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15 Popular Spanish Tapas Dishes You Need to Try!

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Anna is a New Yorker writing about her globe-trotting, culinary, and healthy living adventures.

Definition of Tapas

I don't recall exactly when I first tried tapas. It must've been in DC's Bodega Restaurant, because I got hooked when I lived in our nation's capital. In any case, I do remember always loving tapas. I love the whole concept of eating small delicious dishes while socializing and drinking. It's perfect.

Tapas are essentially small plates of simple yet delicious Spanish delicacies. They're supposed to work up your appetite between lunch and dinner, since dinner is generally eaten between 9pm and 11pm in Spain (so late!). So after work, Spaniards "Ir de tapas" (go bar hopping), drinking and eating tapas. Tapas are similar to hors d'œuvres, except the name is much easier to spell, let alone pronounce. And tapas can be either served cold or hot.

I asked my good friend Carlos, a Spaniard, what the most popular (and his favorite) dishes are, and I was quite surprised with his answers because I had never heard of either and have been to Spain maybe a dozen times. He mentioned pan tumaca and a really original tapa dish from the city of Valladolid called "Obama en la Casa Blanca," which is served in a custom-made "white-dome" pottery bowl, and the meal consists of Porcino mushrooms, poached egg, and a crust of puff pastry filled with dehydrated potato in squid sauce. Sounds delicious!

Tapas in Madrid

I've been lucky enough to have visited Madrid a bunch of times and love the fact that some bars actually serve a free tapa with a drink. This custom evidently stems all the way from the time of Felipe the 3rd, who was king from 1598 until 1621 and passed a law that stated that bars must serve a small portion of food to patrons who order an alcoholic drink: a snack to be placed on top of the mug (thus the name tapas, which means "cover"). It was an effort to curb drunkenness!

Pinchos or Tapas?

A pincho, which literally means "spike" in Spanish, also referred to as pintxo in Basque country, is related to tapas. The difference between the two is that pinchos are typically eaten individually, whereas tapas are shared.

1. La Tortilla Espanola

La tortilla espanola has been referred to as the national dish of Spain. What is it? Well, it's an omelet, but not the kind of Spanish omelet that we're familiar with in the US. This omelet is made of (obviously) eggs, potatoes, and onions. It's served either warm or cold.

2. Gambas al Ajillo

Gambas are prawns, and—as tapas—they come sauteed in garlic (al ajillo), in chopped chili peppers (pil-pil), or in peppercorn sauce (salsa negra).

3. Croquetas de Jamon

Croquetas de Jamon are ham croquettes—you know, those small, lightly breaded fritters that are deep fried. Ham croquettes can also come with mashed potatoes, and those are called croquetas de patatas y jamon. Another popular croquette fillings is cocido, which is a stew of meat, chickpeas, and veggies.

4. Boquerones

Boquerones are anchovies. When ordered at a tapas bar, boquerones refers to marinated anchovies. There's also boquerones fritos, which are fried anchovies smothered in sea salt.

5. Pan con Tumaca

Pan con tumaca, also referred to as pan tumaca or pan con tomate, is toasted country-style bread smeared with tomato, garlic, and olive oil and then topped with cured meats.

6. Pimientos de Padrón

Pimientos de Padrón are my personal favorites! I like to refer to these peppers from Padron as the Russian roulette of food because, although most are mild, you might get one that's fiery hot. They're usually fried in olive oil and are served with lots of sea salt.

7. Bacalao

Bacalao is salted cod fish, and it comes as the main ingredient on many tapa dishes.

8. Aceitunas

Aceitunas means "olives" in Spanish, and in Spain, they're served as a tapa dish and come filled with anchovies, carrots, or peppers.

9. Calamares Fritos

You might already be familiar with calamares fritos, as I was, by the dish's Italian name "fried calamari." Known as calamares in Spanish, or rabas, calamares is "squid" and fritos mean "fried." Calamares fritos are lightly breaded and fried squid rings.

There's also tiny squid served as tapas, and they're called chopitos. They're also referred to as puntillitas.

10. Chorizo al Vino

Chorizo is a type of pork sausage (it's called chouriço in Portuguese). It's a popular tapa dish and comes braised in different liquids. I like it cooked in wine (vino in Spanish), hence the name chorizo al vino. It can also be cooked in cider, and is known as chorizo a la sidra. And another one of my favorites is chorizo with mushrooms, smothered in spicy sauce - it's called chorizo a la plancha.

11. Empanadas

Empanadas, also called empanadillas (cute way of saying small empanadas) are essentially turnovers with an option of different fillings, either vegetable or meat.

12. Jamón Ibérico y Huevo de Codorniz

Jamón ibérico y huevo de codorniz is Ibérico ham and quail egg. I love it! Iberico ham is also served on a toast and is called Tosta de Jamón and it can also come with a tomato. When served with a tomato, it's called tosta de jamón y tomate.

13. Salpicón de Marisco

Salpicón de Marisco is like a seafood salad, or more like a vinaigrette of every time of seafood imaginable. It's awesome on a hot summer day and I love to sprinkle lots of lemon on it!

14. Sardinas en Tomate

Sardinas en tomate are preserved sardines served over a crusty bread with tomato.

15. Queso con Membrillo

Queso is cheese in Spanish and one of my personal favorite ways to eat it is with marmalade. It's called Queso con membrillo in Spanish. The cheese that's usually used is Manchego cheese. I love the combination of sweet and savory. Another amazing cheese dish is Bocaditos de Cabrales, which means "Cabrales cheese bites", with Cabrales being a type of cheese. There's also queso do cabra, which is "goat cheese".

Are you itching yet to host a tapas dinner party? I know I am after writing about so many tasty goodies!