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Jun 14 2017

What's in a Tapa? Could a Dish by Another Name Be as Good?

Twenty-five-Michelin-starred French chef Joël Robuchon wasn't wrong when he stated: "Go anywhere in the world and you can find tapas". The uniquely Spanish culture of the tapa has swept the globe, enticing diners near and far with both the concept and the content of these small portions of food. But though "tapas" has become a catchword for Spanish cuisine internationally, here in Spain this term has a few more nuances and variations that are useful to know before navigating the delicious and seemingly infinite world of Spanish tapas

A tapa is a tapa is a tapa...

Not so, in fact. Though "tapas" is the general term used as a catchall for this gastronomic culture, there is actually a range of different formats when it comes to Spanish tapas. Here is a guide to keeping your tapas straight: tapa usually refers to a small plate of food meant for sharing – just a bite or two to accompany whatever you're drinking. If you want a larger portion of whatever peaks your appetite, order a ración (ration), or its slightly smaller version, a media ración (half-ration); both of these are also intended for sharing. Conversely, the popular pintxos (called pinchos elsewhere in Spain) that are typical of Basque Country and Navarre, are usually intended for individual consumption; each a single morsel of perfectly balanced flavors.

The same is true for banderillas, which usually consist of some combination of olive, pickled vegetable and an anchovy or boquerón – among other things –  skewered onto a toothpick in a single salty, vinegary, delicious bite. Tostas, are of course slices of toasted bread of different shapes and sizes, served hot or cold with something on top. Some bars might also use the French term canapé when the topping is placed on a toasted or untoasted slice of baguette. Still other formats you might find include cazuelas or cazuelitas – coaster-sized clay dishes that are particularly popular in Seville, for example, which might be used for serving a small portion of stew next to a hunk of crusty bread for dipping.

Seville is also known for its montaditos, which are like mini sandwiches served on tiny ciabatta-like rolls. Both there and in the rest of Spain, the word pulguita is used for different types of mini sandwiches or bocadillos, usually on baguette-style bread. In terms of accompaniments, things that aren't already perched on bread are almost always served with either bread, picos – different versions of oblong, hard bread sticks about the size of a gherkin, or their square or rectangular cousins, regañadas.

To pay or not to pay...

The legend of the free tapa is a wonderful one, and in many cases it’s true, but this is not the case everywhere in Spain. In Madrid, for example, when you order a drink at a tapas bar, it always comes with something to nibble on, which might be bigger or smaller, simpler or more complex, depending on where you go. It might take the form of something basic like a basket of potato chips fried in olive oil, or a dish of salted almonds or olives. Or it might be a piece of bread with a slice of chorizo or some other sausage on top, a piece of cheese, a hunk of freshly made tortilla on a toothpick, or anything else that strikes the fancy of the bartender or chef. In Granada, however, free tapas are usually generous portions of things like steaming potatoes fried with onions and peppers, fried fish or seafood, stews, or even a dish of rice or Spanish croquetas – plenty to dine on as long as you keep your drinks coming. Other Spanish cities known for their free tapas include León and Salamanca, where these ample dishes are often meaty – emphasis on the region's excellent pork and pork sausages like chorizo and salchichón.

When to go for tapas

Tapas are typically thought of as either an aperitivo type of food – the perfect accompaniment to a drink before lunch on a weekend – or something to either snack on in the evening or dine on at night, or both. Friends might meet up for tapas and a drink in the evening, for example, before going out for a sit-down meal an hour or two later. Or, more typically, meeting up for tapas often turns into dinner out on the town, where friends visit one or more tapas bars, having a drink and something to eat in each one until satisfied.

What to drink

Though typical libations for eating tapas all over Spain include the country's beloved small, cold glasses of beer – known as cañas in Madrid, cervecitas in Andalusia and zuritos in Basque Country – what to drink is often subject to the part of Spain you are in. In Catalonia, a glass of sparkling Cava is an obvious choice. At aperitivo hour, vermouth is popular in both Catalonia and Madrid, where it is often served on tap straight out of the barrel. The drink of choice in Asturias is often locally-made cider, and in the province of Cádiz and elsewhere in Andalusia, a glass of dry sherry like a Manzanilla or Amontillado is a traditional and still-popular option. In other important wine regions like Castile-León, for example, one would do well to order a glass of regional Ribera del Duero, Toro, Cigales, Bierzo or Rueda wine, depending on exactly where you are and whether you want red or white. It would border on sacrilege to order a glass of wine from any other region at a bar in La Rioja. In terms of non-alcoholic drinks, a popular choice all over Spain is mosto, white or red grape juice, served with a slice of lemon or orange.

Traditional or avant-garde

One reason Spanish tapas are so ubiquitous is that there truly are no limits when it comes to the range of possibilities they present. On the one hand, classic Spanish tapas like Ibérico ham, tortilla, croquetas, olives, and cheese will always have their place of pride in Spanish gastronomy. The same is true for the traditional pintxos found in places like San Sebastián, Bilbao and Pamplona, which adorn bars with tray after tray of colorful, seasonal products. However, in recent years tapas have become a vehicle for the infinite creativity of avant-garde chefs who create miniature masterpieces that stun and delight the palate. Acclaimed Spanish chefs like Paco Roncero, Albert Adrià, Ricard Camarena, Jordi Cruz, Paco Pérez, and others, have opened tapas bars to complement their flagship restaurants. Likewise, the first courses of Michelin-star tasting menus both in Spain and beyond often begin with a selection of heart-stopping tapas, or bite-sized morsels. Whether modern or traditional, free or not, individual or meant for sharing, the wonderful thing about Spanish tapas is that their ubiquity and infinite variations guarantee they are here to stay.

Not so, in fact. Though "tapas" is the general term used as a catchall for this gastronomic culture, there is actually a range of different formats when it comes to Spanish tapas. Here is a guide to keeping your tapas straight: tapa usually refers to a small plate of food meant for sharing – just a bite or two to accompany whatever you're drinking Adrienne Smith/©ICEX
What's in a tapa
What's in a tapa
What's in a tapa
What's in a tapa

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