Tapas: a great Spanish invention

All Ways Spain – tapas cheese jamón serrano

What was the inspi­ra­tion for the cus­tom of serv­ing a snack with every drink you order in a bar or café? The Span­ish word tapa lit­er­al­ly means “a lid”. Peas­ants going out to toil in the fields would take with them a jug of wine sealed by a piece of bread on which would be a slice of cheese or ham, cov­ered by muslin. This food became known as the tapa, and since peas­ants also fre­quent­ed bars the prac­tice caught on there, and giv­en that it allows one to try a lit­tle of many dish­es it has since gained pop­u­lar­i­ty beyond Spain and beyond the set­ting of mere­ly bars and cafés to become almost syn­ony­mous with Span­ish cui­sine itself – a mixed bless­ing which trades instant brand recog­ni­tion for an often con­fused idea that has tapas as the only food the Span­ish eat.

In Span­ish the verb tapear means to spend an evening going from bar to bar try­ing out the tapas in each one – and very pleas­ant it is, too. Depend­ing on where you fre­quent you may find that the empha­sis is on quan­ti­ty (thick bocadil­los and roscas of ham and cheese, chips on the side, is a favourite of bars cater­ing to uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents) or qual­i­ty (the more upmar­ket “gas­tro­bars” often excel them­selves with inno­v­a­tive dish­es and com­bi­na­tions). Some estab­lish­ments allow you to choose your tapa – often only a few choic­es per group, so alle­giances must be formed with your drink­ing part­ners as to which tapa you want to order — but the gen­er­al rule is to serve one par­tic­u­lar tapa with each round of drinks, the qual­i­ty esca­lat­ing as an incen­tive to stay there all evening. Sev­er­al of our Sam­ple Itin­er­aries incor­po­rate a Tapas Tour at some point and these are a great way to dis­cov­er a city at night and a quick edu­ca­tion on Span­ish cui­sine. The great delight of food in Spain is that it still varies sub­stan­tial­ly from region to region. The fol­low­ing are some of the most wide­ly found dish­es:

  • Albóndi­gas – Meat balls (pork, bread­crumbs and herbs) often in a toma­to sauce
  • Boquerones – Mar­i­nat­ed fil­lets of min­now-size fish (lit­er­al­ly “big mouth­fuls”)
  • Beren­je­nas – Light­ly-fried slices of aubergine/egg plant, often served with molasses or hon­ey
  • Cala­mares – Fried squid rings – and a slice of lemon
  • Cara­coles – Spicy snails! Not to everyone’s lik­ing, so it’s okay to ask for some­thing else…
  • Chori­zo – Pork sausage flavoured with papri­ka & spices
  • Gam­bas – Prawns — often fried in gar­lic (al ajil­lo)
  • Jamón – Ham, king of the tapa, usu­al­ly slices of moun­tain-cured jamón ser­ra­no
  • Lomo – Pork loin, prince of the tapa
  • Migas – Quin­tes­sen­tial peas­ant food: fried bread­crumbs with left-overs
  • Mor­cil­la – Black pud­ding, Span­ish-style, often with a sweet-tinged flavour
  • Patatas a lo pobre – Slow-fried pota­toes with green pep­pers – “Poor Man’s Pota­toes”
  • Pin­chi­tos – Kebab skew­ers of pork or lamb, spiced with cumin
  • Piquil­los – Red peppers/capsicum, often stuffed with cod (rel­leno de bacalao)
  • Pis­to – Stew of toma­toes, pep­pers, aubergine, courgettes/zucchini
  • Salchichón – Cured sausage, spiced with black pep­per­corns
  • Tor­tilla – The thick, fluffy Span­ish omelette: eggs, pota­toes and onions