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