Tapas- the little dishes of Spain

One of the main attractions for my guests visiting Spain is the gastronomy. For those ‘foodies’ amongst you there is nothing more interesting than trying the food of a country. I often cater for large groups and will do a ‘Spanish night’ with tapas to start followed by paella (the National dish of Spain) all washed down with sangria or as is more common in these parts- tinto de verano. This is a headier version of sangria with red wine, gaseosa (this is like a lemonade/tonic fizzy drink), sweet martini and a tot of Spanish brandy. Yes, a good night is generally had by all!

I thought you might appreciate a potted explanation of tapas and their origin.

Tapas are a wide variety of appetizers. They may be cold (such as mixed olives and cheese) or warm (such as chipirones, which are griddled baby squid cooked with sea salt, garlic and olive oil). In select bars in Spain, tapas have evolved into a sophisticated cuisine.  Patrons of tapas can order many different ones and combine them to make a full meal.


Tapas bar and restaurant 

The word “tapas” is derived from the Spanish verb tapar, “to cover”.

The original tapas were the slices of bread or meat which sherry drinkers in Andalusian taverns used to cover their glasses between sips. This was a practical measure meant to prevent fruit flies from hovering over the sweet sherry. The meat used to cover the sherry was normally ham or chorizo,, which are both very salty and activate thirst. Because of this, bartenders and restaurant owners began creating a variety of snacks to serve with sherry, thus increasing their alcohol sales. The tapas eventually became as important as the sherry.

Tapas have evolved through Spanish history by incorporating ingredients and influences from many different cultures and countries. When Spain was invaded by the Romans they introduced the olive and irrigation methods. The invasion of the North African Moors in the 8th century brought almonds, citrus fruits and fragrant spices. The influence of their 700-year presence remains today, especially in Andalucia. The discovery of the New World brought the introduction oftomatoes, peppers, corn and potatoes. These were readily accepted and easily grown in Spain’s beautiful climate.

There are many tapas competitions throughout Spain. There is only one National Tapas competiton, which is celebrated every year in November. Since 2008, the City of Valladolid and the International School of Culinary Arts have celebrated the International Tapas Competition for Culinary Schools. Various schools from around the world come to Spain annually to compete for the best tapa concept.

There are several explanations for why “tapa” has come to denote a type of food:

  • As mentioned above, a commonly cited explanation is that an item, be it bread or a flat card, etc., would often be placed on top of a drink to protect it from fruit flies; at some point it became a habit to top this “cover” with a snack.
  • It is also commonly said that since one would be standing while eating a tapa in traditional Spanish bars, they would need to place their plates on top of their drinks to eat, making it a top.
  • Some believe the name originated sometime around the 16th century when tavern owners from Castile la Mancha found out that the strong taste and smell of mature cheese could help disguise that of bad wine, thus “covering” it, and started offering free cheese when serving cheap wine.
  • Others believe 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 not be allowed to serve wine to customers unless it was accompanied by a small snack or “tapa”.
  • Another popular explanation says that King Alfonso XIII stopped by a famous tavern in Cadiz where he ordered a cup of wine. The waiter covered the glass with a slice of cured ham before offering it to the king, to protect the wine from the beach sand, as Cádiz is a windy place. The king, after drinking the wine and eating the tapa, ordered another wine “with the cover”.
  • A final possibility surrounds Felipe III who passed a law in an effort to curb rowdy drunken behaviour, particularly among soldiers and sailors. The law stated that when one purchased a drink, the bartender was to place over the mouth of the mug or goblet a cover or lid containing some small quantity of food as part of the purchase of the beverage. The hope being that the food would slow the effects of the alcohol, and fill the stomach to prevent over imbibing.

Tapas and jamon hanging from the ceiling

In Spain dinner is usually served between 9 and 11 p.m.. (sometimes as late as midnight), leaving significant time between work and dinner. Therefore, Spaniards often go “bar hopping” and eat tapas in the time between finishing work and having dinner. Since lunch is usually served between 2 and 4 p.m., another common time for tapas is weekend days around noon as a means of socializing before proper lunch at home.

It is very common for a bar or a small local restaurant to have 8 t to 12 different kinds of tapas in warming trays with glass partitions covering the food. They are often very strongly flavored with garlic, paprika, cumin, salt, pepper, saffron and sometimes in plentiful amounts of olive oil. Often, one or more of the choices is seafood (mariscos), often including anchovies, sardines or mackerel in olive oil. squid or others in a tomato-based sauce, sometimes with the addition of red or green peppers. It is rare to see a tapas selection that does not include one or more types of olives, such as Manzanillo or Arbequina olives. One or more types of bread are usually available to eat with any of the sauce-based tapas.

In some parts of Andalucia a tapa will be served free with wine, sherry or beer. In several cities, entire zones are dedicated to tapas bars, each one serving its own unique dish.

Sometimes you may see pinchos tapas. These have a pincho (toothpick) through them. The toothpick is used to keep whatever the snack is made of from falling off the slice of bread and to keep track of the number of tapas the customer has eaten. Differently priced tapas have different shapes or have toothpicks of different sizes. The price of a single tapa ranges from one to two euros. Another name for them is banderillas (diminutive of bandera “flag”), in part because some of them resemble the colourfulspears used in bullfighting.

Tapas can be “upgraded” to bigger portions, equivalent to half a dish (media ración) or a whole one (ración). This is generally more economical when tapas are being ordered by more than one person. The portions are usually shared by diners, and a meal made up of raciones resembles a Chinese dim sum or Middle Eastern mezze.


  • Aceitunas: olives,sometimes with a filling of anchovies or red pepper
  • Albóndigas: meatballs with sauce
  • Allioli “garlic and oil or garlic mayonnaise”. Served on bread or with boiled or grilled potatoes, fish, meat or vegetables.
  • Bacalao: salted cod loin sliced very thinly, usually served with bread and tomatoes
  • Banderillas, or pinchos de encurtidos, are cold tapas made from small food items pickled in vinegar and skewered together. They are also known as gildas or piparras and consist of pickled items, like olives, baby onions, baby cucumbers, chilles (guindilla) with pieces of pepper and other vegetables. Sometimes they include an anchovy.
  • Boquerones: white anchovies served in vinegar or deep fried
  • Calamares or rabas: rings of battered squid
  • Carne mechada: slow-cooked, tender beef
  • Chipirones: battered and fried tiny squid, also known as puntillitas
  • Chorizo al vino: chorizo sausage slowly cooked in wine
  • Chorizo a la sidra: chorizo sausage slowly cooked in cider
  • Croquetas: various varieties of breaded croquette with a filling of ham, cheese, fish and potato
  • Empanadas: large or small pastries filled with meats and vegetables
  • Ensaladilla rusa: “(little) Russian salad”, made with mixed boiled vegetables with tuna, boiled egg, olives and mayonnaise
  • Gambas: sauted prawns in salsa negra (peppercorn sauce), al ajillo (with garlic), or pil-pil (with chopped chili peppers)
  • Mejillones rellenos: stuffed mussels
  • Patatas bravas or papas bravas: fried potato dices served with salsa brava- a spicy tomato sauce and allioli
  • Pulpo alla Gallego : Octopus pieces seasoned with substantial amounts of paprika giving it its recognisable red color, and sea salt for texture and flavour.
  • Pincho moruno (Moorish spike): a stick with spicy meat, made of pork, lamb or chicken
  • Queso con anchoas: The World famous Spanish Manchego cured cheese (like a mature cheddar )with anchovies on top
  • Setas al Ajillo: fresh mushrooms sauteed with olive oil and garlic.
  • Solomillo al whisky: fried pork scallops, marinated using whisky (obviously!) and olive oil
  • Tortilla de patatas (Spanish omlette, not the Mexican meaning of bread!): a type of omelette containing fried chunks of potatoes and sometimes onion
  • Tortillitas de camarones: battered prawn fritters

Just a small selection of these delicious mouthfuls. Try as many as you can. They are cheap and delicious. I rarely have a meal in a restaurant. I prefer a selection of these little dishes and for friends and family it is a delight to be able to taste a variety of flavours of the Mediterranean.