Like pizzerias in Italy, ‘tapas’ is synonymous with Spanish cuisine and is high on most tourists’ lists of things to do when visiting. There’s often confusion over what tapas actually are and how they’re eaten, and as is often the case with experiencing local cuisine, a lot can get lost in translation. We thought we’d talk you through the full tapas experience so you too can get the most out of this integral part of Spanish culture.
To start with, tapas are not a meal – they’re simply a small, snack-sized portion of anything, served with a drink. However, it’s perfectly possible to fill yourself up with several tapas without spending too much cash. Otherwise you can order a slightly bigger version of the tapas, called a ‘media ración’, or even bigger still, a ‘ración’. If you fancy trying a little bit of everything, go for a ‘plato combinado’ which serves a range of tapas on one large plate – perfect for sharing!
Eating tapas is more than a meal. It’s regarded as a way of life, a social activity, and a way of getting people together to gossip and laugh and enjoy a variety of local dishes.
Like so many staples of Spanish culture, tapas are thought to have originated in Andalusia, and there are a whole host of theories about how this style of eating came about. The verb ‘tapar‘ means to cover, and a ‘tapa’ is a lid. This inspired a popular notion that the old practice of covering drinks with plates to protect them from flies or sand was later replaced with a small snack, eaten from atop the glass. Other theories include the serving of strong-smelling snacks such as cheese, to mask or ‘cover’ the smell of bad wine.
But the most widely accepted theory for why Spaniards eat tapas goes back to a 16th-century royal decree from Felipe III, which aimed to curb drunkenness in Spanish towns by insisting that drinks be served together with a tasty morsel.
Whatever the origins of this practice, bar snacks are now ubiquitous throughout Spain and Barcelona is no exception. Although you may be able to find a few bars that still give tapas free with a drink, it’s no longer the norm in Spain.
Originally tapas existed as an after-work snack or ‘merienda’. Eaten at about 6pm, it was a way of bridging the gap between an early afternoon lunch and dinner, which often doesn’t take place till 10pm in Spain. Drinks and tapas were a way to keep hunger at bay as the evening rolled on, whether at a bar or at home.
Although this is still very much done, nowadays the culture of eating tapas is more versatile and locals and tourists eat them throughout the day. Whether it´s a lazy lunch or evening date, tapas can serve as a main meal, a starter or simply an accompaniment to a drink.
The classic way to enjoy tapas at any time is to ‘tapear’. This verb is a similar concept to a bar crawl where you go from one bar to the next, ordering a drink and tapas in each. You will find that in quite a few tapas bars there are no seats and it can get busy quite quickly. So don’t be shy about making your order known as it can be every man for himself at times and your fellow Spaniards will be vocal!
Tapas in Barcelona
The question of who dishes up the best tapas (or ‘tapes’ in Catalan) in Barcelona is a matter of fierce rivalry. As tapas of some kind or another are available in even the smallest bars, the choice can sometimes be a little overwhelming. Our tip would be to venture away from the overcrowded and overpriced Las Ramblas and head towards areas like Gràcia or Poble Sec for an altogether more authentic experience. Don´t be put off by the frontage of some tapas bars or a back-street location – these are often the hidden gems, a world away from patatas bravas and battered squid, and packed to the gunnels with locals.
Common types of tapas
- Boquerones en vinagre – this popular tapa is fresh anchovies marinated in vinegar, garlic, and parsley.
- Croquetas – a fried and breadcrumbed concoction of potatoes and ground meat, there are a wide variety of possible variations for this moreish delicacy. You’ll most often find them filled with ham, chicken, cod, or spinach.
- Calamares – a very common tapa in Barcelona, unsurprisingly given the ongoing Iberian love affair with seafood. Usually fried in a light batter, these squid rings are simply served with a slice of lemon.
- Pimientos de Padrón – these small green peppers were originally from Galicia. They’re typically fried in olive oil or served raw. Be warned, though – while most of these peppers are mild, there are a few lurking in every restaurant that could blow the hind legs off a donkey.
- Pan con tomate – the basis to all tapas outings in Catalonia, this is simply bread rubbed with tomato pulp and drizzled in oil and salt. Tasty, inexpensive, and goes with everything.
- Patatas bravas – this dish is small fried cubes of potatoes drizzled with one of two delicious sauces – alioli (a garlicky mayonnaise) and a spicy tomato sauce – perfect for filling you up.
- Tortilla española– this thick Spanish omelette is made from egg, potatoes and usually onions fried in olive oil – it is melt-in-the-mouth delicious.
- Aceitunas – perfect to nibble on, olives are a must for any tapas table.
- Chorizo – this spicy Spanish sausage will easily satisfy your carnivorous side.
- Ibéricos y quesos – a selection of cold meats and cheese complement each other perfectly.