Taking a Small Bite of Spanish Culture

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 30 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 aperitif. 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, sauteed 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 (see sidebar for suggestions). 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.

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.

Veronica Arcoraci is the curriculum manager at the CIA. She has been designing and developing programs and course content for food enthusiasts, culinary professionals, and industry clients since 2003. Ms. Arcoraci holds an MA in food studies from New York University and a BS in culinary arts from Nicholls State Univer­sity in Thibodaux, LA.


With countless varieties of tapas available, how do you choose? Here are some notable tapas and accompaniments to serve at your next party:

Aceitunas (olives)—especially marinated and stuffed varieties

Albondigas (meatballs)—often prepared from pork, veal, beef or a combination of meats

Allioli—Catalan garlic and oil sauce eaten with fish, meat, and vegetables, and served as a dip and accompaniment

Banderillas—tidbits of marinated fish, olives, veggies and the like, skewered on toothpicks

Calamares—deep-fried battered squid

Ceviche—thin-sliced raw fish, marinated and «cooked» in an acidic marinade

Chipirones en su Tinta—Squid served in ink sauce Chorizo al vino—chorizo sausage slowly cooked in wine

Conservas—what the French call «confits;» preserved foods poached in oil over low heat, then sealed and stored

Croquetas—Spanish croquettes/fritters Empanadas—large savory pies Gambas al ajillo—prawns sauteed with garlic

Gildas—anchovies, olives, and guindilla chiles skewered on a toothpick; named after Rita Hayworth’s portrayal of Gilda Patatas bravas—fried potato made with salsa brava, a spicy pepper and oil sauce

Mejillones—Steamed mussels

Pinchos—lamb, pork, or chicken, marinated and skewered on sticks

Puntillitas—battered and fried baby squid Queso—Fresh and marinated cheeses

Romesco sauce—peppers, tomatoes, almonds, bread, and onions roasted then pureed into a thick sauce

Salsa verde—classic Basque Country green sauce usually served with hake or cod fish

Samfaina “sauce»—mixture of stewed eggplant, toma­toes, and zucchini Serrano ham/jamon Serrano—used in any number of tapas, but often just sliced and served on its own Tortilla espanola—famous potato and onion omelet Tostas—tapas served on toasted bread

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