What Are Tapas? Spain’s Famous Small Dishes

Jonathan Harris | April 2021

The world is in love with tapas! But now that they are showing up on menus everywhere, the definition of tapas is getting blurred beyond recognition. Are Thai dumplings tapas? Are Buffalo wings tapas? I don’t think so!

What Are Tapas?
Tapas are small portions of Spanish food served with a drink. Beyond that, there are a big variety of styles depending on the region, or even from one tapas bar to the next in the same town. They can be hot, like my favorite fried fresh anchovies, boquerones fritos, or chilled, like ensalada rus, a potato salad with carrots and peas. A tapa can be a anything from couple of olives served with a drink to a plate of acorn-fed Jamón Ibérico de Bellota.

Are Tapas Free?
Some places serve a small tapa for free with an order of drinks, usually a small portion of olives, almonds or potato chips. These are typically offered in old-fashioned tapas bars.

Far more often, tapas are part of the menu. They are a small portion to be shared with friends as you enjoy a beer or glass of vino. Larger portions are listed as well, usually called a ración or media ración. Quality and price can vary widely – a slice of tortilla española potato omelet might be a couple of euros, whereas a plate of cazón en adobo (fried marinated dogfish shark), a specialty of Cádiz, might cost €15.

How Do the Spanish Enjoy Tapas?
In Spain, tapas are a fun, casual way have a snack with friends. You might grab a drink and a bite after work on your way home. Or you might make a night of it, bouncing from bar to bar, nibbling on the signature tapa of the house. The Spanish use the verb “tapear” for this, you might call it a tapas crawl.

In traditional tapas bars, there are usually very few places to sit, and the delicious small dishes are eaten at the bar or standing around tall tables. This is the case in the famous tapas bars of Logroño, the capital of the wine region of La Rioja. One of my favorite tapas streets in Spain is Calle del Laurel in the historic center of Logroño. There, each tiny bar features a signature dish, often advertised with a color picture above the door. Locals pop in and have a bite with a drink and move on to the next bar a few minutes later. With nearly 50 tapas bars on the street, you will run out of appetite long before you run out of choices!

In the last few years, many municipal markets have been converted to lively tapas destinations. The most famous is the Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid. The stalls featuring vegetable sellers and fishmongers have been replaced by intimate wine bars and a variety of little tapas bars. With over 30 options, it is like an entire tapas crawl in one place, surrounded by the beautiful century-old building. There is some controversy about these renovated markets, as they displace traditional vendors and compete with independent tapas establishments. Plus, they can become quite crowded with tourists. But if you want a one stop tapas experience, they are hard to beat.

Where Did the Name Tapas Come From?
The origin of the tapas tradition is uncertain, but there several theories. The name ‘tapa’ seems to refer to a piece of food covering a glass, since ‘tapa’ comes from the verb tapar, or to cover. Some say the 13th century king Alfonso El Sabio (the Wise) required taverns to serve food with their drinks to decrease drunkenness and fighting, so they began topping glasses of wine with a bite of food. 

Another story is that it comes from the sherry region of Andalucía, a famously hot, dry region. A slice of jamón or chorizo was placed over sherry glasses to stop the dust from touching the wine. I am not sure if this makes sense, because then you get a dusty piece of jamón!

Tapas are such a fun and casual tradition, with no need for formality or rules, that I like to think the name came about naturally. I can envision a customer carrying a few glasses of wine to his friends, each topped with a tasty morsel to avoid making another trip to the bar. 

What Are Typical Tapas? 
There are so many great tapas dishes that I can’t list them all, but there are some classics that you will find across Spain. My father says that excellent croquetas are the sign of a great tapas bar. These creamy croquettes with a crisp breaded shell are so satisfying when made right and can be stuffed with a variety of tasty morsels, like diced jamón, chorizo, mushrooms, salt cod or Manchego cheese.

Tortilla Española, a potato omelet beloved across Spain, is a favorite. Gambas al ajillo is another, fresh shrimp sizzled in olive oil with garlic and chili peppers. Pescaito frito, fried fish or squid, are beloved in the south. In Galicia, steamed shellfish and fried Padrón peppers take center stage. Then there is the straightforward plate of thinly sliced Jamón Serrano or chorizo sausage, a classic across the country.

Montaditos are another form of tapas, consisting of rounds of sliced bread topped with different meats and vegetables. Somewhat similar are the delicious pintxos of the Basque region, which are typically more elaborate. These are usually prepared and presented on plates across the front of the bar – you simply grab what looks good and pay for them as you leave.

There is good reason that the tapas style of eating is conquering the world. This fun and unfussy tradition lets you sample a variety of tasty foods while enjoying a great time with friends and family. And sharing tapas is a perfect example of the warm and inviting culture that makes Spain so special.