Easy to eat and quick to serve, tapas have made their way from the bars and restaurants of Spain to capturing the attention of Americans. These tempting tidbits delight the palate with intense flavors and contrasting textures. Whether simple or complex in their preparation, served hot or cold, tapas make a satisfying starter or the perfect addition to any social gathering.
What are Tapas?
Every culture has a version of these “little dishes”—small portions of food that are served before a large meal, or eaten as a snack or mid-day tasting. Italy has the antipasto platter, Turkey its mezze, China its dim sum, and Mexico its antojitos. And Spain is home to tasty tapas.
Despite their legendary status in the history and culture of Spain, tapas are a relatively recent phenomenon outside Andalusia, their birthplace. Within the last 40 years, tapas have been popping up in bars and taverns throughout the other Spanish communities, quickly gaining momentum and winning over new audiences abroad.
But, you may ask, “Just what are tapas?” Tapas are not a particular type of food and there are no rigid rules defining their taste, design, or structure. In general, they are small portions of appetite teasers designed to accompany one’s sherry or other apéritif. They are intended for instant gratification— served and consumed quickly.
As for what specifically constitutes tapas, they are as varied as the chefs who prepare them. Tapas range in scope from simple yet delicious fare—including slices of tangy Manchego cheese or cured Serrano ham—to more complex dishes like fiery potatoes with allioli sauce, sautéed garlic prawns, or stuffed olives featuring any number of fillings. Tapas tend to be salty, as they are often prepared from cured items, or are soaked in salty marinades or brine solutions. While just about any Spanish food can and is served as a tapa, finger foods are the most popular for ease of eating.
Celebrating Small Plates
If you decide to throw a tapas party (and why wouldn’t you?), be sure to serve a variety of these little dishes, like these Mussels with Olives, Spiced Roasted Almonds, or Chorizo-Stuffed Mushrooms. Not only will this make sampling more fun, it will also help keep everyone’s palate fresh and exciting. For instance, if you only offer your guests marinated items, their taste buds will soon grow dull and they will experience sensory fatigue. Also, by balancing your menu to include some items that can be prepared in advance with items requiring last-minute finishes, you will be able to make the most effective use of your preparation time.
What to Drink with Your Tapas
Any number of beverages can accompany your tapas selections. They are, after all, bar foods designed to accompany drinks. White and red wine served plain or as Sangria are common, as are mixed drinks and beer. For true Spanish flair though, pair your tapas with dry (fino) sherry, the famed fortified wine of the southwest. While sherry’s alcohol content is a bit too high for a dinner beverage, it is perfectly suited for sipping at leisure while nibbling on tapas and engaging in lengthy conversations.
Tapas offer the perfect combination of things that Spaniards hold dearest to them—food, drinks, and the opportunity for great conversation. When you bite into tapas, you are sampling not only the foods of Spain, but taking a crash course in Spanish culinary history.