When Is A Tapa Not A Tapa? Some Classic Tapas And Others You Will Never Have Heard Of

“My stomach keened for the café counters of Madrid: the feathery shrimps, the sizzling saucers of garlicky kidneys and prawns. I rarely drank alcohol, had never had it when ill as a teenager and never developed a taste–or head–for it since, but in my fantasy those dishes of spitting prawns came, as Lee’s did, with goblets of cold, amber sherry.”

-Laura Freeman, The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite


I left my daughter in Seville last week and went on alone to Madrid. I was staying in a hotel close to Opera (quite central) and asked if they could recommend an informal restaurant or bar where I could have a glass of wine and something to eat before turning in. They replied that if I was happy with just a five minute walk I could go to a kind of market where I could dine instead by wandering around the many stalls and trying out whichever of the tapas took my fancy. The Mercado de San Miguel turned out to be a sort of bubbling joyful drinks party where, for once, it didn’t matter if you didn’t know a soul.


mercado de san miguel
Enjoying a drink… with a little food

Tapas – symptomatic of a social revolution

As I browsed around I started to philosophise about the nature of tapas – how could they be defined? Wikipedia describes tapas as being

“a wide variety of appetisers, or snacks, in Spanish cuisine.”

But while, on the face of it, this describes the ‘substance’ of what tapas are, the ‘essence’ of the tapas, the way in which they are eaten, has changed radically over the last few decades. When I first went to Spain veterans minus limbs and eyes sold lottery tickets on street corners and guardia civiles, Franco’s feared policemen, marched imperiously past them. You would go into a bar and a small plate of something would just turn up along with your wine, or you would choose from a fairly standard menu (there would be regional variations).

tapas menu
A fairly standard selection of tapas

You would probably only have one or two tapa and then you would move on to dinner. Nowadays it’s all different. Tapas have become the main event. You order a selection and it takes the place of dinner. And you don’t only find tapas in bars any more, they’re served in restaurants. We are all eating differently now – dining rooms have been replaced by one-room living and traditional three course meals are being replaced by a penchant for grazing, for the street food which this month’s guest blogger, Ollie Hunter describes so passionately.

And, while the classic tapas are still popular, there is a burgeoning new cuisine evolving around the concept of the tapa. The tapa has become a medium for an ambitious chef to show off his (or her) creative skills. Prestigious gastronomic competitions attract the attention of the culinary world. At El Bulli you will get parmesan marshmallows, popcorn clouds, peanut ice cream, quail egg yolks with a caramelised outer coating… you get the drift.

Another problem with the Wikipedia definition of the tapa as ‘Spanish cuisine’ is that it doesn’t reflect the reality. We are becoming so international now that defining food in national terms is becoming increasingly difficult. At the Mercado de San Miguel I found stalls specialising in a wide range of un-Spanish ingredients from matjes to mozzarella. You can find exactly the same dishes included in Spanish tapas, Greek mezzedes, and Venetian cicchetti.


Fabulous squid tapas at the Casa Brindisa restaurant in London
Fabulous squid tapas at the Casa Brindisa restaurant in London

In describing his street food Ollie outlines original concepts such as salmon drizzled with harissa oil and sweetcorn fritters with tomato chilli jam. He stresses that street food is food of the world, giving Argentinian empanadas (also a traditional Spanish tapa) and Thai pad thai as just two examples which were also in evidence at the Mercado de San Miguel.

So when is a tapa not a tapa? It cannot be simply when it isn’t served in Spain.

Enough philosophising!


By no means exhaustive list of tapas

Below is a list of some of my favourite tapas. Recipes for all except the last three will appear on this blog over the next few months. They add a considerable armoury to your training your beloved programme:

  • Russian roulette pepperspimientos de Padrón
  • Ham and chicken croquettes – croquetas de Jamón y pollo
  • Pork fillet strips in a whisky and garlic sauce – solomillo al whisky
  • Almonds with sea salt flakes, or with paprika, or with lemon and pepper
  • Decent crisps – made on the premises
  • Habas fritas – seasoned, deep-fried broad beans
  • Kikones – seasoned, deep-fried kernels of maize – crunchy and salty, they go especially well with a cold beer
Kikones go especially well with a long, cold beer
Kikones go especially well with a long, cold beer
bacalao with mustard honey sauce
Bacalao with mustard honey sauce
  • Fried sage leaves
  • Patatas bravas
  • Chipis a la andaluza – fried baby squid or calamari
  • Almejas a la marnera – clams cooked with garlic and white wine
  • Setas al ajillo – garlic-heavy fried mushrooms
  • Alcachofas fritas – artichoke hearts fried in olive oil
  • Navajas a la plancha – griddled razor clams
  • Boquerones – marinated white anchovies


Marinated anchovies are white, not red. Excellent with drinks.
Marinated white anchovies – wonderful!

For many more ideas for tapas go to Brit + Co. Or go to the Brindisa site where there is a special section on tapas.


How to enjoy your tapas

  1. keep a balance – for every rich, fried, crispy tapa (croquetas for example) compensate with a bright acidic olive or clam (navajas a la plancha).
  2. move from one bar to another – they will each have their own signature tapas… that is how I discovered the wonderful fried quails’ eggs
  3. consider what you are drinking – try different sherries, and some of the excellent Spanish beers: don’t just think wine. This isn’t a pub crawl…it’s all about savouring, discovering….


A short history of the tapa

There’s a nice story about the origin of the custom of having a bite of something along with a glass of wine. This dates back to the thirteenth century and the reign of Alfonso X ‘El Sabio’ (the wise). Alfonso turned out the deserve his moniker. He knew he needed to look after his subjects – rather than oppress them as was the custom for most other contemporaneous rulers.

The story goes that he suffered from some sort of digestive problem. Casting about randomly for a cure (rather as we do with buttons on our electrical goods these days) his doctor hit upon the idea that his monarch should not remain with an empty stomach whilst abed. He brought him small plates of food and encouraged him to wash them down by accompanying them with a glass of wine.

Not wholly surprisingly this treatment (better, for example, than being bled by leeches or trepanned) proved effective. And, as I’ve already mentioned, being a wise and caring soul the king then did a sort of fairytale thing, he decreed that henceforth, throughout the land, all bar keepers should serve their customers drinks accompanied by small plates of food that they were not drinking on an empty stomach. Needless to say it was a popular law with everyone except the bar keepers.


Why are tapas called tapas?

But why are they called ‘tapas’? Well, that’s when I come back to my friend, Alfonso XIII. There he was enjoying himself again, this time on a slightly less grand scale than normal (see Spain in a Glass) this time in a beachside tavern. He’d ordered some wine and a small plate of ham (learning by the example of his wise predecessor) and a solicitous waiter was hovering nearby waiting to pander to his every need. And a good thing too that the waiter was ‘on call’ since a sudden sand cloud was tearing roughly towards the king and the drink. The quick-thinking waiter whipped one of the slices of ham from the plate to cover the wine glass and disaster was averted. The verb ‘tapar’ in Spanish means ‘to cover’.


Tapas in the UK – restaurants and specialist delicatessens


Tapas for the nose, not the mouth

Go to Jo Loves ‘Fragrance Tapas’ – at Jo Malone’s new flagship shop in Elizabeth Street, in Pimlico (London). Innovative to the end, Jo Malone also espouses the synaesthesia philosophy. Bubble bath is shaken and served a foam in a shot glass, body cream is whipped and served on a spoon. Bath ‘cologne’ is placed in a miniature tagine dish and left to steam… then the lid is lifted to allow you an elegant ‘Vick’s Vapour Rub’ moment.


For another post about the Mercado de San Miguel follow this link.

For a post about sherry, follow this link.


This post is dedicated to George Freeman, who first introduced me to Spain, and to Spanish food and wine.



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