As a Spaniard every time I go abroad I miss trying the different flavours of Spanish tapas, although I love to try the flavours of other countries cuisine the experience is totally unlike the well-established, unpretentious social gathering that is Spanish tapeo.
What are tapas?
Going out to eat tapas is one of the most popular activities in Spain. But there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what exactly tapas means. It’s generally understood that a tapa is small, but after that, confusion abounds.
The small amounts of food served in bars to accompany a drink are popularly known as tapas. The use of this word as a synonym for aperitif has an uncertain origin. There are those who claim that it arose from an anecdote starring Alfonso XIII on his visit to Cadiz. Before returning to the palace, the monarch stopped at the Ventorrillo del Chato, a bar that still exists on the beach.
Alfonso XIII asked for a glass of Sherry wine, but he did not realise that a whirlpool of wind that slipped into the premises threatened to fill the royal catavinos with beach sand. To avoid it, a clever waiter rushed to cover it with a slice of ham.
When the king went for a sip, he asked in surprise: “What is this? The waiter replied: “Forgive my audacity Your Majesty, I have put a lid on it so that no sand enters the glass”. Alfonso XIII ate the slice of ham and requested that another sherry be served, but “with another equal tapa”. All present laughed at the royal ingenuity and emulated the king asking for the same thing.
Types of tapas
The definition of traditional Spanish cuisine: simple to make, clean flavors, and the best ingredients. This is the formula for the greatest Spanish recipes.The food in true tapas is humble, typically requiring minimal preparation (hence the abundance of cold meats, cheeses and pickles) – certainly not as fancy as some Spanish restaurants abroad will have you believe.
The idea of going for tapas (tapear in Spanish) means standing at a bar, taking a bite to eat with a glass of wine, beer or vermouth. Some cities have lots of tapas bars close together and people will bar hop between them.
Note that at restaurants that serve both tapas and have more formal sit-down meals, the tables will probably be reserved for full meals. Follow what everyone else is doing: if the other patrons are all crammed into the bar eating tapas and the tables are all empty, you should probably do the same.
Large portions of food, ordered at once and shared between a group, is not tapas. They’re called raciones and are actually the most common way of eating in Spain. A ración is like a large tapa. To get a full meal of meat, veg and carbs, you’ll want to order several raciones. Eating raciones is not ideal for solo travelers as portions are big and relatively expensive as they are intended to be shared. Though a ‘media racion’, half portion, may be possible in some locations.
The variety of tapas is astonishing; ; the most common are Spanish cupboard-fillers such as olives followed closely by basic tortilla de patatas (hot or cold), sardines and other small fish, roast vegetables, croquetas and a long list of cold meats and cheeses served on top of slices of white bread.
Anything can be tapas: paella, croquettes, ham and cheese on toast, truly anything. As long as it is small and served with your drink (either free or at a surcharge), it is tapas.
The tapas may or may not be free. Unfortunately the days of free tapas are over in much of Spain. If the tapas is given to you without you having asked for it, it will be free.
Tips for going for tapas
To go for tapas seems simple, to eat and drink in abundance, but there are never too many small instructions for everything to go smoothly…
1.The tapeo itself is done standing, in the bar of the establishment, sitting on the terrace or similar is fine for a summer afternoon, relax, but if you want to go from bar to bar is better not to accommodate too much.
2.When to go for tapas? The usual is to go in the aperitif strip until lunch time, or late afternoon until dinner.
3.The best thing is not to have more than two tapas in the same place, it is necessary to change and to know other places.
4.Something essential if you go with a group of people is that each one pays a round. So, in this way, it seems that we have only spent once and the rest of tapas are free… anyway, the best thing is to share expenses. Another good way is to put the traditional ‘bote’ and then you take care of paying for all…
5.Another important issue is that you have to know how to combine some tapas with others. Don’t repeat the same thing in different bars but change a little and try everything… so that later you can better advise your friends what they can ask for…
6.The list of subjects to be dealt with or parallel conversations is also an important subject. Do not talk about controversial issues that may lead to discussions etc. It is best to tell anecdotes, memories, good stories or even jokes. The aim is to have a good time with friends or family in a relaxed atmosphere.
If you are unfamiliar with the city you are in, you may be apprehensive about moving on from a bar you have found that you like, for fear of not finding another one as good. In which case, you may want to take a tapas tour instead. Led by a local expert, you will be taken to a number of tapas bars, sampling a dish and a drink in each one.
You’ll be thankful for it when you’re trying to avoid ordering the snails!