What Are Tapas? A Guide To Ordering & Eating Tapas In Spain

The popularity of Spanish tapas has skyrocketed in recent years and eating tapas in Spain has become a food lover’s dream. But what is tapas food and how do you order and eat tapas like a true Spaniard?

Tapas are a staple of Spanish cuisine, alongside paella. And just as is the case with paella, there are a lot of o misconceptions about tapas out there as well.

Ask any foodie what are tapas? and they will probably say that tapas are “small portions of food, two to three bites on average“. This is technically correct in some cases, but not in all. Spanish tapas are so much more than food and not all tapas in Spain are small either.

So let’s have a look at what are tapas and how to go for tapas in Spain. At the end of the article, I listed examples of some of the best tapas dishes in Spain.

Patatas bravas on a white plate - the perfect answer to the what are tapas question
Patatas bravas are the perfect answer to the “what is tapas food?” question

What are tapas?

Traditionally, tapas are small savory dishes typically served with a drink. They originated in Spain in the middle ages and can be any number of dishes.

Tapas are part of Spain’s cultural identity and in recent years, an initiative was started seeking UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status for tapas.

For centuries, bars in Spain served up a delicious free tapa with each drink. But times have changed, and with them, the concept of tapas.

Granada seems to be one of the last places in Spain where you can still get a free tapa with each drink you order. As a general rule of thumb, the more expensive the drink, the better the tapa.

In other parts of Spain though, the only free tapas you’ll get these days is a small plate of briny olives, roasted peanuts, lupini beans, or potato chips.

In Spanish culture, tapas have been turned into a verb. “Tapear“, “ir de tapas“, “ir de tapeo” or “comer/cenar de tapas” are commonly used in Spain and they basically all mean to go out and eat tapas.

But what does this really mean? Depending on where you are in Spain, going out for tapas can look quite different.

Small Padrón peppers on a silver plate
Padrón peppers are popular vegan tapas in Spain. Some of them can be spicy

What does it mean to go for tapas in Spain?

The tapas culture varies greatly from one region of Spain to another. What remains a constant is that eating tapas is a social activity and one of the best culinary experiences in Spain. Tapas are meant to be shared.

In Madrid and Seville, for example, it’s normal for groups of friends to go out on a tapas crawl. This means going from bar to bar, and at each stop, each person orders a drink (beer, wine, cava, etc.) accompanied by a small bite-size tapa or two.

A tapas crawl involves 3 or 4 stops. Hot tapas are usually ordered from the menu, while cold tapas are displayed on top of the bar.

In Basque Country, they created their own version of tapas, called pintxos (also pinchos). These are small portions of food served on a slice of bread (typically baguette bread) and held together by a toothpick.

Pintxos are typically displayed on the bar and you just pick a plate and serve yourself. When you’re finished eating, the waiter will count the toothpicks on your plate and charge you accordingly.

In Valencia, on the other hand, cenar de tapas usually means going out to a restaurant and ordering several tapas that are then shared between the diners. The plates are brought out one by one and are placed in the middle of the table. Portions are quite large (usually enough for four people to have several bites from each dish).

In other parts of Spain, plates this size are called raciones. But in Valencia, restaurant menus rarely make mention of raciones, using the word tapas instead.

In Barcelona, you’ll often see small plates (tapas) and larger plates (raciones) on the same menu. A smallish plate somewhere between tapas and raciones, called media ración is also common. The prices will vary greatly between the three, but the dishes are the same.

Small slices of bread topped with tomato sauce and cream
The “what are tapas?” question has more than one answer and pintxos is one of them

Where do people eat tapas in Spain?

In Spain, tapas are everywhere, from bars to restaurants.

When eaten in bars, Spanish tapas are quite informal. The best tapas bars in Spain are no-frills places that have been around for generations. They tend to get quite crowded, especially around 10 pm. Patrons usually eat standing either at the bar or gathered around small tables. The atmosphere is lively and can get quite noisy.

In sit-down restaurants, whether you opt for indoor or outdoor seating, the experience of eating tapas is more in line with what you’d expect from eating out. But the atmosphere is still informal, with plates being shared and the relaxed conversations lasting up to 2 or 3 hours.

When eating tapas in Spain, the accent is as much on the food as it is on the company. On the one hand, tapas are a great way to try several traditional Spanish dishes in one meal. But going for tapas in Spain also means enjoying a fun conversation among a group of friends all talking over each other.

One curious fact about Spanish food is that even in bars it is customary to pay for your tapas and drinks after you’ve finished eating. But this tradition is also slowly changing, especially in the big cities.

Another thing is that traditionally, tapas are savory dishes. If you want to finish on a sweet note, ask for carta de postres and pick from the list of delicious Spanish desserts on offer. That being said, some tapas bars, not many, also serve sweet tapas. Because why not?

Smoked salmon and lettuce rolls
Some restaurants and bars in Spain have started offering creative tapas that stray away from traditional tapas

When do people eat tapas in Spain?

Tapas can be eaten almost any time of the day, the only exception being perhaps breakfast – breakfast in Spain is usually a sweet affair.

Spaniards start eating tapas around 11 am at the time of almuerzo (or second breakfast) and wash them down with a glass of wine or small beer. Yes, even this early in the day!

Since many tapas are deep-fried, they go incredibly well with these typical Spanish drinks. So it’s easy to see why Spaniards would choose to accompany their second breakfast with a cold beer (even if an alcohol-free one) or tinto de verano (a light wine cocktail).

This is socially acceptable in Spain and in accordance with Spanish eating customs.

Later on in the day, tapas can be appetizers eaten before lunch or dinner. But they can also be lunch or dinner, especially when served as raciones.

Small fried fish on a large platter
Freidurías are typical Andalucian eateries selling deep-fried fish tapas, such as pescaito frito

Origins of tapas

There are many theories related to the origins of the tapas culture in Spain. But the one that makes the most sense links tapas with King Alfonso X of Castile (also known as the Wise) who back in the 13th century gave a decree that taverns could only serve drinks accompanied by a little snack.

The idea was for the patrons not to get drunk so easily from drinking on an empty stomach. Thus the habit of accompanying each alcoholic drink with a small plate of food was born.

It’s not clear if the first tapas were hot or cold dishes. But it’s probably safe to assume that they varied with the season and from one region to the next.

Another theory, which feels like a continuation of the above, says that as some innkeepers from the Spanish southern region of Andalucia started serving free snacks with their drinks, the patrons found new and creative uses for these nibbles.

In some taverns, they started to cover their sherry glasses with the thin slice of bread, ham, or cheese they were receiving in order to prevent the flies from getting into their drinks.

The idea eventually caught up. And since tapa in Spanish means “cover” or “lid”, it actually makes sense that the free snacks used to cover the drinks received the name of “tapa” or plural “tapas”.

Small buns stuffed with various fillings on a black wooden plate
Mondatidos are yet another answer to the “what is tapas?” question

Most popular Spanish tapas

So we’ve figured out what are tapas and how to go for tapas in Spain. Now let’s see what are some of the most typical tapas in Spain.

Tapas can be simple dishes or elaborate plates of food. They can be hot or cold. Some are popular throughout Spain, and others are region specific and are nearly impossible to find outside of their region of origin.

On top of that, no two regions in Spain are alike when it comes to the way they do tapas. And this results in incredible diversity.

One constant among Spanish tapas, however, is the use of olive oil. Most traditional tapas are either deep-fried in olive oil, grilled with olive oil, or drenched in olive oil. And that’s the reason why they go so well with Spanish beer and wine.

Some of the most traditional tapas are made with fish, seafood, or pork. Vegetables are typically used in combination with ingredients of animal origin. But these days, most restaurants have a couple of vegan and vegetarian tapas listed on their menu as well.

Here’s a list of some of the most popular tapas dishes in Spain:

  • Tortilla de patatas: Spanish potato omelet
  • Jamón: dry-cured ham
  • Queso curado: cured cheese
  • Patatas bravas: deep-fried potato cubes served with spicy bravas sauce and alioli
  • Gazpacho: cold tomato soup
  • Ensladadilla rusa: potato salad with mayo and tuna or shrimp
  • Pimientos de padrón: small fried green peppers, some of which are surprisingly spicy
  • Chipirones rebozados: battered baby squid
  • Calamares a la romana: battered squid rings
  • Montaditos: small buns filled with any number of things
  • Croquetas: breaded fritters with a creamy filling and a variety of ingredients
  • Chorizo a la sidra: sausage with cider
  • Pulpo a la gallega: octopus seasoned with paprika

Besides an abundance of traditional tapas, creative tapas are becoming increasingly popular in Spain. In recent years, celebrity chefs such as Ferran Adrià and Nacho Manzano have made great strides in this direction.

So there you have it. I hope this answers your question and you now know what are Spanish tapas and how to order them in Spain. Tapas are a marvelous culinary invention and I’m sure you’ll enjoy sampling different types of Spanish tapas next time you’re in Spain.

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