A tapa is an appetizer or snack in Spanish cuisine and translates to a small portion of any kind of food, very similar to Chinese dim sum. It could be hot or cold. In the early days of tapas, a slice of cheese or ham was served with your drink and placed over the mouth of the glass (saved on washing plates). They were basically designed to tide one over until the traditional means of eating dinner very late in the evening, when most Americans are already sleeping. It could be cold (like mixed olives and cheese) or hot (such as chopitos, which are fried baby squid). In select bars in Spain, tapas have developed into an entire sophisticated cuisine.
Legend has it that Castilian King Alfonso the Tenth (circa late 13th century) had once been stricken with a severe illness that only allowed him to eat small portions of food with small amounts of wine. (Maybe he just got too hungry between lunch and dinner.) The U.S. has embraced this cuisine through tapas restaurants, wine bars and some micro breweries, as opposed to Spain, where it is usually served up in simple tapas bars. Popular dishes include many traditional Spanish delicacies that are worth trying (be quite brave, now):
Aceitunas – assorted olives (no meal is complete without them)
Boquerones – anchovies, marinated or deep fried
Berenjenas – eggplant/ (aubergine) can be raw or cooked
Cazón en Adobo – fried marinated dogfish (a type of fish, not dog)
Caracoles – snails,usually baked with spices (like French escargot)
Chipirones – a bit different, little squid cooked on a griddle
Chorizo – a favorite spicy sausage
Gambas al Ajillo – fresh prawns in sizzling olive oil with garlic and peppers
Gazpacho – a chilly tomato-based chopped vegetable soup
Jamón Serrano/Iberico – Spain’s favorite ham (similar to Italian prosciutto)
Morcilla – black pudding (blood sausage)
Paella – a dish
Pisto – stew of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and zucchini
Pulpo – your fundamental octopus
Queso con membrillo – cheese with a sweet quince sauce
Salchichón – any spicy sausage or salami
Tapa de sardinas en tomate – lettuce with a tomato sauce
Tortilla – omelette with potato and onion (not like the Mexican tortilla)
Sorry, no mac and cheese
If you are overwhelmed or confused, ask the server for assistance. One of the great advantages is that someone at your desk is likely to enjoy a dish that maybe nobody else does, so it will not go to waste.
For many, tapas is an acquired taste. For others, simply not their cup of tea. However, it’s definitely worth a try with a few good friends (who are culinary”good sports”). It just might lead to a new cuisine for the adventurous diner, so take a look. You can do it.