A tapa is an appetizer or snack in Spanish cuisine and translates to a small portion of any kind of food, similar to Chinese dim sum. It may be cold or hot. In the early days of tapas, a slice of cheese or ham was served with your drink and placed over the mouth of the glass (saved on washing plates). They were basically designed to tide one over until the traditional way of eating dinner very late in the evening, when most Americans are already sleeping. It may be cold (such as mixed olives and cheese) or hot (such as chopitos, which are fried baby squid). In select bars in Spain, tapas have evolved into an entire sophisticated cuisine.
Legend has it that Castilian King Alfonso the Tenth (circa late 13th century) had once been stricken with a serious illness which only allowed him to consume small portions of food with small amounts of wine. (Perhaps he just got too hungry between lunch and dinner.) The U.S. has adopted this cuisine through tapas restaurants, wine bars and some micro breweries, as opposed to Spain, where it’s usually served up in simple tapas bars. Popular dishes include many traditional Spanish delicacies that are worth trying (be very brave, now):
Albóndigas – your basic meatballs
Aceitunas – assorted olives (no meal is complete without them)
Bacalao – salt cod, breaded and fried or stewed in tomato sauce
Boquerones – anchovies, marinated or deep fried
Berenjenas – eggplant/ (aubergine) can be raw or cooked
Cazón en Adobo – fried marinated dogfish (a type of fish, not dog)
Caracoles – snails,usually baked with spices (similar to French escargot)
Calamares – fried squid rings
Chipirones – a bit different, small squid cooked on a griddle
Chorizo – a popular spicy sausage
Gambas al Ajillo – fresh prawns in sizzling olive oil with garlic and peppers
Gazpacho – a cold tomato-based chopped vegetable soup
Jamón Serrano/Iberico – Spain’s favorite ham (similar to Italian prosciutto)
Melón con jamon Serrano – melon and ham
Morcilla – black pudding (blood sausage)
Paella – a national dish
Pisto – stew of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and zucchini
Pulpo – your basic octopus
Queso con membrillo – cheese with a sweet quince sauce
Salchichón – any spicy sausage or salami
Tapa de sardinas en tomate – sardines with a tomato sauce
Tortilla – omelette with potato and onion (not like the Mexican tortilla)
Sorry, no mac and cheese
If you are confused or overwhelmed, ask the server for assistance. One of the great advantages is that someone at your table is likely to enjoy a dish that maybe no one else does, so it won’t go to waste.
For many, tapas is an acquired taste. For others, simply not their cup of tea. But it’s definitely worth a try with a few good friends (who are culinary “good sports”). It just might lead to a new cuisine for the adventurous diner, so check it out. You can do it.
Growing up in Chicago, author Dale Phillip first encountered tapas many years ago and enjoyed the concept of sampling different dishes. Although she is a good sport about trying new foods, she avoids octopus and several other items which just don’t appeal to her (no, she has never tried dogfish). A current resident of Southern California, wine bars are popular and many serve tapas.