What Are Tapas?

People eating tapas at outdoor restaurant, close-up of hands, overhead view
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Going out to eat tapas is one of the most popular activities in Spain. But there's a lot of misunderstanding about what exactly tapas means. It's generally understood that a tapa is small, but after that, confusion abounds.

Typical Tapas You'll Encounter in Spain

Tapas: Plural or Singular'?

In Spanish, you can have one 'tapa' and two or more 'tapas.' The word is undoubtedly plural.

In English, linguistically speaking, 'tapas' is used like 'a la carte.' The word 'tapas' in English is treated as a concept, always written with the 's.' The dictionary does not include the word 'tapa,' and the 's' at the end of 'tapas' would be pronounced /z/ not /s/ (think how you pronounce the 's' in 'bananas' or 'zebras'). 

So when you're in Spain, feel free to say 'I'm not very hungry, I think I'll get one tapa,' because that is how it would be used in Spanish. But, in the English language it's fine to use the word 'tapas' as a singular word.

What Tapas Is Not

There are a number of myths about what tapas is all about. Here are just a few:

  • Tapas is not a particular type of food. Anything can be tapas: paella, croquettes, ham and cheese on toast, truly anything. As long as it is small and served with your drink (either free or at a surcharge), it is tapas. It doesn't even have to be Spanish; in Granada, there are a number of Moroccan bars that offer couscous, falafel, and kebabs as tapas.
  • Tapas is not a starter. If you start eating tapas, you finish eating tapas, and you don't stop until you're full.
  • Tapas is not a collection of small dishes brought out on a platter and eaten as a main course. The Spanish have a word for this, tabla.

Meaning of the Word

A 'tapa' is a 'lid' or 'cover.' In the early days of tapas, a slice of cheese or ham was given with your drink and placed over your drink. There is some debate over why exactly this was done:

  • To keep out the flies.
  • To hide the smell of the bad wine.
  • To keep the wind from blowing your drink everywhere.

There is another explanation which differs from the above. It is said that there was once a sick king—which one exactly differs according to who is telling the story—who couldn't drink alcohol without taking some food with it. He issued a royal decree that insisted that everyone should take food with their drinks. A slight variation of this one is that the benevolent king simply insisted that food should be taken with any drink out of concerns for the health issues associated with drinking on an empty stomach.

In Spain Today

So, with all the myths about tapas out of the way, this is what tapas is today. A tapa is invariably a small dish of something edible. It may be a smaller version (normally a quarter version) of something else on the menu or it may be sold exclusively as tapas. The tapas may or may not be free. Unfortunately the days of free tapas are over in much of Spain. If the tapas is given to you without you having asked for it, it will be free.

If you are invited to 'go for tapas,' you'll be visiting lots of bars and probably only taking a single tapas in each. If you are unfamiliar with the city you are in, you may be apprehensive about moving on from a bar you have found that you like for fear of not finding another one as good. In which case, you may want to take a tapas tour in Spain instead. Led by a local expert, you will be taken to a number of tapas bars, sampling a dish and a drink in each one.

Decipher those unintelligible menus with a glossary of popular Spanish food. Print it out and put it in your wallet before you go. You'll be thankful for it when you're trying to avoid ordering the snails!

Glossary of Common Tapas Dishes

  • Allioli - Garlic mayo, no matter how ‘traditionally Catalan’ the waiter tells you it is
  • Albóndigas - Meatballs
  • Aceitunas - Olives
  • Bacalao - Cod
  • Boquerones - Anchovies
  • Berenjenas - Eggplant/Aubergine
  • Calamares - Fried squid rings.
  • Caracoles - Snails
  • Cazón - Dogfish, usually fried.
  • Chorizo - Spicy sausage
  • Gambas - Prawns, often fried in garlic (al ajillo)
  • Gazpacho - Cold soup, but perhaps more accurately referred to as a liquid salad
  • Jamón Serrano/Iberico - Cured ham. A national obsession. Melón con jamon Serrano is not a typo – it really is melon and ham.
  • Lomo - Pork loin
  • Merluza - Hake
  • Migas - Fried breadcrumbs
  • Morcilla - Blood sausage
  • Paella - Erm, paella
  • Pan con tomate - Bread topped with tomato, oil, and garlic. The most typically Catalan dish, simple but delicious. Can be eaten on its own or with cold meats and cheeses.
  • Pisto - Stew of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and zucchini
  • Pulpo - Octopus
  • Salchichón - Sausage or salami
  • Tortilla - Omelette with potato and onion
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