Tapas, small appetizer dishes of Spanish origin, are a staple of the country’s incredible gastronomy. Go to any restaurant, elegant or village hole in the wall, and you will find an assortment of traditional and delicious tapas to choose from.
Tapas will vary from region to region but are consistently served with drinks or before larger meals. In some regions, like Granada which is the most famous for its free with drink order tapas, the portions will be so big that you will hardly need a meal to follow up with!
The idea of tapas is that they are communal dishes to share. They are meant to be nosh foods, foods you can pick at while you talk. Once a full meal is served people of whatever culture are often focused on the meal itself, but tapas are casual. Spain has a very strong food culture: mealtimes are long and leisurely, and there are designated snack breaks between meals where people are meant to gather and eat together. As much as meals are about taking care of hunger pangs, they are also absolutely about having social time as well. So it is no wonder that the tapa, a food that is easy, communal, but not too much that it overshadows the meal itself, is a hallmark of the Spanish culture.
In Spain, lunch is often anywhere from 1pm – 4pm, maybe with a mid morning snack or coffee break. But, lunch is not served until around 9pm, which can leave upwards of 6 hours between the times you can actually sit down and eat. Tapas are generally served even when kitchens are closed for siesta, and, if you’re out with your friends for a casual meal, they can be combined to make full meals if you order many over the course of a night. Plus, they are usually pretty cheap! A plate of grilled mushrooms with garlic for example, might run you five or six euros, even in the capital!
Where the name tapa comes from is debatable, but there are a few interesting takes on it, the most famous of which is that during the summer, Spain is hot, and heat and food attract fruit flies. Since when it is hot people tend to eat slower, often times people would put a plate over their principle dish like a lid – or in Spanish, a ‘tapa’ – to keep the flies off. But our favorite postulated theory is that some rather clever tavern owners in Castilla La Mancha figured out that strong smelling cheeses could ‘cover up’ – tapar – the smell and taste of some, let us say, less than quality wines they were serving, so they began to serve the cheese as a tapa.
None of these origin stories have really been proved one way or another. But what is clear is that tapas are fun, culturally integral to the country, and oh, right – delicious!