Whenever I think about Spanish gastronomy, the first thing that comes to my mind is tapas. Just as you’d think about pasta for Italy and curry for India, tapas to me are a synonym for Spain.
Tapas, smaller if no less delicious versions of the best Spanish cuisine, represent the more relaxed, sociable side of gastronomy in Spain, and to appreciate them to the full, must be accompanied by good company and even better conversation.
What are tapas?
Typically tapa is a small dish, snack or appetizer. They range from a small plate of food, to simply one piece of something. They can be some kind of canapé or olives, a slice of sausage, or just small portions of a dish like paella, homemade stew or a spoonful of callos. The combinations of ingredients are never-ending and you’ll find as many tapas in Spain as you can imagine. Depending on the region, the concept of tapas may vary. Instead word tapas you’ll may see montaditos, pinchos, banderillas, raciones, cazuelitas, pulguitas… Basically all of them refer to the same thing: delicious food in small portions!
Far from fading out, tapas are becoming ever more popular and since arriving on a global culinary scene, the tapas trend has evolved into an entire cuisine. But why is that? To start with, tapas are incredibly popular in Spain, where they originate from. Spanish chefs themselves are constantly pushing boundaries to include the most avant-garde cuisine, as well as a range of traditional recipes, to turn them into tapas.
Then, they are popular throughout Spain because they are all about a culture of going out and having fun. In Spain people eat outside a lot and this too, is part of their culture (read our article about Valencia to learn more). Good tapas embrace light portions and variety and are always there when meeting with friends or family and going out for a drink before lunch, especially on weekends, or before dinner. They even have a special word for it in Spain, “tapeo” – which is when people sample various tapas as they walk from bar to bar.
Tapas are very popular outside Spain, too. With Spanish ingredients now readily accessible pretty much everywhere, tapas concept has become a fashion on the food scene. Our style of eating is evolving and people now like to sample a range of different dishes. Thus tapas style of dining reflects the change in many peoples’ desires to enjoy a more communal and relaxed style of meal, in a friendlier atmosphere, as people can share food and experience a variety of flavours and foods in one sitting. And indeed you can try a lot of new things, instead of just having one main meal.
Most probably tapas originated in Andalucia, a Southern province of Spain. The word “tapa” translates as “cover”. There are a wide variety of colourful explanations for why tapa has come to denote a type of food:
* One of the most popular versions is that the tapas tradition began when King Alfonso X of Castile recovered from an illness by drinking wine with small dishes between meals. After regaining his health, the king ordered that taverns would be allowed to serve wine to customers only if it was accompanied by a small snack “tapa”.
* Another version is King Alfonso (the same one) stopped by a famous inn in windy Cadiz where he ordered a cup of sherry. The waiter covered the glass with a slice of cured ham to protect the sherry from the sand. The king, after eating the ham and drinking the wine, requested another sherry “with the cover.”
* A commonly cited explanation is that putting a “lid” of flatbread or a thin slice of ham over the top of a wine glass is a preventive measure to keep insects from swooping in for a sip. Because this cover (which translates to “tapa”) was edible, people would often eat it after they finished their wine and then enthusiastically ask for more… At some point it became a habit to top this “cover” with a snack.
* It’s also commonly believed that since one would be standing while eating in traditional Spanish bars, they would need to place their plates on top of their drinks in order to eat, therefore creating a cover.
* Some believe that the name first appeared sometime around the 16th century when tavern owners found out that the strong taste and smell of mature cheese could help disguise that of cheep wine, thus “covering” it.
Maybe there’s a bit of truth in all of them, but after so many centuries you can’t really tell, can you?
Tapas are delicious, adaptable and perfect for nearly all sort of parties. Preparing meals tapas-style is ideal when entertaining because you can offer your guests a variety of small plates that are portion-controlled yet deliciously light.
The next time you’re having guests for a meal and they insist, “Oh, just fix something light,” it’s a great motive for you to perform some culinary wizardry with a choice of tapas that will allow them to nibble as much or as little as they’d like. The additional benefit is that you’ll be saving a little bit of washing up, cutting down on the number of plates used for the party.