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Those small snack plates known as tapas are an art form in Spain. They vary throughout Spain’s regions, reflecting the fruit of the land or sea. They’re often shared, and always delicious. In Spain, where dinner is served late, they make the perfect appetizer, and often come free when you buy a drink. The tradition is built around conversation, with the idea that small, shared plates encourage discussion among friends more than individual meals.

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tapas

Tapas, or small snacks, usually come with each round of drinks in Spain. Photo: Salomé Chaussure – Flickr.

The history

The word tapa comes from the Spanish word “tapar” which means “to cover.” Way back in the day, when people traveled through Spain on old Roman roads, and when hardly anyone could read or write, innkeepers would serve their guests small portions of everything they offered. That tradition morphed over the years, and bartenders or restaurant owners would serve bread and meat bites to customers drinking sherry, since the salty nature of the snack made patrons thirstier. People would use the bread and meat to cover (tapar) their glasses of sherry to keep the flies off, and thus the tapas tradition was born.

Best tapas spots

In Barcelona, Las Ramblas is one of the most popular streets in the city, full of places to shop and eat. But it’s very touristy, and also draws pickpockets. Instead, try going to Gracía, a neighborhood with an increasingly hipster bent. Try Restaurant La Pepita or Nou Candanchu.

In Madrid, delicious tapas restaurants are lurking around every corner. Stop in Museo del Jamón on Calle Mayor to get your feet wet and really immerse yourself in ham (really, there is jamón everywhere). Then pick one of thelittle streets of Calle Mayor and wander to a tapas place. If you think there’s no room for dessert, Calle Colorares has a great chocolatería.

Many bars around Spain have gone against tradition, tacking price tags onto tapas. In Granada, though, tapas remain mostly pure and free. Near Plaza de Santillana is Bodegas Espadafor. Not only is its food good, the walls are adorned with art depicting bullfights and the bar has a great sherry selection. Also try Bodegas Castañeda on Calle Almireceros, off Calle Elvira.

What’s on the menu

In honor of this time-honored and delicious tradition, here are some of the most delicious and authentic tapas Spain has to offer:

croquetas

Croquetas have a fried crispy outside with a warm and creamy inside. Photo: Kent Wang – Flickr.

Croquetas — Quite possibly one of the most beloved and common tapas, and often available in tapas restaurants in America. Croquetas are small and often cylindrical, with a soft, warm and creamy inside and a crispy, fried shell. The inside isoften made with flour and cream, or may be made with potatoes. They’re then rolled in breadcrumbs and fried. Most croquetas have some kind of meat or fish mixed in, so look for croquetas de pollo (chicken) or croquetas de jamón (ham), to name a few.

jamón serrano

Slices of jamón serrano are cut from cured pig thighs often seen hanging in Spanish bars and restaurants. Photo: Anne-Arnould – Flickr.

Manchego y jamón serrano — Manchego, a cheese that’s a hard, very salty and not too sharp, is often served alongside jamón serrano, which is ham cut from the pig’s legs you’ll see hanging in almost every restaurant and market in Spain. The flavor combination is perfect, and both pieces of the concoction are very Spanish.

Pan con tomate

Pan con tomate, or bread with tomato, is a popular tapa in Catalonia. Photo: yosoynuts – Flickr.

Pan con tomate — Or bread with tomato, is a very Catalan dish. Catalonia is the region surrounding and including Barcelona, and stretching up into Southern France. They take a tomato and smear it all over some fresh, often toasted and oil-covered bread, throw the rest of the tomato away, and sprinkle some salt over the bread. At tapas restaurants in America, you’ll often find this topped with manchego. It’s a wonderful dish, but in Spain they serve simpler dishes, not weighed downwith sauces and cheeses like we do with much of what we eat here. So make sure to try it in its true form before adding cheese.

Tortilla de España

Tortilla de España is made with eggs and often onion and potatoes. Photo: ornello_pics – Flickr.

Tortilla de España — This is probably one of the most universal tapas dishes in Spain, and it has nothing to do with what we often think of as tortillas. Many menu translations will call it a Spanish omelette, but it’s really more of a thick frittata. Tortillas can be made with many things, but some of the most common are tortilla de papas (potatoes), tortilla de calabacín (zucchini) and tortilla de cebolla (onion), or some sort of combo. Some places serve these cold, so keep that in mind if you’re not into eating cold eggs.

Papas bravas — Another basic, these are fried potatoes with a little bit of spice. They’re cubed and often served with some sort of aioli or similar dip.

Jamón con melón

Jamón con melón. Photo: yashima – Flickr.

Jamón con melón — A beautiful salty/sweet combination, jamón and melón isn’t quite as easy to find as some of the other tapas for some reason. There’s a wonderful kind of melon available in Catalonia throughout most of the summer that is green like honeydew but is much sweeter. Slice that up and wrap it in a slice of jamón, and you’ve got yourself a little bite of heaven.

Tagged: Food & drink, FREE!, International

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