I said Tapas Bar, Not Topless Bar.

I said Tapas Bar, Not Topless Bar.

Tapas or Topless?

Tapas have been around for centuries in Spain and for many years in the US – so it always amazes me when people don’t know what they are or have never heard of them. I remember when my mother, who lives out of state, first learned about tapas. I called her as I usually did on Saturday afternoon to see how she and my father were doing. During our light-hearted conversation, she asked where I was headed that evening. I replied that I was going to a new tapas bar with some friends. At this point, there was silence for what seemed eternity, then she asked again, “Where did you say you were going?”. “A tapas bar,” I replied. “But why would you want to go to a place like that?,” she answered. I finally realized that what she thought I said was “topless” bar, which explains her surprise. When I explained to her what tapas are and what the restaurant is, she seemed relieved and then continued on the conversation in an upbeat manner. In my world, this was not the only time “tapas” had been mistaken for “topless”. Nowadays, if I am taking an out-of-town guest for tapas and I know he/she really doesn’t know what they are, I might try to joke with the person by never explaining what tapas are until the very last minute. They are just as surprised and relieved as my mother was years ago on the phone to find out the true meaning of tapas.

Tapas: Small in size, huge in flavor.

Tapas: Small in size, huge in flavor.

What are tapas

Tapas is a style of eating, rather than a way of cooking, that involves eating bite-size snacks or small appetizers. Tapas can be served cold or hot and can be made with just about anything. Typical Spanish tapas are dishes that include cheese, egg, meat, vegetable, seafood, relishes, such as olives and spicy peppers, and rice. Don’t be fooled by their size – these bites may be small but are customarily packed with huge flavors, like paprika, curry, and garlic.

Origin of Tapas

Tapas are believed to have originated in Spain centuries ago, but as to how they originated, that story will change depending on what region of Spain you are in. One of the most popular theories is that the first tapas were eaten when, due to an illness, the Spanish king Alfonso the 10th, had to take small bites of food with some wine between meals. However, after he recovered the king decreed that no wine was to be served in any of the inns in the land of Castile, unless accompanied by something to eat. Although tapas have evolved over the years in regard to ingredients and style, the tradition of eating small plates is ingrained in the Spanish culture.

Where to find tapas

Tapas are a staple all over Spain, but in the US, tapas or tapas-like restaurants can be found in just about any major city in the world. Also, there are some restaurants that may not be considered tapas bars, but offer a tapas-like menu. Nowadays, many tapas bars include full-size meals on the menu to accommodate bigger appetites or those people who failed kindergarten and never learned how to share.

I absolutely love tapas. In fact, whenever I go out of town for business or fun, I do a little research ahead of time to see if there is a trendy tapas bar that I can try. I’ve had tapas in Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Orlando, Philadelphia, Washington,DC, and, of course, in Spain.  If you’re looking for something different for a Friday night dinner, check out the local tapas bars in your area or your destination city.

How to order tapas

From my experience, tapas are meant to be eaten with a group, but they can also be fine as a dinner for two. As is customary, each person in the group will select one item off of the tapas menu and, when these items are brought to the table, everyone shares each others’ dish. At this point, the second “round” of tapas is ordered. This can go on and on for hours. You’d be surprised how filling tapas are, so don’t order too many at once, until you’re sure you’re hungry enough to eat more. Give yourself plenty of time for tapas. It’s not a quick meal and it is intended to be shared with friends, family, and/or colleagues. In Spain, the locals will actually go from tapas bar to tapas bar, sampling the house specialties, meeting up with old friends, and making new ones as they go.

Classic tapas

Although every tapas bar will have a signature dish or several specialty tapas that distinguish it from a competitor, most tapas bars/restaurants carry at least a few of the classic Spanish tapas, including:

  • Patatas bravas – Potatoes in a spicy red or cream sauce.
  • Spanish tortilla –  Spanish style quiche or omelette.
  • Croquettes – Lightly breaded, fried fritter made with ham, chicken, and/or cheese.
  • Paella – Saffron-rice-based dish almost always made with vegetables, shellfish, and other fresh seafood. This dish is similar to Italian risotto in that it is so filling it could be a meal on it’s own.

    Olives make simple, but flavorful tapas.

    Olives make simple, but flavorful tapas.

  • Serreno ham – Famous salty Spanish ham. It can be eaten on it’s own or wrapped around dates, figs, or served on bread.
  • Manchego cheese – The most widely used cheese in Spain – made from sheep’s milk. It can be eaten by the slice on a piece of bread with olives or served in a variety of dishes, from potatoes to soups.
  • Pa amb tomaquet or pa amb oli – This is essentially sliced country style bread rubbed with oil and garlic, or oil, garlic, and a tomato half.
  • Chorizo sausage – A widely-used, very versatile spicy Spanish sausage made of cured pork. Can be eaten on its own, with vegetable accompaniments, or used in soups or sauces.
  • Creme caramel or Catalan – A thick, custard-like dessert similar to the French creme brulee.
  • Sangria – Although this is technically not a tapa, this fruit-based iced drink, made with red, white, or sparkling wine (cava), is widely popular in tapas restaurants in and outside of Spain.

Tapas at home

A good way to experience tapas, is to host a party where everyone brings a dish (so that you’re not making a bunch of time-consuming little appetizers). I know a couple who host a tapas party every year with two rules: 1) no one can bring the same dish twice and 2) you must bring the recipe to share. As you can imagine, after a few years of this, they have significantly increased their tapas recipe collection.

These days, nearly any food that can be made or cut into bite-size pieces could be considered tapas. But, if you’re not sure where to start, here are 7 recipes to get your tapas party rolling:

Easy Tapas Recipes

  1. Bacon-wrapped water chestnuts
  2. Crostini with roasted red pepper and feta
  3. Patatas bravas
  4. Ham croquettes
  5. Chicken satays
  6. Ginger-lime shrimp 
  7. Couscous and feta stuffed peppers (use mini-peppers for bite-size version)

Keep in mind, half the fun of tapas is experimenting to see which tapas you like the most, which are easiest to make, and which are the most original. So no matter what you make, keep it fun, keep it interesting, and keep the tapas flowing!

Do you have a favorite place for tapas or a favorite tapas recipe? Share it!

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