Tapas are a variety of small savory Spanish dishes, often served as a snack with alcoholic drinks. Tapear means to go from bar to bar for drinks and tapas. It’s an essential part of Spanish social culture. Since tapas are informal and the bars are often busy, tapas are commonly eaten standing up at the bar or at small tables or even at upturned barrels. The atmosphere is always buzzing and so warm, perfect for date night.
There are a number of theories behind this custom of eating small snacks with drinks. Legend has it that because of illness, the 13th century Castillian king, Alfonso X, had to eat small snacks with his wine between meals to maintain his strength. After recovering, he passed a law that wine or beer served in taverns be accompanied by food.
Many restaurants around the globe now serve small plates or tapas. Here’s what you should keep in mind when ordering:
Tapas are indeed small plates. Order at least 3 or 4 plates per person and share everything family style. Ideally, each person should get a taste of everything.
Tapas are often offered in place of appetizers. In such a case, order two plates per person and leave room for the main course.
To follow Spanish tradition, order tapas as you go versus ordering too much in advance. Order 2 or 3, savor and share with your group. Then order 2 or 3 more as you please. Eating tapas shouldn’t be hurried.
Once seated, don’t order everything at once. Tapas are usually pre-prepared. You could end up with 5-6 dishes arriving at once with no room for your drinks at the table!
Tapas almost always have heavy or fatty ingredients such as olive oil, garlic, fish and seafood and free range pork. Rice, in the form of paella and potato omellette (tortilla), are also common. Although the plates look small, they can be filling.
Most traditional restaurants offer the menu in Spanish, so it is always wise to learn the translations:
- Aceitunas – Olives
- Albóndigas – Meatballs. Made mostly of pork, beef or seafood
- Arroz del Día – Rice of the day. Served with meat or seafood at lunchtime
- Bacalao – Cod fish
- Boquerones – Anchovies
- Berenjenas – Eggplant / Aubergine
- Calamares – Fried squid rings
- Canapés – tapas on toast
- Caracoles – Snails
- Cazón – Dogfish, usually fried
- Croquetas – A round filling of flour, milk, cheese and ham covered in bread crumbs, then deep fried
- Chipirones – Small squid, usually cooked a la plancha (on the griddle)
- Chocos – Cuttlefish, usually breaded and deep fried
- Chorizo – Spicy sausage
- Espinacas con garbanzos – Spinach and chick peas with olive oil and garlic
- Ensaladilla – Potato salad with mayonnaise & tuna (or prawns)
- Gambas – Prawns often fried in garlic (al ajillo)
- Gazpacho – Cold tomato soup with cucumber and garlic
- Jamón Serrano / Iberico – Cured ham. It’s a national obsession
- Melón con jamón serrano – It’s not a typo, it really is melon and ham
- Lomo – Pork loin
- Merluza – Hake, a type of codfish that’s popular in Spain. It’s unusual to find it in the U.S., so order it when available
- Migas – Fried breadcrumbs
- Medias raciones – half portions
- Montaditos – Small filled buns, similar to mini-sandwiches often served toasted
- Morcilla – Black pudding or sausage
- Paella de Mariscos – Rice Paella with clams, mussels, squid and shrimp
- Pan con tomate – Bread topped with tomato, oil and garlic. The most typically Catalan dish, simple but delicious. Eaten on its own or with cold meats and cheeses
- Patatas Bravas – Deep fried potatoes served with a spicy alioli sauce
- Pimientos – Red Peppers
- Pisto – Stew of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and zucchini
- Pulpo – Octopus
- Revuelto – Scrambled eggs with various fillings
- Salchichón – Sausage or salami
- Salmorejo – Thicker version of gazpacho, often used as a sauce
- Solomillo al Whisky – Pork tenderloin in whisky and garlic sauce
- Tortilla – Spanish omelette with potato and onion