A fixture of Spanish society for centuries, tapas are a custom that has evolved since the late 20th century to become a world-famous gastronomical model, reaching far beyond Spanish borders.
TapasReal Academia de Gastronomía
What are Tapas?
Tapas are small portions of food that can be simple or intricate, and which are served with drinks in bars throughout Spain. This particular style of eating is known as "tapear" or "going for tapas," and is based on informal gatherings and socializing with friends and acquaintances.
The Spanish tradition of tapas is deemed so culturally significant that steps have been taken to have it declared part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
The History of Tapas
Various legends about the origins of the custom of having small snacks with a drink—an age-old tradition in Spanish inns and taverns—have been attributed to various monarchs. It is a tradition that features in works such as the 17th-century novel "Don Quixote," which mentions herring and rabbit "empanadas" (pastries), among other snacks.
King Alfonso X "The Wise"Real Academia de Gastronomía
No Drinks without Tapas
One legend has it that during the reign of King Alfonso X "The Wise" in the 13th century, tapas began to be served as an accompaniment to drinks to prevent drunkenness.
"Ultramarinos"Real Academia de Gastronomía
Andalusia: The Birthplace of Modern Tapas
In the 18th century, taverns, "bodegas" (wine cellars), and grocery stores all existed alongside each other in Andalusia. In the latter, wine was usually offered by the glass, and you could sample some of the foods sold there.
In 1795, as detailed in the book "Seville Banquets, Tapas, and Menus, 1863–1995: An Anthropology of Food," establishments where wine was served by the glass were granted a license to set out tables and chairs, and to serve cold or fried food, although stews were prohibited.
King Alfonso XIIIReal Academia de Gastronomía
The King of Tapas
Another widely accepted legend places the origins of the tapas tradition in Andalusia, where drinks would be covered with a piece of cheese or sausage to protect them from dust or flies during the hot summer weather.
King Alfonso XIII is at the heart of this legend. It is said that he was drinking sherry at an inn when a waiter saw some sand swirling up off the ground, so he placed a slice of sausage over the king's glass, which he later ate.
Several taverns in Cádiz and Seville have claimed to be the setting for these events.
What does seem to be true, or has at least been recorded in the visitors' book there, is that King Alfonso XIII visited an inn on the outskirts of Seville in 1930, where he tried the homemade tapas known locally as "tonteo," which included cod sticks, fried squid, "aliños de hueva" (a roe dressing), and sausage.
He liked the place and the gastronomic experience so much that he granted it the title of "Royal Inn."
Traditional Tapas BarReal Academia de Gastronomía
The Informality of Tapas
With tapas you have complete freedom to choose what, where, and how to eat—sitting or standing—when to start, and when to finish: it's up to you.
"Tapas is a style of eating. It's not just what you eat, it's how you pick it up and the way you share the tapas experience," explains Rafael Ansón, President of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.
How Do You Eat It?
As Ansón puts it: "In principle, because of how it started, a tapa is something that you eat with one hand, a cocktail stick, a fork, or a spoon, allowing you to hold a drink in the other. This style of eating creates a kind of harmony between solid and liquid."
Whenever You Like, with Whoever You Like
Tapas are served in bars once breakfast is over, and are usually available until coffee time. In the afternoon, they are served from before dinner, up until the place or the kitchen closes.
Going for tapas just before a meal is known as an "aperitivo" or appetizer: a term that comes from the Latin "aperire," which is associated with the idea of "whetting the appetite."
Tapas: Freedom and Informality
You can have one or 2 portions of tapas as an appetizer, or enjoy a whole meal of dishes. They can be eaten standing at the bar, sitting on a stool, or at a low table.
As for whether to try one in each bar or several from the same place, the prestigious food critic Cristino Álvarez has noted that, "Traditionally, one portion of tapas was eaten at each bar, and the bar was chosen for the quality of one kind of tapas or another. Sitting at a table to eat 4 portions of tapas in the same bar was more for the tourists, but the custom was adopted by many locals, who weren't so fond of constantly being on the move."
"Pinchos" in the Basque CountryReal Academia de Gastronomía
Tapas, "Pinchos," and Miniature Food
The tapas tradition has deep roots throughout Spain, and each region has its own specialties.
In the Basque Country, in northern Spain, the bars are filled with appetizing snacks known as "pinchos." The name comes from the way they are served "pinchado" (meaning pierced) on a cocktail stick.
"Arranged artistically on the counter on large trays or plates, they whet the customer's appetite," explains the historian Almudena Villegas in her book "Spanish and International Cuisine: Using Produce to Create Culinary Art."
TapasReal Academia de Gastronomía
In Andalusia, the expressions "tapear" or "tomar una tapa" are both used to mean "to have tapas," and typical offerings include fried fish, oxtail, and spinach with chickpeas.
Until recently, if you went out for an appetizer in Madrid, there would hardly be any of the more elaborate tapas now on offer. Instead, drinks would be accompanied by olives, potato chips, and in some cases, sausage.
The Evolution of Tapas
Over recent decades, the tapas tradition has evolved into a more elaborate form of cuisine, but without abandoning traditional tapas bars.
"Pinchos" in the Basque CountryReal Academia de Gastronomía
It was common practice, in the last century, in cities with students and cattle markets such as Salamanca and Santiago de Compostela, to serve a "tapa de cortesía" or complimentary tapas when a customer ordered a drink. This would generally consist of cooked foods served in the restaurant, and the custom later spread to other places.
Nowadays, there are mostly just small accompaniments with drinks.
Impossible to Choose!
When it comes to tapas, there are lots of different options, from "pinchos," "montaditos" (filled bread rolls), and "tostas" (open sandwiches), to stews and small dishes.
The most popular tapas include: "gildas" (anchovy, chili, and olive on a stick), "torreznos" (pork rind), "tortilla de patata" (Spanish omelette), "calamares" (squid), croquettes, and "ensaladilla" (Russian salad). The list goes on and on, and changes according to the specialties of each region, and even each bar.
GastrobarReal Academia de Gastronomía
In the 1990s, establishments began to pop up all over Spain offering miniature food to accompany drinks. They modeled themselves on the extensive and meticulous menus of Ferran Adrià's reinvented haute cuisine.
As Rafael Ansón, President of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy, points out, "Tapas have evolved in 2 ways. In one sense, they have become miniature meals: you no longer need to hold the food in one hand and a glass in the other. Now, you can have a small pot or a small amount. In another sense, you can now enjoy a whole meal of intricate tapas—they are no longer mere appetizers."
"Calle Laurel", LogroñoReal Academia de Gastronomía
In many Spanish cities, tapas tours or "las ruta de tapas" have become very popular. What began as word of mouth from one customer to another has become a tourist attraction in many cities. Gastro-tourism guides and maps have even been created to list the specialties of each bar. Highlights include the street called Calle Laurel in Logroño (La Rioja), the old town in San Sebastián, and the so-called "Barrio Húmedo" or "wet district" in León (famed for its many bars and taverns).
What's more, tapas contests have been growing in popularity for over a decade. Valladolid is the location of the first and most famous of these annual events, which is now internationally renowned.
Tapas Bar in New York CityReal Academia de Gastronomía
Taking Over the World
Spanish tapas are tentatively beginning to spread throughout the world's major capitals, where a lot of tapas and "Made in Spain" bars are opening up. They offer not only some of the most well-known dishes, but also the chance to "tapear" like the Spanish.
More and more chefs, from all corners of the world, are now jumping on the tapas bandwagon. Some of them are Spaniards, including the famous Spanish chef José Andrés. Having lived in the United States for more than 2 decades, he offers classic Spanish tapas at his restaurant, Jaleo.
The French chef Joël Robuchon was a great advocate for the tapas model that has been exported all over the world, while giving it his own twist. His bars offer not only Spanish tapas, but also dishes based on cuisines from around the world.
Long Live Tapas!
Text: María García, in collaboration with Rafael Ansón.
Illustration: Ximena Maier.
Acknowledgements: Rafael Ansón, president of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy; Elena Rodríguez, director of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy; María García and Caroline Verhille, contributors to the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.
Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy
This exhibition is part of the Spanish Gastronomy project jointly coordinated by Google Arts & Culture and the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.