Tapas are a snapshot of the culture and experience of Spain on a plate. They can be as simple as an olive and onion on a skewer or as complicated as a slow-braised beef cheek. When you travel, you should embrace everything that is offered from history and culture to food and drink. At GetAway Travel, we think you should leave the planning to us so you have more time to enjoy the experience.
Tapa history and some tidbits
Tapas are snacks, canapés — small plates of delicious examples of the variety of food you can get in Spain. They can vary throughout the country and even from town to town. Tapas are not appetizers. Appetizers are a first course to a meal. Tapas are small plates of treats that could make a meal if eaten together or are a light snack. Tapas are part of the culture and social scene of Spain. Slow down, socialize with friends and order several plates of tapas to be shared. There’s even a specific verb to describe the experience “tapear” means to go out and eat tapas.
Tapas are for eating after the mid-day meal to keep you from getting too hungry before dinner while you are enjoying the neighborhood bar scene. Or, tapas are late night snacks while the evening winds down.
The origin of tapas is murky, but that just adds to the mystique!
One story is tapas originated because barkeepers would put a piece of bread over a patron’s drink to keep the flies and dust out. Hmmm… another story is that the serving of tapas was ordered by royal decree to reduce the effects of alcohol on bar patrons. We can roll with either of those stories.
Finding a tapa bar and ordering
Ask at the hotel for tapa recommendations. If you decide to venture out on your own, look for a bar with lots of people coming and going. Traffic moving does not mean they are having a bad experience. In Spain, it is customary to order tapas and a drink at several bars so patrons keep moving. A high turnover also means fresher food.
Don’t be put off by debris on the floor. Lots of napkins and skewers on the floor means happy customers are eating and moving on. If you are eating tapas, you will be going to several different bars and ordering a drink and some tapas at each so don’t load up at the first bar.
Tapas options are listed on the tapa menu, but you will also see racíones listed. Racíones are larger plates of tapas for larger groups.
Order a drink first because some bars still are old school which means you get a free tapa with a drink. Ask the wait staff about the house specialties and feel free to ask if you’ve ordered too many or not enough tapas because they are aware of the portion sizes.
Most Spaniards order a different type of drink at each bar. You can go classy with cava which is similar to champagne or try sparkling hard cider. You can go alcohol free and order cerveza-sin which is an alcohol-free beer or mosto which is grape juice. Try and sample the beverage of the area, for example, in Andalusia, try the manzanilla sherry and in San Sebastián, the txakoli wine is pretty tasty.
Let’s talk — tapa options!
Try one to two cold tapas, like olives and pan con tomato which is bread with grated tomato and several warm tapas. Depending on the area of Spain, your choices will vary. For example in Madrid the tapas may have lots of cured meats. Don’t be put off by the description of cured meat and think you’re getting jerky or some sort of tinned slimy concoction. It will be more like lovely chorizo or jamon which is a dried cured ham or cecina which is cured beef or even goat. Near Seville you’ll find seafood options like pescaito frito or pescado frito which are tiny whitefish coated in flour and then flash fried in olive oil and sprinkled with salt. Chipirones are small, tender deep fried baby squid and if you see anchoas, don’t think anchovies like you find on pizza, they are small fried fish served with vinegar, parsley and garlic.
Gambas pil pil are prawn cooked in hot oil with garlic and chilis and pulpo á feira is octopus and potatoes cooked in a small pot with sweet paprika.
Nearly every establishment has their version of patatas bravas (yes, wild potatoes), which are potatoes sautéed in a spicy sauce. You can get small tortillas and many versions of croquettes. They are small balls of minced meat or fish rolled in bread crumbs and fried.
There are vegetarian options like fried eggplant served with honey and seasonal salads — usually with tomatoes and goat cheese. You may see something called Russian Salad on the tapa menu, that’s potatoes, peas, hard boiled eggs and seasonal vegetables smothered in mayonnaise.