A tapa is an appetizer or snack in Spanish cuisine and translates to a small part of any kind of food, very similar to Chinese dim sum. It may be hot or cold. In the early days of tapas, a slice of cheese or ham was served with your drink and put over the mouth of the glass (saved on washing plates). They were essentially 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 (such as mixed olives and cheese) or hot (such as chopitos, which are fried baby squid). In select bars in Spain, tapas have evolved into a whole sophisticated cuisine.
Legend has it that Castilian King Alfonso the Tenth (circa late 13th century) had once been stricken with a serious illness which only allowed him to eat tiny portions of food with small amounts of wine. (Perhaps he just got too hungry between lunch and dinner.) The U.S. has adopted 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 which are worth trying (be very courageous, now):
Aceitunas – assorted olives (no meal is complete without them)
Berenjenas – eggplant/ (aubergine) can be raw or cooked
Caracoles – snails,usually baked with spices (like French escargot)
Calamares – fried squid rings
Chipirones – a bit different, little squid cooked on a griddle
Chorizo – a favorite spicy sausage
Gambas al Ajillo – fresh prawns in hot olive oil with garlic and peppers
Gazpacho – a chilly tomato-based chopped vegetable soup
Jamón Serrano/Iberico – Spain’s favorite ham (like Italian prosciutto)
Melón con jamon Serrano – melon and ham
Paella – a national dish
Pisto – stew of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and zucchini
Pulpo – your basic octopus
Queso con membrillo – cheese with a sweet quince sauce
Salchichón – any spicy sausage or salami
Tapa de sardinas en tomate – sardines with a tomato sauce
Tortilla – omelette with potato and onion (not like the Mexican tortilla)
Sorry, no mac and cheese
If you are confused or overwhelmed, ask the server for aid. One of the wonderful benefits is that someone at your table is likely to enjoy a dish that perhaps no one else does, so it won’t 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.