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What the Tapas? A Look Into the Spanish Food Scene

I'm a traveling drunk who eats, drinks, travels and blogs his way through life.

What Are Tapas?

Living in Barcelona, tapas are a big part of what I eat. There are endless variations and combinations, so tapas—in my mind—never get boring. But what are tapas? What does the word mean, and where do they come from?

Well, here are my two cents on the matter. Legend has it (or so I’ve heard), that back in the old days, the bartender used to put a small plate on top of the guest’s glass of wine to protect the wine from flies and other insects. The small plate acted as a lid (una tapa). On the plate, the bartender would put some nibbles, such as olives or a bit of cured ham. And voila—tapas were born.

Typically, tapas might include different kinds of ham, cheeses, veggies and any kind of fried fish.

Some Classic Tapas Served in Barcelona

  • Jamón ibérico (Iberian ham is a type of cured ham produced in Spain.)
  • Tortilla (omelette with potatoes)
  • Calamares fritas (fried squid)
  • Pan con tomate (bread with tomato and garlic)
  • Pimientos de padrones (small green peppers, fried and salted)
  • Ensaladilla rusa (boiled potato salad with carrots, pickles, green peas, eggs, onions and mayo
  • Patatas bravas (fried potatoes, drizzled with a spicy tomato sauce)

It can also be something as simple as a small plate of nuts.

I come from Sweden, the land of the smorgasbord. Given my background, the Spanish style of eating fits my senses like a glove. In Sweden, the smorgasbord (a glorious mix of foods set in a buffet style) is eaten only on special occasions, but the Spanish version I can enjoy all day, every day if I want to. With tapas, the possibilities are endless. Sometimes I will just have some patatas bravas with a beer, and sometimes I’ll order five or six small plates and make it into a dinner. Another great thing about this style of eating is that everyone gets something they like, and you get to try a little bit of everything.

As with all food in every country, there are good and bad versions. Having lived in Barcelona for almost two years, I have found those special places that I just love. I have been served many plates of frozen, raw, badly cooked and poorly prepared tapas. Being on a budget, my eyes lit up at the sign of 1€ tapas—only to have the light go out when something soggy and wet was placed on a plate in front of me.

If I were to recommend where to go, I would advise staying away from the really touristic places, such as Las Ramblas and Placa Cataluña. Make your way into places where real locals live, and you will surely experience tapas at their best.

Pintxos are similar to tapas, but they are almost always held together with skewers.

Pintxos are similar to tapas, but they are almost always held together with skewers.

Are Tapas and Pintxos the Same Thing?

Well, not if you ask me. Pintxos is the Basque country’s version of tapas. Pintxo, meaning "thorn" or "spike," refers to the skewer that traditionally is pushed through the pintxo. A pintxo is basically a piece of bread topped with almost anything. Sausage, egg, fish or a piece of omelette are typical toppings.

The skewer is used to make everything stay in place, but it's also generally used to tally up the bill. You show the waiter or the barman how many skewers you have—this indicates how many pintxos you’ve eaten—and then you pay accordingly.

So, what do you drink with your tapas? Well, here in Barcelona, a glass of vermouth is never a bad idea, but why not try one of the many local cavas, Spain’s sparkling wine? Cava goes well with almost all tapas, hot or cold (the tapas that is—cava is best served cold!).

Pintxos go great with cava, or Spanish sparkling wine. Vermouth also makes a stellar pairing.

Pintxos go great with cava, or Spanish sparkling wine. Vermouth also makes a stellar pairing.