What is Tapas Food?: Tapas Definition & History

Tapas Definition

In Spain, dinner is typically served between 9pm and 11pm, which has contributed to the popularity of tapas. Often accompanied by wine, tapas are small savory dishes consisting of a wide variety of appetizers, snacks or finger food. If you are curious about the history and definition of tapas food, continue reading to explore this Spanish culinary tradition.

What Is Tapas Food?

Tapas foods are finger foods that are served in cafes and bars. The word tapas comes from the Spanish word, tapar, which means, “to cover.” Coming in various different forms, tapas fare can be hot, cold or marinated. Tapas are usually flavored with cumin, salt, pepper, garlic, chilies, paprika, saffron or olive oil. Possible dishes include olives, Serrano ham, chorizo, salt cod, Spanish omelets, rings of battered squid, meatballs with sauce, stuffed mussels, stuffed piquillo peppers, and much more. In many parts of Spain, if you order a drink at a bar, a tapa is served with it for free.

What Are Tapas Bars?

Tapas bars are dining and drinking establishments that typically serve 8 to 12 different types of tapas. The selection often includes one or more types of vegetarian, meat, and bread dishes. Tapas may be served in warming trays with glass partition or featured on an a la carte menu of small plate items.

What Makes Tapas Popular?

Tapas are the perfect introduction to Spanish cuisine, because they allow you to sample many different types of dishes in one meal.  Tapas go great with wine, sherry, beer or cider.  Sharing tapas is also a social activity and bonding experience that brings diners together and encourages conversation.

Where Does Tapas Come From?

Andalusian Taverns

There are many different stories told about the origin and history of tapas. According to the Joy of Cooking, the first tapas were slices of bread or meat used to cover glasses of sherry in between sips at Andalusian taverns to prevent fruit flies from hovering over the sherry.

Castilian Taverns

According to another story, King Alfonso X, who was known as the “wise one,” made sure that Castilian taverns served wine along with something to eat so that the wine would not go straight to clients’ heads.

Ventorillo del Chato

Another story claims that King Alfonso was traveling and stopped to rest in a town called Ventorillo del Chato, where he ordered a glass of sherry. The innkeeper served him a glass of sherry covered with a slice of ham to prevent the sherry from getting dirty. King Alfonso liked it and asked for another “tapa,” or cover.

Different Cultures Have Helped Tapas to Evolve

Tapas have evolved throughout history and have come to incorporate influences from many different cultures and regions. When the Romans invaded the Iberian Peninsula, they brought olives. The North African Moors brought citrus fruits, spices, and almonds. With the discovery of the New World, tomatoes, corn, potatoes, and sweet and chili peppers were introduced.

The Tapas Trend Today

Today, tapas food is no longer limited to Spanish cuisine and can encompass a variety of different food cultures. The small plate trend has also taken off in the United States, and upmarket tapas bars and restaurants are common in many American cities, including New York City, Miami, San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Bartenders embrace this trend, because salty tapas often spur beverage sales.

Giving Tapas a Try

Sharing small plates and tasty bits accompanied by wine while laughing and conversing with friends is a great way to unwind after a long day. Now that you know the tapas definition, consider giving tapas a try the next time you want to enjoy a delicious meal and a memorable dining experience!