The Spanish Tapas
culture has made its way across the world. It has adapted and evolved to wherever it arrived and as a result, the origins have been lost in translation or rather lost in transport. So, you may be asking, what are tapas? Simply put, they are small appetizers commonly enjoyed with a drink and eaten in a social setting. In many parts of Spain, a small tapa is served for free when you order a beverage.
I’ve spent a considerable amount of time traveling around the country, enjoying my share of tapas whilst learning some tasty tidbits along the way. I am going to set some things straight about the tapas culture in Spain by going back to basics and exploring the tapas history. What better way to dive into the culture and history of tapas other than taking you on a tapas tour. Let’s start by sharing the Top 21 Traditional Spanish Tapas you have to try when visiting Spain!
Top 21 Traditional Spanish Tapas
Everyone has their favorite tapas. With so many delectable varieties throughout the country, it’s hard picking the best ones to try. The way tapas are served are very much regionally dependent. This means the same tapa found in one area, may take on a slightly new twist in another. When you travel to Spain, you’ll quickly realize that finding a tapas bar or somewhere that cooks up some delicious tapas recipes, is fairly easy to track down. The only hard part when it comes to tapas is selecting which ones are worthy of trying.
For a varied selection of the best, we’d recommend these 21 traditional tapas!
Let’s start with #21 and make our way to #1!
21. Gilda, San Sebastian
Excite your palate and start your tapas tour by munching on a gilda. Most typically made with anchovy, peppers, and olives. Serve alone or on top of a piece of bread (in which case it’s called a “pincho” rather than a tapa).
20. Pincho Moruno, Across Spain
Each culture has their variation of the meat skewer, some more elaborate than others. The Spanish version is quite simple. The meat used is normally chicken, beef, or pork and sometimes it is cooked with red pepper and garlic.
19. Pimientos del Piquillo Rellenos de Atún, Across Spain
Goat cheese is the magic ingredient that makes this tapa a hit! Stuff the cheese inside these small red peppers and serve with a delicious tomato sauce. Some variations remove the cheese and add tuna, lemon juice, aioli, capers, and shallots instead.
18. Huevos Rotos, Across Spain
Simply put, this tapas dish is a combination of lightly cooked eggs that are served over fried potatoes and ham. Dig in by first cracking into the runny yolk and letting it act as a sauce to coat the other ingredients in the dish.
17. Manchego Cheese, Typical of Castilla La Mancha
You can’t go wrong with ordering cheese as a tapa. Perfect to enjoy with a glass of red wine. Try the local cheese for a regional delight wherever you are.
16. Creme Catalan, Cataluña
What would a list of the top tapas be without a dessert added in the bunch? A signature dessert from the North of Spain, if you’ve ever heard of creme brulee, let me just say this Cataluña version is a lighter tasting, silkier version of the well-known treat. Yes, it’s true, Creme Catalan isn’t really a tapa at all but how could we not include it in our list. It’s just too darn delicious!
15. Chipirones a la Andalucia, Region of Andalucia
Miniature squid with a light breading, fried in olive oil, and seasoned with lemon and salt. A great tapa to snack on while watching the game!
14. Boquerones en Vinagre, Across Spain
One of the most traditional tapas in Spain, anchovies marinated in vinegar, garlic, and oil; these are a favorite among many.
13. Tigres (Mejillones Rellenas), Origins - Galicia, Basque Country
Stuffed mussels, say what!? That’s right, these tasty treats have been stuffed, breaded and fried. The stuffing is made by mixing the mussel meat with other ingredients, then stuffing it back into the shell, covering it with bechamel and finally, breading it. Once chilled, coat the mussels in egg, a final layer of breadcrumbs and fry them up.
12. Chorizo a la Sidra, Andalucia
You most likely ate spicy Spanish sausage cooked in wine but what about homemade cider? Typically found in Andalucia, this variation of the chorizo tapa is a must-try.
11. Albondigas, Across Spain
Spanish meatballs are quite a bit smaller than their Italian counterparts and seasoned very minimally. The tomato sauce is what shines in this tapa, bringing the dish to life.
10. Ensaladilla Rusa, Throughout Europe
The Russian salad is a favorite throughout Europe, and as expected, is found in many Slavic countries as well. Even if you’re not a fan of mayonnaise we’d still recommend trying what is called Russian salad. Made of a base of egg, potato, carrots, and sometimes tuna and fresh parsley, it’s a staple in many Spanish tapas bars. The flavorful and creaminess of this tapa makes it a great snack to enjoy with or without a drink.
9. Gambas al Ajillo, Across Spain
If you love seafood, prawns quickly sauteed in hot olive oil, garlic, and chili peppers may just become your favorite tapa. What’s not to love about this sizzling seafood tapa?
8. Patatas Bravas, Across Spain (Possible Origins - Madrid)
Who doesn’t like a chunky double fried potato, right? This delicious tapa is one of my favorites and for obvious reasons. Crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, Patatas Bravas (Translated to Brave Potatoes) is a typical tapa. It is traditionally served with a homemade spicy tomato sauce and alioli most commonly found in Valencia and Cataluña.
7. Tortilla Española, Favorite Across Spain
The secret to making the best Spanish omelet lies in two key factors. The ingredients you use and the type of saucepan you cook it in. Who would have thought the pan made such a difference, right? This tasty tapa requires eggs, onions, salt, pepper, and some oil. Some variations include red pepper in the mix for a little extra flavor and color. Incredibly basic, insanely delicious!
6. Croquettes, Favorite Across Spain
Croquettas are simple to make but definitely a labor of love as they do take time to prepare, that is if you’re making them from scratch. You can make them by mixing a creamy white bechamel with vegetables, meat or most traditionally, cod. The mix is then cooled, lightly breaded, let to set (freezing is best) and then fried. Sink your teeth into this crispy yet delicate and creamy tapa, you won’t be disappointed.
5. Pan con Tomate, Popular Throughout Spain
Some say this tasty yet simplistic tapa of bread, tomato, garlic, and olive oil, has its origins in Cataluña. Regardless of where it’s from, pan con tomate has become incredibly popular and a must when ordering a table full of tapas.
4. Pulpo a la Gallego, Galicia
Head to the city of Melide, in the center of Galicia, if you want to try the best pulpo around. Many call Melide, the pulpo capital. Grilled octopus served on top of paprika seasoned roasted or boiled potatoes is the base of this tasty tapa. Drizzle with olive oil to finish it off and dive in.
3. Salmorejo, Cordoba (Andalucia)
You’ve probably heard of Gazpacho, a refreshing cold vegetable tomato soup typically enjoyed during warmer seasons. Gazpacho is great however I much prefer the creamier and thicker version called Salmorejo. Made from fresh tomatoes blended with olive oil, stale bread, and sherry vinegar. The best way to enjoy this variation is to garnish with Spanish ham before serving.
2. Pimentos de Padron, Padron (Galicia)
Tiny green peppers that are fried, seasoned with salt and eaten whole. These little wonders make great accompaniments to a cold caña (small beer) or enjoyed on their own. When planted, the spicy variety of the seed is scattered throughout the row. Eating a plate of this famous tapa sure comes with a few spicy surprises.
1. Jamon Iberico Pata Negra, Across the Iberian Peninsula
Going back to basics, jamon (cured ham) is still in many Spaniard’s opinions, the original tapa. Nowadays, it’s not easy knowing which kind is the best. Many people prefer the type of jam called Pata Negra, a superior quality variety that is from 100% acorn-fed Iberian hams.
History of Tapas
Many debate the long history and origins of the tapa, coming up with grand tales to romanticize its beginnings. The earliest theory of tapas is from the 13th Century, involving King Alfonso X of Sabio
. They say, one day he received a doctor’s recommendation, instructing him to eat several small meals, together with a glass of wine. Apparently, this ancient prescription was given to help improve his health. Believers of this story say he continued the practice of snacking on tapas long after his prescription. Over the years, the general population began adopting the tapas style of eating too.
If you’re a fan of Cervantes, this next theory may be for you. In his classic 17th Century work of art, Don Quijote, Cervantes speaks about llamativos, small bits of food, created to arouse one’s thirst or hunger.
The More Probable Tapas Origin
We, on the other hand, prefer to think more logically about the origin of tapas. As you may know, the word tapa literally comes from the word ‘to cover’. It’s unclear as to exactly when the word ‘tapa’ came into use to refer to small portions of food. It’s said, these small plates, served in a social setting, trace back to Andalucia. Originally, small pieces of ham or slices of bread were placed on top of drinks to keep the flies out. The idea of the tapa was cleverly picked up on and many bars began offering complimentary pieces of food with every drink in hopes of increasing their sales. Although the true origins of the tapa may be unclear, there’s no denying, the culture of eating tapas is well loved across Spain and throughout the world.
The Tapas Tradition
One of the best reflections of the Spanish way of life is displayed through the concept of tapas. Throughout the country, you can see each region enjoying tapas in a different way. Even so, each area has one thing in common. When tapas originated, they held a deeply rooted social sharing aspect. This tapas culture has been maintained throughout the years all across Spain. Whether you walk through a small village or wander the big city, you’ll clearly see, the Spanish love to socialize outside their homes. Personally, one of the reasons I love tapas so much is for their ability to bring together so many different types of people. Many of the conversations had around a plate or two, or a full table of tapas, lead into deep discussions, newly gained friendships, and most importantly, a finely refined gastronomical palate.
Variations in the Tapas Culture
The Basque country prefers to enjoy what we can refer to as tapa hopping. That is, one tapa and drink per establishment. In Andalucia, on the other hand, it's common to order several types of tapas in one spot and stay for a while.
Cities like Granada or Salamanca still maintain the true tapas tradition of offering a small snack with every drink ordered. In larger, more touristic cities like Barcelona
‘free tapas’ are a rarity. Regions such as Cataluña have capitalized on the popularity of the culture of eating tapas. In a way, many people would say these places have even exploited the tapas tradition, offering low-quality tapas at an exorbitant price, ‘Made for tourists’.