There Are Thousands Of Tapas, So Where Does One Start? Here's Your Hungry Guide To Spain's Small Plates – TheTravel
With thousands of small plates to choose from, figuring out Spain’s tapas scene can be confusing – but not with this guide.
Tapas are so much a part of Spain’s culture (not just food culture) that entire meal times revolve around them. With that being said, there are literally thousands of different tapas that one can find throughout the country, making it practically impossible to know them all. They also range drastically in flavor, composition, and ingredients, making them even tough to pin down as just one, general food group.
In short, a ‘tapa’ is anything that’s served in small portions and passes as a snack. It’s usually smaller than an appetizer but does the trick when it comes to tiding one over until lunch or dinner. Sometimes, tapas are even served after dinner. So, where to start?
In order to understand where the idea of a small plate came from, it’s important to know the history of tapas. It’s believed that, according to legend, the dish got its start during the 20th century. One day when King Alfonso XIII stopped into a bar, he was given a glass of wine. However, a windstorm was kicking up an awful amount of sand so, in order to keep debris out of the king’s glass, the bartender supposedly covered it with a plate of cured ham. Since tapas comes from the Spanish word tapa or tapar, ‘to cover,’ it makes sense. The non-literal definition of a ‘small plate’ comes from the idea of serving a small snack with wine.
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Another theory goes back to the Middle Ages when it’s believed that people would drink mead or wine in order to keep warm. To temper some of the alternative effects of drinking so much, small plates of food were served throughout the day to keep one’s stomach full.
There are several different types of tapas that one might encounter during a trip to Spain. In fact, many of these ideas regarding tapas have been adopted around the world – therefore, one might even encounter them without ever leaving their city, state, or country.
The most traditional type of small plate is the tapa. While this varies from place to place, in Spain, if one asks for a tapa, they’ll likely be brought a very small plate filled with olives or cured meat. It’ll be more of a small bite than a small plate – just something enough to whet the appetite and give diners a taste of something refreshing.
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This is the second-largest tapa that can be ordered and it’ll be slightly larger than the average small plate. This is what most people think of when they think of tapas, and it usually includes enough for up to three people to share among themselves.
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The largest of all the types of tapas one can order, this is usually enough for the entire table. Often, this includes either a slightly larger plate with one style of tapas or a mix of several different smaller tapas plates. This usually comes with a price whereas the tapa (the smallest plate) might come free with a meal.
There are two types of tapas restaurants: a tapas bar, and an actual tapas restaurant. A tapas bar will be a dining establishment that – as the name implies – serves strictly small plates. Rather than having them on the menu for free with a meal, they’ll all come with a price and will range in size and style. In Spain, most of these are stand-up only but in Barcelona, visitors will find that tapas bars have tables and many people will spend hours eating, drinking, and conversing there.
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In contrast, a tapas restaurant is found more commonly outside of Spain. Since the idea of a small plate has gained popularity, many countries have entire restaurants dedicated to the idea of small appetizers. These are usually places with a full bar, serving a menu full of small appetizer-sized options to choose from.
There are hot and cold tapas, and every type fits into one of these two categories. Hot tapas are usually cooked to order since they must be served warm and include anything from fried food to something pan-sauteed. Cold tapas are a bit more convenient since they can be prepped in advance, and are served chilled or at room temperature. This includes any type of salad or anything that’s marinated or pickled. When it comes to the style and type of tapas one can order, they’re broken down into four main dishes.
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Originally from New York, Katie is used to a fast-paced lifestyle. She got her personal start with writing in the second grade, and carried that passion with her until she won a spot in her high school’s published poetry book – but not before becoming the News Editor and columnist for the high school newspaper. In college, she majored in English Literature with an emphasis in Political Science, soaking up most creativity and method from one of the last professors to study under famed beat poet Allen Ginsberg. The more she wrote, the more she learned about the world and, more importantly, herself. She has been writing professionally and has been published since the age of 19, and for nearly a decade has covered topics in entertainment, lifestyle, music news, video game reviews, food culture, and now has the privilege of writing and editing for TheTravel. Katie has a firm belief that every word penned is a journey into yourself and your own thoughts, and through understanding this, people can begin to understand each other. Through her voice, she brings personality, research, and a bit of friendly sarcasm to every piece she writes and edits.