Tapas for Beginners - Food in Spain
This is a "first course" for beginners, a brief description of some of the most common tapas that visitors can expect to find in typical tapas bar in Andalucia, southern Spain.
What are Tapas?
Tapas are a variety of small savoury Spanish dishes, often served as a snack with drinks, or with other tapas as a meal.
"Tapear", going from bar to bar for drinks and tapas, is an essential part of the social culture of Spain, especially in the south. Because tapas are informal, and the bars are often busy, they are commonly eaten standing up at the bar or at small tables or even upturned barrels, and the atmosphere is convivial and noisy. In most tapas bars you see traditional cured hams hanging from the rafters, and many bars are decorated with posters for bullfights, Semana Santa (holy week) and the Feria de Abril (spring fair).
Look (or listen) for bars that are full of locals – they will probably have the best tapas. If the weather is right and there is space it is often good to sit outside where you can people watch and enjoy the hustle and bustle of life in the city.
History of Tapas
There are a number of theories of the origin of the custom of eating small snacks with drinks. Legend has it that because of illness the 13th century Castilian King Alfonso X (the Wise) had to eat small snacks with his wine between meals to maintain his strength, and after recovering passed a law that wine or beer served in taverns had to be accompanied by food.
More probably the origins were practical, with bread or a small plate of ham or olives being used to keep dust or insects out of the drink (the literal meaning of "tapa" is "lid"). It was also the custom for agricultural and other manual workers to eat small snacks so that they could continue working until the main meal of the day. Tapas in its modern form is generally believed to have begun in the taverns and bars of Seville and Andalucia.
Most bars have printed menus for their tapas and some describe what the main ingredients are, but do not list all the ingredients. Menus may be posted on chalkboards with the daily specials.
Most tapas bars offer both pre-prepared (usually salad and other cold foods) and prepared-as-you-order dishes.
Since tapas are small plates of food, you need a few of them to make a meal. Two or three tapas makes a nice light meal, five or six makes a full dinner.
A typical tapas crawl includes about three different bars, chosen for their house specialties. Start off with "starter" dishes such as olives, cheese, jamón, a salad or tortilla omelet. Then move on to have more substantial tapas elsewhere. Dry sherry, wine or beer are the typical beverages to have with tapas.
Prices vary, but expect to pay €2 - 3 for a typical tapa.
The barman will usually run a tab for you, which is paid after you have finished eating. Some bars, where food and drink is taken outside, charge with each round of tapas and drinks.
I always tip 10% if I have been served at a table. If I've just had a quick snack and a drink standing at the bar then I tend to just leave the change.
Tapas-time is in the afternoon and again in the evenings. Kitchens are usually open from 1pm to 4pm in the afternoon, and later again from 8pm to midnight, though some bars will stay open from 5pm to 8pm serving drinks and cold foods.
Many bars also open for breakfast, serving tostadas (toasted rolls with a variety of toppings), coffee and juices.
As with the Spanish diet in general, tapas are made from mediterranean ingredients, especially olives and olive oil, garlic, fish and seafood, and free range pork.
- Rice, in the form of paella, and potato omelet (tortilla) are common.
- There is a huge variety of fish and seafood on offer, from salt cod (bacalao) and tuna to squid (calamares) and prawns.
- Although beef and lamb are popular, the most common meat is pork, much of which comes from free range pigs, used for jamón iberica. Every part of the animal is used, including cheeks, trotters, tripes and blood.
- There is a wide selection of cheeses, such as Manchego, and sheep and goat’s cheeses.
- Salads are usually simple dishes of lettuce, tomato and onion.
Usually there is good selection of vegetarian tapas, but don't assume a vegetarian sounding dish is vegetarian. Ask which tapas have no meat or seafood. This is a good phrase to say: Soy vegetariano (vegetariana). Que tiene de tapas con nada de carne ni pescado? I am a vegetarian. Do you have tapas without meat and seafood?
Many bars fail to mention that their grilled mushrooms come with bits of jamón serrano (ham) or the stuffed courgette (zucchini) is filled with ground meat. The typical potato salad (ensaladilla) is served with prawns, and even a mixed salad often comes with tinned tuna on top.
You can ask for things to be left out, such as the jamón bits (ham) in the grilled mushrooms. This depends on the type of dish and the bar - not all bars will be able to change the dishes.
Some Examples of Tapas
Some typical tapas:
- Gambas al Ajillo: fresh prawns in sizzling olive oil with garlic and chili peppers
- Cazón en Adobo: fried marinated dogfish
- Bacalao: battered and fried salt cod (bacalao)
- Calamares: fried squid rings
- Chocos: cuttlefish, usually grilled (a la plancha) or deep fried
- Espinacas con garbanzos: spinach and chick peas with olive oil and garlic (v)
- Patatas bravas: fried potato wedges served with a spicy alioli sauce (v)
- Ensaladilla: potato salad with mayonnaise and gambas
- Calamares del Campo: breaded and fried onions and peppers, name translates as "squid of the field" but there is no squid (v)
- Gazpacho: cold tomato soup with cucumber and garlic (v)
- Tortilla: potato omelet (v)
- Revuelto: scrambled eggs with various fillings (v)
- Paella: rice with saffron, tomatoes, meat and seafood
- Jamón Iberico: thinly sliced salt cured ham from free range pigs
- Solomillo al Whisky: pork tenderloin in whisky and garlic sauce
- Albondigas: meatballs – most often pork, but also of beef or seafood
(v) possible vegetarian dishes
Shawn Hennessey, originally from Canada, has been living in Seville, Spain since September 1993. Previously she lived in Winnipeg, Toronto, Bristol and Salamanca (in that order).
Original version published by Shawn Hennessey on Sevilla Tapas blog - Tapas 101.
All photos © azahar-sevilla.com