Croquettes are popular Spanish tapas

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These are croquettes, a popular type of tapas

What are tapas in Spain?

COMPLETE GUIDE TO WHAT TAPAS ARE AND HOW TO ORDER THEM

Tapas are small plates of food designed to either be eaten as a bite that complements your drink, or as food to be shared. In Spain, food is all about socializing with your peers, and las tapas allow to do exactly that: to enjoy fun informal food that often can be eaten with your fingers or with the help of a toothpick or a fork, while chatting with your table mates.

The concept of what tapas are is pretty broad, and it can be confusing: are they free or do you pay for them? how big is a portion? do you eat them standing or seating? what is authentic and what isn’t? These are just a few of the questions that quickly arise when the word tapas is mentioned. But fear not: in today’s post we’ll help you understand the world of tapas and how to approach them in any occasion during your upcoming trip.

Origins and brief history of tapas

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The legends of how tapas were invented

AI image illustrating the story of how tapas were created

There's plenty of stories about how tapas started, and my favorite is about King Alphonse X who in the 1200's was visiting the South of Spain on a hot day when he decided to enter a bar and order a glass of wine. There were lots of flies inside, and the bartender was worried a fly could fall on the glass of the king, so he covered it with the only thing he had handy: a slice of ham. When the King asked what was that, the bartender answered "Your Majesty, it's a lid!" (tapa is the Spanish word for lid, too).

Other versions says the bartender covered the glass to prevent dust or sand falling inside the glass, but I think the flies make the story more colorful… I’ve also heard about another King passing a law that forced bartenders to serve a small piece of food with any alcoholic drink to avoid his soldiers getting drunk so quickly. Here tapa would come from the verb “tapar”, in this particular setting covering or protecting the stomach from the alcohol. Whatever story is true, all of them speak as tapas being born as a small bite to go with your drink – and from here they’ve evolved to the fascinating world of current tapas.

2

Tapas historical facts

The tales about Kings and tapas repeat through the Middle Ages, sometimes varying the exact King, location or the reason why the lid was put on top of the glass. The truth is that the word “tapa” starts being documented in the 1500’s as used by soldiers when they prepared foods for the next stage of their multi-day expeditions. By the 1600s the word is already used in local taverns to complimentary bits of food that bartenders offered to their clients when they ordered wine.

During the last couple of decades tapas have lived a revival, attracting the interest of young creative chefs as well as foodie locals and tourists, and more elaborated dishes and even Asian-fusion touches have been added to the traditional tapas menu offer, making the Spanish tapas scene even more exciting.

Types of tapas

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On tapas, raciones, aperitivos and pintxos

  • Tapas. This is the generic word for any kind of tapa. You can't get it wrong using this word. However, keep in mind that in some regions of Spain they make the difference between a tapa and a ración, tapa being the smallest serving (usually an individual portion). It's also the right word for the small bite of food served together with a drink.
  • Raciones. In some areas of Spain, a ración is a large plate of tapas food. A serving that is large enough to be shared with a group of friends. Some bars also offer “media ración”, half a ración, which is a medium-sized dish often perfect to be shared between two or maybe three people.
  • Pintxos. Pintxos are the typical tapa of the Basque Country, consisting in a slice of bread with different toppings on it and secured together with a toothpick (aka “pintxo”). They are individual portions, and generally you can pick them from the large plates displayed on top of the counter. When you are ready to pay, the waiter will count the toothpicks left on your plate to know how much to charge you – it’s a system based on honesty.
  • Aperitivo / Vermut. Both words refer to the few tapas and drinks that Spaniards order at a bar before heading for lunch somewhere else. Going for an aperitivo or vermut is a moment to socialize.

4

Spanish tapas by type of food

What are tapas made of? Pretty much anything…

  • Cold tapas. This can be Spanish ham, charcuterie and cheese boards, preserves and canned food such as olives, anchovies, pickles, cockles… It can also be snacks such as chips, peanuts and other nuts. Or toasts with a variety of toppings. Or it can be more elaborated foods such as ensaladilla rusa (potato salad), Spanish omelet and other specialties served cold. Pintxos are often cold tapas.
  • Warm tapas. This includes all types of fried foods (be it battered fish, veggies, croquettes…), steamed seafood or cooked sausages. Most egg tapas dishes are also served warm, even if occasionally they can be served room temperature as well. “Cazuelas” are warm tapas served in the same small clay ramekins where they are cooked. They are usually more elaborated traditional Spanish dishes, that in fancy restaurants are considered “miniature cuisine”.

When and how to order tapas

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Difference between a tapas bar and a tapas restaurant

At the beginning, it was taverns. Then came the tapas bars: usually small (sometimes hole-in-the-wall) bars that serve a limited variety of tapas. In tapas bars people eat standing by the counter or seat on stools by the counter, as tables are scarce. Because of that, people don't usually stay long in the same tapas bar. Tapas bars don't take reservations, it's first-come first-served basis.

Instead, tapas restaurants are relatively new to the scene, and they are restaurants specializing in tapas. They may have stools by a counter but most patrons seat in tables and order from a larger tapas menu. In general, at a tapas restaurant you’ll order enough for an entire meal (otherwise people will stay at the counter rather than take up a table). And more and more, specially in large cities such as Barcelona and Madrid, you’ll need to make reservations in advance. 

6

Tapas prices: are tapas really free?

Don’t expect Spaniards to feed you for free. Most tapas are paid for, and while there’s a certain type of tapa that is free… there a catch! You are paying for the drinks! Here is how that works, but only in some areas of Spain (in Barcelona free tapas are a rarity, but you can find some bars that do that there here):

So as I was saying, in some areas of Spain when you order an alcoholic drink (be it wine, sparkling, beer or vermouth), you’ll be served a small FREE tapa to go with it. But don’t expect to be allowed to choose what you are given: it’s a gift and you don’t get to choose! Usually the tapa that goes with your first drink is something simple and cold: a few olives, or some chips, or an anchovy… If you order a second glass, the tapa is likely to be a bit better: maybe some ham, or cheese, or maybe Spanish omelet (a small portion, though!). And so the more drinks you order, the better your free tapa will get. So if you are planning to make a full meal out of free tapas… you’ll need to order a lot of drinks!

In any other case, las tapas are paid. The cost varies a lot, from a couple of euros for a pintxo to more than €20 for a plate of the best Spanish ham. When checking the menu, you may see something like “XX€/u.”, that means that whatever you are ordering is the price per UNIT. This is common for croquettes and pintxos, although sometimes croquettes come in a platter – it’s OK to ask the waiter how many units come in a platter, or how big a portion is, to help you figure out the amount of food you want to order.

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What drinks to order with tapas

Beer and wine are the standard drinks to go with your tapas, they work well for any occasion. Cava (the Spanish sparkling wine) is also a good choice, just fancier. Spanish people only order sangria in the Summer, and because it usually comes in large jars, it's something you'd only order if you are eating a full - but not if you are standing by the counter for a quick bite.

Vermouth is usually ordered with pre-meal appetizers (mostly before lunch rather than dinner) or standing by the counter. Most locals won’t drink it for an entire meal – but if that’s your thing there’ll be no eye-rolls. Soda, water and fruit juices are also OK when ordering tapas (just don’t expect a free tapa to go come with them). Whisky is probably the only strong drink that pairs well enough with tapas (specially appetizer-style), but leave vodka and gin for the evening party time. And leave coffee and tea for after the meal is over, too.

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Final tips about ordering tapas

  • Don’t be afraid to call the waiter. Tapas aren’t supposed to be a quick meal (even if they can be). Waiters expect you to want to relax and socialize, so they won’t be rushing to serve you. If you need to see the menu, or to order, or to pay… Call the waiter or they might not be checking on you for a while.
  • Order several rounds. If you are planning to eat a full meal, don’t order everything at once and tell the waiter you’ll do rounds. Make the first round something safe from the menu, something you know for sure you are likely to enjoy: potatoes, ham, eggs… After all, you’ll be hungry and you want your first round to be successful to set you on the right mood for the rest of the meal. Then keep watching what other people are ordering around you, and ask the waiter what it was. Often you’ll see specialties that you’d never have order by their name on the menu, but once you see how they look you NEED to have them! So you can be more adventures from the second round on.
  • Find out what’s the bar specialty. Either do your research before going there, or ask the waiter. You don’t want to miss out on something great!
  • Don’t let the waiter choose for you. Or they might just bring you a selection of the same boring tapas you get everywhere else. Do your homework and refer to the two previous points above.
  • Don’t go overboard. If you are two people, a total of 4-5 dishes to share will make a meal. For 4 to 6 people, 5 to 8 dishes should be good enough. This is another reason why you want to order rounds: you’ll know when you are too full to keep ordering.
  • Share! Except for the specialties that go by the unit, most tapas are conceived to be shared. It’s weird to order a tapa and not share it with the people you are eating out with (unless  you are a picky eater and the rest know you won’t be sharing).

Top must-try tapas

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Meat tapas

  • Spanish ham. Either in slices on a platter, or topping a toast. Read our blog post to find out what's the best ham in Spain.
  • Chorizo and other cold cuts. On a platter or on toast. We also have a blog post about Spanish charcuterie that will come handy!
  • "Pollo al ajillo". Chicken fried in garlic and parsley.
  • Cooked sausages. Catalan butifarra with white beans, baby chorizos cooked in cider, roasted black pudding…
  • Offal specialties. Miniature foods often served in cazuelitas. Madrid callos (tripe stew), Catalan cap-i-pota (head an trotters stew), oxtail… Here you’ll find more ideas of adventurous foods from Spain.
  • Croquettes. Flavored with ham, chicken or stew meats.

6

Fish and seafood tapas

  • Anchovies. Marinated in salt until the meat of this type of herring turns brown, then preserved in olive oil. It’s eaten by itself or served on top of a slice of tomato bread. Sometimes you’ll see them fried as sardines.
  • Boquerones. Similar to anchovies, but marinated in vinegar until they turn brown. They are served by themselves. You’ll also see them marinated in “escabeche” sauce (made with vinegar, wine, garlic and herbs) after being fried.
  • Fried seafood. Calamari rings, rabas (fried calamari stripes), chipirones (battered baby calamari), fried baby fish…
  • Canned, steamed, grilled or sautée shells. Mejillones (musles), almejas (clams), berberechos (cockles), navajas (razor clams)…
  • Shrimp. Steamed, grilled or cooked “al ajillo” with garlic and parsley.
  • Codfish. In croquettes or as fritters.
  • Octopus. “A la gallega”, steamed, sliced and sprinkled with paprika.

7

Veggie tapas

  • Potatoes. Patatas Bravas (with garlic aioli sauce and red spicy oil). Ensaladilla rusa (potato salad with peas, carrot, green beans, tuna and mayo). Bombas (deep fried balls of mashed potato and minced meat).
  • Pimientos del Padrón. Pan blistered baby green peppers similar to shishito peppers.
  • Artichokes. Grilled or sliced and deep fried like chips.
  • Eggplant. Deep-fried and sprinkled with molasses or honey.
  • Escalivada. Roasted red pepper, eggplant and onion, served by itself, or on toast, or topped with grilled goat cheese.
  • Mushrooms. In croquettes, or grilled, or sautée, or with eggs.

Find more vegetarian tapas ideas here.

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Dairy and egg tapas

  • Spanish Omelet. A classic. Similar to the Italian fritatta, but cooked on a pan and flipped over rather than baked. An egg, fried potato and caramelized onion delish. 
  • Other omelets. Paisana (potato, peas, carrot, beans…), eggplant, zucchini, parleys and garlic, spinach…
  • Huevos rotos. Scrambled eggs with ham bits and fries.
  • Cheese platters. Manchego, of course, but also other lesser known Spanish cheeses..
  • Fried camembert. A new cuisine tapa that has become a classic.

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Do dessert tapas exist?

While las tapas are savory by definition, it's not unusual that tapas restaurants (and some tapas bars as well) will have a small selection of desserts to finish your meal. And it's not unusual to order one or two to share, and ask the waiter to bring a little spoon for each guest. Dessert tapas include Catalan creme brulee, carquinyoli (Catalan biscotti) with sweet wine, Torrijas (Spanish French toast)...

I hope you enjoyed our guide to what are tapas food!

Marta

Author Marta Laurent Veciana

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Marta is the founder of ForeverBarcelona. She is a passionate tour guide that loves Barcelona and loves writing too. She is the main author of our Blog, and is committed to sharing her knowledge about Barcelona and her best tips with our readers.

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Last update on 2024-06-23 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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