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Tapas: Appetizer Recipes From All 17 Regions of Spain

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

An array of Spanish appetizers (tapas)

An array of Spanish appetizers (tapas)

What Are Tapas?

Tapas are an appetizer, but not just any appetizer. Though now common throughout the world, this small bite originated in Spain. Each region of Spain has its own traditional tapas (and each region lays claim to being the first to create them). Tapas may raise a few arguments but there is one thing on which all will agree—the portions must be small or they are not authentico. In fact, size is the primary way in which an appetizer will be regarded as a true tapas.

The 17 Regions of Spain

The 17 Regions of Spain

When and Where Were Tapas Invented?

There are many stories of how tapas came to be—remember, I said that each region in Spain claims bragging rights. Let’s explore a few of those tales (most include Medieval kings and/or historical figures) and I’ll let you decide which one you choose as the real deal.

  • One of the most prevalent stories dates back to the 13th century. It is said that King Alfonso X The Wise fell quite ill. His royal physician prescribed copious quantities of wine as the cure. Alfonso ate small bites of food to keep from getting completely "pickled." Low and behold, the king recovered from his malady and made a proclamation that henceforth all drinks should be served with a small snack.
  • Then there is this—another Alfonso, Alfonso XIII in the 19th century, ordered a glass of wine at a tavern in Cadiz. To protect the contents therein (from spiders, dust, goodness-knows-what?), the barkeep placed a slice of ham on top. As you know, kings are trend-setters and soon everyone wanted a slice of ham on top of his or her beverage.
  • A simpler version on the same theme is that bartenders would cover the top of a glass with a saucer to keep the flies out. Well, as long as there’s a saucer, you might as well put some food on it.
  • Yet another story is that many bars were “standing room only” affairs. With no tables, the patrons balanced their snacks atop their glasses.
  • Then there is the suggestion that centuries ago most of the populace was illiterate. The proprietors could not write down a menu and the customers could not read one. Therefore, innkeepers would present samples of their meals on small plates. (This was long before Costco.)
  • During the Spanish Inquisition, Jews lied about their conversion to Christianity. The litmus test to detect non-Gentiles was to offer a small plate of pork. Those who turned down the piggy treats were then assumed to be of the Jewish faith.
  • How does an innkeeper trick his customers into drinking off-tasting wine? Serve it with a funky slice of cheese. The strong cheese will cover up the equally funky beverage.

Etymology of the Word "Tapas"

One clue to which of the above fables is the true story of tapas might be found in the word itself. Tapa comes from the verb taper, meaning "to cover." In Spanish, a tapa is also a lid.

What Are the Different Kinds of Tapas?

The most common foods in tapas are those that are easy to prepare, with little or no cooking involved. Salty, briny snacks are also common—thirsty customers are more likely to order another round of drinks. Local ingredients are often showcased.

Each region of Spain has its own signature tapas. Here’s a brief look at each one.

1. Andalusia

This southernmost area of Spain has hundreds of miles of idyllic coastline. Of course, the tapas here will be fresh from the sea. Pescaito frito (fried fish) are crisp, melt-in-the-mouth tempura-like morsels. In southern Spain, the drink of choice is always sherry.

2. Aragón

As the name might suggest, this region shares a border with southern France. Here tapas are homey and comforting, meaty dishes with flavorful sauces rich with onions, garlic, and tomatoes. Chicken al chilindrón is a perfect example.

Ingredients

  • 3 to 3 1/2 pounds chicken legs (drumsticks), bone in, skin removed
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 teaspoon table salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 1 large or two medium red bell peppers, diced
  • 4 large ripe tomatoes or 1 (15-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
  • 4 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1 splash brandy
  • 7 ounces dry white wine

Instructions

  1. Season chicken with thyme, salt, and pepper. Heat olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add chicken to the pan and cook, turning occasionally, until well browned on all sides. Remove from pan and set aside in a large bowl. The chicken will not be fully cooked at this point.
  2. Add onion, bell pepper, and garlic to the same pan; cook and stir until the vegetables are softened. Add the tomato and simmer for 5 minutes to allow the flavors to blend. Pour vegetable/tomato mixture into the bowl with the chicken.
  3. With the saute pan off heat, add the brandy to the pan. Return to the saute pan to the heat and stir, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan (those bits are flavor bombs).
  4. Return the chicken and vegetables to the pan. Stir in the wine. Simmer uncovered over low heat about 30 minutes or until the sauce has reduced and thickened slightly, and the chicken is tender and registers 165°F.

3. Asturias

Eighty percent of cider apple-growing in Spain is concentrated in the northwest corner, Asturias. More than 500 varieties of apples flourish in the area. It is any wonder then that the traditional drink is cider? Tapas of this region are often simmered in the drink, providing a touch of sweet and a bit of acid to offset the fattiness of the meat, as in this cider-glazed chorizo.

4. Balearic Islands

Just off Spain’s eastern Mediterranean coast, the Balearic Islands have a Riviera-like feeling. One of the most popular appetizers is sobrasada, a spreadable version of chorizo. There are countless recipes on the internet, but the one I’ve chosen for you is a vegetarian sobrasada, full of rich umami flavor from sun-dried tomatoes.

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5. Basque Country

Perched on the northern coast of Spain, this region is unlike any other area of the country. It has its own language, unique customs, and is a fascinating mix of fairytale-like villages and 21st-century artistic expression. According to Food and Wine magazine, Basque people spend more than twice their disposable income on food as people in the United States. Local foods such as grilled lamb, peppers, green olives, and anchovy feature prominently in pintxos (the Basque word for tapas). This recipe for olive, anchovy, and peppers brings those flavors together on one succulent bite.

6. Canary Islands

Some of the most culturally diverse tapas of Spain are found in the Canary Islands. The foods of this area are heavily influenced by North Africa (just 100 kilometers away) and Latin America (years ago Spanish sailors returning from the New World would stop in the islands). The local word is for tapas is enyesque. Papas arrugadas (wrinkly potatoes with mojo sauce) is a tapas synonymous with the Canary Islands.

7. Cantabria

The verdant green mountain meadows of Cantabria are home to the Tudanca cattle which graze on wild herbs and grasses and produce the most amazing cheeses. You can never go wrong with a plate that features queso picón, a spicy blue cheese, or fresh anchovies from the Cantabrian Sea.

8. Castile-La Mancha

There is more to La Mancha than Don Quixote and white-washed windmills. Despite the arid climate, La Mancha is home to hundreds of wineries and is distinguished not only as the most prominent wine area in Spain but is also one of the largest wine producers in the world. Sheep farming is equally important, and those sheep are the source of the well-known Manchego cheese. Manchego has a slightly sweet, grassy flavor, a crumbly texture, and (in the well-aged cheese) calcium lactate crystals—those crunchy pops of flavor we adore. Marinated manchego is a richly satisfying appetizer; it's sweet, salty, tangy, spicy, and creamy all in one bite.

9. Castilla y León

With its spectacular mountains, medieval towns, and a stunning array of cathedrals, monasteries, castles, and fortifications Castilla y León is a tourist’s dream. The fortress in Segovia was the inspiration for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty castle. This, the largest region of Spain is located between Madrid and the border of Portugal. Agriculture is an important industry, with wheat, sugar beets, and potatoes as the major crops. Fried potatoes with spicy sauce are a common tapas in this region.

10. Catalonia

On the Iberian coast of northeastern Spain is the region of Catalonia. Its most famous (and capital) city is Barcelona—host of the 1992 Summer Olympics, home to the Gran Teatre del Liceu opera house, and the location of eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 35 five-star hotels, some of the best beaches on the planet—and the residence of 1.6 million souls. One would anticipate a grand and glorious tapas treat as the feature of such an amazing cultural and historical region, but the most delicious (and ubiquitous) snack of this area is the pan con tomate, which translates to bread and tomato. Don’t let the simplicity of the dish fool you into thinking this is a simple, ordinary plate.

11. Extremadura

This region in the central-western part of Spain is a geographic dichotomy; there are dry plains and lush green pastures, mountains, and marshes—each producing agricultural products that influence the local dishes. Perhaps the one ingredient most common in Extremadura cuisine is Iberian cured ham. This jamon Iberico with mascarpone is so simple, you really don't need a recipe. Bread, cheese, ham. It's that simple, and that perfect.

12. Galicia

This unique region with its own language is tucked in the northwest corner of Spain. The Atlantic Ocean is to the north and Portugal borders on the south. Galicia is mountainous and from those mountains spring rivers that crisscross the landscape. For this reason, it is known in Spain as the “land of the 1,000 rivers.” But, it’s the rugged Atlantic coastline that offers the food that entices more than a quarter of a million souls each year. When visiting Galacia one must try the seafood. The most well-known and perhaps the most succulent is the pulpo a feira—fresh octopus boiled and seasoned with olive oil, salt, and paprika

13. La Rioja

This is wine country, with countless wine and tapas bars from which to choose. La Rioja is adjacent to the Basque. You will note that lamb and smoky chorizo dishes appear often frequently on the menus. This braised lamb combines both in one dish.

14. Madrid

The capital of Spain is one of the best places to enjoy tapas. Here you will find traditional tastes next to fun, innovative plates. Gambas al ajilo (garlic sauce on flash-fried shrimp) is a regional favorite.

15. Murcia

This tiny region in southern Spain has been nicknamed “Europe’s vegetable garden.” Many of the tapas feature fresh, seasonal produce—the mainstay of the Mediterranean diet. This pisto Murciano is similar to ratatouille, featuring tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, and red and green bell peppers.

Ingredients

  • 1 kg tomatoes, grated
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 2 small eggplant, diced
  • 2 medium-size zucchini, diced
  • 1 large yellow onion
  • 2 medium-size green bell peppers
  • 2 medium-size red bell peppers
  • 1 teaspoon table salt

Instructions

  1. Simmer the grated tomatoes in the olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat until they start to break down.
  2. Add the remaining vegetables to the pan and simmer until slightly softened. Add salt to taste.
Alcachofas con almejas (artichokes with clams)

Alcachofas con almejas (artichokes with clams)

16. Navarra

With France and the Basque Country as “next-door neighbors,” it’s no surprise that the food of Navarra is heavily influenced by those areas. The emphasis is always on fresh, local, seasonal. Like the Basque, the people of Navarra call their tapas pinchos.

Artichokes have been grown here for centuries, and the flower buds, alcachofa de Tudela, are Navarre’s best-known vegetable. Try the artichokes with clams.

17. Valencia

Our final stop is Valencia, the easternmost region of Spain. With miles of Mediterranean coastline, of course, the tapas are all about seafood. Valencia is famous for its paella, but salt cod is another well-loved tapa. The video below shows how to make cod croquettas.

© 2021 Linda Lum

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