of tapas involves Spanish king, Alfonso, who arrived at a restaurant and was served a glass of wine with a slice of cheese (or ham depending on the legend) over the top. Although he knew that the cheese was primarily to protect his wine from insects and dust, he ate it, as did his entire court. From then on, the King continued to ask for ‘tapas’ or a drink with a ‘cover’ everywhere he stopped for wine!
Another legend claims that King Alfonso X of Castile required snacks and small amounts of wine in between meals in order to recover from illness. Once the King got back to health, he ordered that all bars and inns in the kingdom should continue to serve a snack alongside wine!
Over the years, actual laws were also passed that stated that tavern owners should include a small amount of Spanish food with each alcoholic drink they served. King Philip III passed a similar law in order to curb drunken behaviour by rowdy sailors!
Today, there are different categories of tapas and bars normally specialise in one group, for example, fried tapas, pinchos (on little skewers and grilled), cazeletitas (cooked in special earthenware dishes) or cucharada y paso atras (which are literally spoonfuls).
Some of the most popular Spanish tapas include tortilla patata (potatoes cooked with olive oil, onions and eggs), fresh seafood (like shrimp sautéed with olive oil and garlic), and patatas brava (fried potatoes covered in a spicy tomato sauce). Other local specialties include cazalito (cured ham on fried bread), alnias (dressed potatoes), puntillitas (fried shrimp or fish) and en amarillo (tapas cooked with saffron). Nowadays if you’re travelling in Spain, you can stick to one bar and order a series of tapas to go with your drinks or ‘bar hop’ (called tapear) and sample the delights of a number of different bars!
Tapas by region
When it comes to tapas in Spain, because Spain’s climate differs throughout the country and the landscape is so diverse, tapas also differs according to the region.
Northern coastal regions specialise in seafood tapas that feature fish from the Atlantic Ocean. Catalonia in the north-east features tapas with interesting sauces like romesco, which is made with almonds and red peppers. In other northern areas like Navarra and Aragon, Spanish tapas is cooked in a flavourful sauce with tomatoes, onions, garlic and local red peppers.
On the east coast, tapas includes Mediterranean influences with foods like almonds, oranges and aromatic herbs. On Spain’s southern coast, it incorporates olives, sizzling friend foods and shellfish, and on the central plains, it features Spain’s most famous cheese, Manchego.
In some of the larger cities like Seville, Barcelona and Madrid, tapas can take the form of almost anything including marinated artichokes, salted cod croquettes, deep fried prawns and bread slices topped with a variety of cured meats or sausages.
Other fascinating facts about tapas
- Tapas are always served with alcohol – beer, wine or sangria … take your pick!
- Tapas are actually not ‘starters’ or entrees. You can start a meal with tapas and you can also end it with tapas!
- Tapas are eaten as a snack or to tide people over until the next meal, which in Spain means often means dinner at 9 or 10 o’clock!
- Tapas is free at some bars. If you ask your waiter “¿tienes alguna tapa?” (which means ‘have you got any tapas?’) and they are forthcoming, you’re in!
- If you’re travelling around Spain and you’re really hungry, upgrade to a ‘ración.’ It’s a larger, meal-sized portion, which is handy if you’ve eaten something and a snack-sized portion is just not enough!
Comer hasta – which in Spanish means ‘eat up’!
Keen to try some authentic Spanish tapas (like our divine zucchini flowers with goat’s cheese)? Make a booking at Moda Restaurant today!