Tapas has become one of the hottest cuisines in the United States. However, what we think of as tapas has little to do with the foundational cuisine in Spain. So what is tapas, where does the concept originate, and how has it evolved? Today we will take a deep look at one of my favorite things to eat!

Tapas (the singular is tapa) originated in Spain more than two centuries ago. From the Spanish verb tapar, to cover, they were originally pieces of bread or meat used to cover a glass of sherry between sips so as not to allow fruit flies to get into the sweet liquor. They tended to be salty (chorizo or ham) or dry (bread) so as to encourage patrons of the inns serving sherry to purchase more of the drink.

This tapa is much too pretty to just cover a drink, but it comes from the same basic place, and includes that flat piece of bread.

Over time, inns got smarter. Competing for the money of travelers, these inns would attempt to entice would-be diners to eat at their establishment with small samples of food, as menus were largely useless given the illiteracy rate of pre-industrial Spain. These samples were simple, just tiny portions of whatever was being served that evening.

While tapas have evolved since, these two characteristics have remained: tapas would forever be small portions of food that induced thirst.

An assortment of traditional tapas. As you can see, nothing fancy.

I returned from Spain just as Covid was starting to heat up in March, and during my nearly six weeks there, tapas was my go-to if I went out to dinner, especially seeing as the Spanish don’t eat a full dinner until 9pm or later. So what does the cuisine look like in Spain today? In short, it is awesome!

Tapas today are still small plates, ranging from tiny open-faced sandwiches called montaditos to fried sardines or anchovies to olives, sausages, and cheese. They are incredibly popular; it seems as though everyone in Spain meets for a tapa and a drink before either going home or going out for dinner. Tapas bars can work in a few different ways. Most traditionally – and most common in smaller cities or outside of the main touristy areas in the large cities – tapas are provided for free with each drink one orders. Some of these allow patrons to choose a tapa from the menu; others do not and will simply bring something.

So picture this. You’re in a small tapas bar in Granada. Maybe it’s Avila Tapas, my personal favorite. You’ll receive a menu with the full offerings of the restaurant, and – in the case of Avila – a list of tapas. You’ll order a glass of wine – red, given that we are in Spain, a nice rioja. You’ll also order a tapa, perhaps a small montadito of chorizo on bread with a fried egg on top. The wine will cost you three or four Euros. The tapa will be free. Want another tapas? Order another wine or beer, or purchase one off the menu. (In another tapas bar, you’ll order your rioja and the server or bartender will simply put a plate in front of you. It will be simple, but it will be good.) None of the tapas will be fancy, nor will they have any sort of pretty plating. They also will rarely have vegetables, but that’s just Spain for you, where people don’t go out for vegetables. But they will be well-made, tasty, and leaving you wanting another glass of wine. And for two people, two drinks with two tapas each can wind up being less than €20, even significantly less!

One traditional tapa is this tuna and potato salad.

If one is in a larger city or a more touristy area, some tapas bars have simply gone to an a la carte menu. Drinks and tapas are separate, albeit still cheap, and ordered off a full menu. The fare can still be the same, but restaurants’ overhead in these areas doesn’t allow for the giving of free appetizers with drinks. There are also more expensive tapas bars one will find, where fare is much more elegant, though still served as small plates. (If in Seville, check out Abaceria del Postigo for a great example of this.)

Abaceria del Postigo puts a flaming touch on this tapa of sausage.

Here in the United States, “modern tapas” is becoming much more common, though it has very little to do with the Spanish version of the cuisine. What we call tapas here is just smaller shared plates; nothing else survives of the original idea. For instance, take one of my favorite modern tapas places in Los Angeles, Black Market Liquor Bar in Studio City. One of my go-to dishes there is a baby kale salad with egg, pickled onions, and botarga. It is divine, but it is also on the pricy side – a full meal at BMLB will easily exceed $50-70 for two. But the plates are small and shared, and so called tapas by the average American.

Perhaps this is the direction all tapas will go; perhaps in a decade or two, few restaurants will be able to afford the old business model of “buy a drink, get a tapa”. I certainly hope not. For me, the tapas experience is one of the best parts of Spain – along with the siesta – and is an experience not to be missed. Just don’t let fruit flies into your sherry!

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