What are tapas? (+ some traditional Spanish tapas)
If you think about Spanish food, for most people it won’t be long before you talk about tapas. Along with paella, it’s probably the best known part of Spanish cuisine. But what are tapas, and what are some typical, traditional examples?
What are tapas?
Tapas are basically small plates of food. They’re essentially bar snacks served alongside beer or wine. Traditionally they would have been free with each drink but times have changed.
You will still often get the odd plate in some places, particularly in Southern Spain, but it’s more likely to be olives or chips than something more elaborate, although there are a few places you’ll be pleasantly surprised. However even if you have to pay for them, it’s well worth it as you’ll normally find lots of tasty options.
Tapas make a great snack before a late dinner, as is common in Spain. Alternatively, go bar hopping and make a meal out of a range of tapas as you go. One of the best things about tapas is if there are a few of you, they’re a great way to sample a range of dishes without over-ordering and/or spending a lot.
At home, tapas are great for casual entertaining. Most are easy to make and they’re a great way to offer a range of tasty bites to suit different tastes.
The origins of tapas
As with many long-held traditions, the origins of tapas are a bit vague. There are some tall tales about former kings, but the most plausible story links to the name.
‘Tapa’ means ‘lid’ in Spanish and many stories go that some bartenders started using a piece of bread as a lid to keep flies out of the glasses of beer. Over time food was added on top. and tapas were born.
Different types of tapas
In Spain, you’ll see tapas in a few different forms. The main groups are:
- cheese and charcuterie platters
- cold tapas
- hot tapas
Let me walk you through a bit more about each
Pinchos (spelled pintxos in Basque) are probably what many people think of when you talk about tapas. These are slices of bread with various different toppings.
The name comes from the Basque Country in the NorthEast where you’ll find bars dedicated purely to pinchos. Often the bar is lined with plates of them, you get a plate and help yourself.
Each pincho has a cocktail stick in it and when you are done, the bartender counts up your sticks and charges accordingly. San Sebastian in particular is where you’ll find some incredibly creative and delicious toppings. So much so, you’ll hardly believe you’re just eating a piece of bread with stuff on it.
Cheese and charcuterie platters
Despite manchego being the best known Spanish cheese, there are in fact many more that are worth trying. You’ll find both hard and soft cheeses, blue cheeses and ones made from different milks. See my Spanish cheese board for more on some classic Spanish cheeses.
Charcuterie, known in Spanish as “embutidos”, also comes in a broad range of varieties, from jamon serrano (serrano ham) and chorizo (a kind of salami with paprika) to more regional cured meats like fuet (a thin cured salami-type sausage from Catalunya/the Balearics).
It’s worth looking out for “Iberico” versions of both jamon and chorizo for something a little special, too. These are made from pork where they have fed purely on acorns and the meat has a wonderful slightly smokey flavor and is extra tender.
These can be everything from salads to cold soups like gazpacho and salmorejo, and snacks like olives and anchovies. A slice of Spanish tortilla may be included in there too.
A few favorite examples are in my no cook Spanish tapas, including pan con tomate which is a base for many simple open sandwiches (and sometimes pinchos). In Catalunya, you might have dishes like escalivada (roasted vegetables) served at room temperature to add to bread.
Many cold tapas, like potato salads and seafood, are all ready to go in dishes behind the bar to make things easier, but they are usually very fresh. At home, they’re great for a quick, light lunch and snacks.
This, to me, is where tapas is the most interesting. Yes, you can get creative with pincho toppings but they are almost still more of a snack. These dishes, meanwhile, you can combine to make a meal of sharing plates. Some typical dishes include:
- patatas bravas (potatoes with a spicy sauce)
- blistered Padron peppers, pimientos de Padrón
- gambas al ajillo (shrimp in garlic)
- pinchos morunos (Moorish pork skewers)
- chorizo al vino (Spanish chorizo sausage cooked in wine)
- salt cod stuffed piquillo peppers
- paella, and it’s variations including arroz negro
- albondigas (meatballs, recipe from Love Foodies)
- croquetas (croquettes, ham, cheese or salt cod the most popular – ham recipe from Curious Cuisinere)
- pulpo a la Gallega (Galician-style octopus)
Despite what you may think from the above, you do get some vegetarian ones but in fairness, not a huge number, at least traditionally. Even another common tapas of sautéed mushrooms usually has ham in it.
Do you get dessert tapas?
Traditionally tapas don’t include sweet dishes per se, but there are some common desserts that may feature on the menu to enjoy after tapas or mains. Crema Catalana (similar to creme brulee), flan (like creme caramel), arroz con leche (rice pudding)) and natillas (a kind of custard) are some of the most popular.
Tapas are such a key part of eating in Spain, and come in such a variety. Of course the same idea exists in other cultures, like meze in the Eastern Med/Middle East. It’s an idea being adopted and adapted around the world too. And why not, it’s a fun way to eat! So next time someone asks what are tapas, your next question is what tapas do you want to enjoy first?
And if you want a broader taste of Spain, get many more Spanish recipes in the archives.
Remember to pin for later!
What Are Spanish Tapas?
Overview and Origin of the Spanish-Style Small Plate
Lisa & Tony Sierra
Lisa & Tony Sierra
Lisa and Tony Sierra are freelance writers and Spanish food experts who lead culinary tours of the country.
Learn about The Spruce Eats’
Updated on 02/10/23
photographer and designer / Getty Images
Tapas are snacks, canapés, or small plates that originate in Spain. But many people don’t realize that tapas come in many different forms and can vary greatly throughout Spain―even from town to town!
What’s in Tapas?
There’s really no definitive answer, as it depends on who you ask. In Spain, tapas can include practically anything―from a chunk of tuna, a cocktail onion, and an olive skewered on a long toothpick, to piping hot chorizo sausage served in a small clay dish, to a gourmet slow-cooked beef cheek served over a sweet potato puree. Tapas are served day in and day out in bars and cafés throughout Spain―though each has a different interpretation of the word and different prices.
Though the concept of tapas varies throughout the country, they are so much a part of the culture and social scene that the Spanish people even use the verb tapear, which means to go and eat tapas! Tapas keep the Spanish fueled for their long journeys from bar to bar before their midday meal, as well as in the evening before dinner.
Food and Culinary Customs of Spain
Are Tapas Included With the Cost of a Meal?
In most regions of Spain, you must order and pay for your tapas, which may be listed on the menu under the tapas section or column, or called a ración, which is a larger serving and meant to be shared. The price of a tapas portion varies enormously and generally, depends on the size of the tapas served and the ingredients used (simple fried chorizo versus grass-fed beef, for example).
Yet, in the most traditional Spanish cities, you aren’t charged for tapas―you get a free tapa with the price of your drink! Popular cities with this practice include Madrid (only in the city’s most traditional tapas bars), Alcalá de Henares and Granada.
Make These Spanish Tapas for a Great Party
The Origin of Tapas
There are several stories about the origin of tapas, which are a part of the folklore. One legend involves King Alfonso X, El Sabio or “The Wise One,” who made sure that Castilian taverns serving wine always accompanied it with something to eat so that the wine would not go straight to the clients’ heads (and potentially cause rowdiness and disagreements).
Another story claims that while on a long trip, King Alfonso had stopped to rest in the town of Ventorillo del Chato in the southern province of Cádiz, and he ordered a glass of jerez or sherry. There was a gusty wind, so the innkeeper served him his glass of sherry covered by a slice of ham to prevent the sherry from getting dirty with sand in the air. King Alfonso apparently liked it, and when he asked for a second glass, he requested another tapa (which means ‘lid’ or “cover”) just like the first.
Prepare one or several tapas then enjoy them like the Spanish do―with a big glass of wine and a relaxed attitude. ¡Qué rico!
Top Spanish Tapas Recipes
What is Tapa, the definition of the term in the Fashion Dictionary
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- Tapa – (Polynesian), bast material (the inner part of the tree bark). It was common in the past among peoples who did not know weaving; is preserved among some peoples of Indonesia, Oceania, Africa, Indians of Central and South America. To make tapas, the bark is peeled, soaked in water and beaten with wooden mallets. Among the Polynesians, Indonesians and some peoples of Africa, the manufacture of tapa has reached considerable perfection; tapu was painted, painted with paints or applied to it with a pattern with special stamps. It served as material for clothing, bedding, etc.
- The meaning of the word Tapa in other dictionaries:
- Meaning of the word Tapa – Ethnographic Dictionary
- What is Tapa – Historical Dictionary
- Definition of the term TAPA – Culinary Dictionary
- What does the word TAPANA mean – Yoga Vedanta Dictionary
- What does the term TAPANA mean – Dictionary of Yoga and Vedanta Terms
- Meaning of the word Tapas – Philosophical Dictionary
- TAPAS – Yoga Vedanta Dictionary
- What is TAPAS – Dictionary of Yoga
- Definition of the term TAPAS – Glossary of terms of Yoga and Vedanta
- What does the word TAPASVI mean – Yoga Vedanta Dictionary
- What does the term TAPASVI mean – Dictionary of Yoga and Vedanta terms
What is tapa and how to eat it
Home » RECIPES » Snacks
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The cuisines of the peoples of the world are so different that sometimes even an experienced gourmet can get lost in such a variety. What are the names of culinary masterpieces! Surprisingly, the same dishes, among residents of different countries, can be called so that it will be difficult to guess that we are talking about the same culinary masterpiece. For example, ordinary snack sandwiches, which are so widely known among us as canapes, are called tapas or pinchos in Spain. Types of such mini-snacks can consist of the most unusual and even incompatible ingredients, which at the same time are harmonious in an ensemble with each other.
Tapas appeared in the diet of Spaniards quite by accident. According to the translation from Spanish, the word “tapas” means the verb “to cover”. Traditionally, Andalusians have always covered a glass of sherry with a small piece of bread to protect the sherry from insects. However, local bartenders, in order to attract customers and provoke them into large orders of drinks, began to put more ham or smoked meat on a slice of bread, fastening it with a toothpick or a match.
This version of the appearance of tapas on the tables and among the inhabitants of Cadilla, which they owe to King Alfonso XVIII, for whom they served wine with such a “tire”. But in Castile-La Mancha, bartenders also have their own story of the origin of legendary snacks, only they covered a glass of low-quality wine not with bread, but with cheese, which was supposed to give all its flavor to the drink and mask its sour aroma. Officially, such sandwiches entered the menu of all restaurants, taverns and cafes only in the 16th century, when King Philip II issued a decree where it was prescribed in black and white to serve tapas with all alcoholic cocktails in order to reduce the impact of fumes on violent sailors.
Tapa recipes amaze with their diversity, and the uniqueness of their simple cooking technique. As a base, you can use white or black bread, and for meat insides – dried venison, squid with olives, various types of cheese, melon and parma, dried duck and blue cheese, or whatever is at hand.