What are Tapas? A Guide to Spain's Small Plates - Spanish Sabores

What Are Tapas? A Guide to Spain’s Small Plates

If the world knows one thing about eating in Spain, it’s tapas. But what are tapas, anyway?

Ask 10 Spaniards that question and you’ll get 10 different answers. Some are elaborate plates full of food; others are bite-sized dishes of olives or potato chips. Some are hot; some are cold. In some places, they’re free, but in others, you have to pay.

But one thing is always true: Spain wouldn’t be Spain without tapas.

Aperitif tapas spread of cured meat, olives, cheese cubes, anchovies, potato chips, and vermouth set atop a wooden barrel.
A simple array of tapas, complete with vermouth!

One popular definition of the concept explains tapas as small plates, and many people may already associate them with Spain. But they don’t necessarily have to be small—and in fact, the idea of tapas goes beyond the food itself.

Here in Spain, tapas are more than just food—they’re a social activity meant to be enjoyed in great company. Knowing not just what are tapas, but how to enjoy them like a local, will make your Spanish dining experience unforgettable.

What Is the Definition of Tapas?

So now you know that the concept of tapas can be a bit hard to nail down. But the history of the term itself can shed some light on things, too.

What does tapas mean?

In Spanish, a tapa is a lid or covering, which comes from the verb “tapar” (to cover). This definition comes into play in a few of the legends surrounding its (widely disputed) history.

One popular legend claims that around the turn of the 20th century, Spanish King Alfonso XIII stopped at a bar while traveling through a dry, windy part of southern Spain. In order to keep the blowing sand out of the king’s drink, the bartender topped his wine glass with a slice of cured ham. The king loved the idea, and voila—tapas were born!

Another story places the origin of tapas in the Middle Ages, when northern Spanish laborers would drink heavily to warm themselves from the bitterly cold winters. In order to offset the alcohol, bartenders would serve a bit of food with each drink—a tradition that soon became popular with laborers and leisure diners alike!

Plate of cured ham and small crunchy breadsticks next to a glass of red wine on top of a wooden barrel
Jamón: the first-ever tapa?

What Are Tapas in Spain?

If the history of tapas is unclear, then the definition of what is and is not a tapa is even more confusing. That definition changes largely depending on where in Spain you are.

As mentioned earlier, the popular definition of tapas is small plates. And in some cities and bars, that’s taken quite literally: your tapa will be a small dish of olives brought out with your drink.

Other bars list three different portion sizes for each dish on their menu. A tapa will be small enough for one, a media ración is a good size to share among two or three people, and a ración is the largest of all.

The local interpretation also varies depending on price—in some cities, tapas come free with your drink. Presentation also plays a factor: the Basque version, pintxos, often come skewered atop slices of bread.

Tapas portion of six mushrooms filled with light green parsley aioli
A tapa-sized portion of grilled mushrooms filled with garlic-parsley aioli in Seville.

What Is a Tapas Bar?

Here in Spain, tapas bars are less formal than sit-down restaurants. The best ones tend to fill up as locals pack inside to share food and drinks with friends.

Many bars are standing-room only, so expect to eat on your feet at the bar or at a high table. However, in some cities such as Barcelona, most bars will also have places to sit. (That’s right—even the tapas bar experience itself can be very regional!)

Interior of a tapas bar with a group of people standing at high tables drinking red wine.
Inside La Casa del Abuelo, one of Madrid’s most emblematic tapas bars, with no chairs in sight!

What Is a Tapas Restaurant?

The concept of tapas has made waves around the world. Outside Spain, you’re more likely to find them served at sleek, trendy restaurants catering to a cosmopolitan crowd.

Keep in mind, though, that many tapas restaurants abroad may not serve food that’s very authentic to Spain. Some restaurants may modify traditional Spanish recipes to better suit local tastes, and others may even use the word to describe Latin American food.

If you’re craving tapas outside Spain, it’s worth taking the time to do a bit of research on Spanish restaurants nearby. Look for places whose owners and chefs have some connection to Spain, and get familiar with some authentic Spanish dishes so you know what kinds of things to look for on the menu.

What Are Traditional Spanish Tapas?

The most classic tapas dishes in Spain tend to be very simple in nature. Some may not even require cooking at all: think dishes of local olives, or plates of cured meats and cheeses.

Other traditional Spanish tapas use simple, easy-to-find ingredients, but that doesn’t mean they’re not delicious when made right! With many having such short ingredient lists, the quality of each and every component becomes crucial.

Whole potato omelet on a plate
The humble tortilla de patatas is a testament to the simplicity of Spanish cooking.

What Are the Different Types of Tapas?

Hot Tapas

Hot tapas, as you may have guessed, need to be cooked and are served warm, preferably to order. Everything from anchovies to eggplants can be fried, and you’ll also find everything from juicy grilled pork skewers to chorizo simmered in wine.

Small clay dish of shrimp in a garlic-olive oil sauce.
Piping hot garlic shrimp are a popular hot tapa.

Cold Tapas

On the other hand, cold tapas are often made in advance to give them time to chill. Some even sit glass cases on top of the bar, ready to serve. A few traditional cold options are ensaladilla rusa (a sort of Spanish potato salad), refreshing salmorejo (chilled tomato and garlic soup—an excellent vegetarian option), and zanahorias aliñadas (carrots marinated in a flavorsome spice blend).

A person's hand using a fork to eat marinated carrots in olive oil off a plate.
Marinated carrots: one of the most delicious ways to get your serving of veggies!

Pintxos

Pintxos (pronounced “pinchos”) hail from the Basque Country, where you’ll often find this word used instead of “tapas.” The name comes from the verb pinchar, which means to poke or to skewer something. Many pintxos are typically served skewered atop a piece of crusty bread with a toothpick.

Like tapas, pintxos can be hot or cold. Many eateries in the Basque Country display their cold pintxos atop the bar, with a separate menu listing the hot (made-to-order) options. While the cold pintxos look pretty and can often be delicious, be sure to order a hot pintxo or two for a truly special experience.

Craving some pintxos? Check out these 7 simple pintxos recipes to make at home.

Tray of small slices of bread with anchovies and chopped vegetables held in place on top with toothpicks.
Delicious anchovy pintxos at a Basque bar.

Tostas

Another popular bread-based option, tostas are toasted open-faced sandwiches with all kinds of delicious toppings. These are an especially great option to enjoy in a crowded bar with little space to put your plate down—no need to mess with utensils!

Platter of toasted bread slices with various toppings, with a pile of potato chips in the middle
A delicious variety of tostas from Los Gatos tapas bar in Madrid.

Tablas

Tablas are Spain’s answer to cheese and charcuterie boards. These are an excellent way to sample some of Spain’s prized gourmet products, especially the iconic jamón ibérico (acorn-fed cured Iberian ham). Plus, they make the perfect accompaniment to a glass of wine or two!

Slices of Spanish cheese and cured meats on a small tapas plate.
Tablas are proof that tapas don’t need to be elaborately cooked to be delicious.

Conservas

Last but not least, conservas are the unsung heroes of the Spanish food world. Simply put, they’re canned goods—but here in Spain, that means they’re prepared with flavorful marinades and the utmost respect for quality. You’ll never look at a can of tuna the same way again!

Plate of preserved fish slices in olive oil and topped with herbs.
Most people would never believe that seafood this good came out of a can!

What Are Tapas Ingredients?

Ingredients can vary from dish to dish, but there are a few that you’ll find fairly often.

Olive Oil

Olive oil is arguably the most important ingredient in Spanish cuisine. It makes an appearance in just about every tapas recipe there is, whether it’s used to fry or sautée or it’s incorporated into the dish itself.

All Spanish olive oils are not created equal. Extra virgin provides health benefits, quality, and taste that other varieties don’t. From there, you could narrow it down even more, as different varieties of olives have varying flavors that often affect the taste of the final dish.

A hand pouring olive oil over a plate of toasted bread with tomato.
A generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil provides the perfect finishing touch for pan con tomate.

Garlic

Most Spanish recipes are light on aromatics and seasonings, with a few exceptions. Garlic is one of the most prevalent flavors in many typical Spanish dishes, whether rubbed onto pan con tomate, sizzled in olive oil to flavor gambas al ajillo, or puréed into salmorejo.

Plate of grilled mushrooms stuffed with garlic, parsley, and chorizo next to a small glass of red wine.
Garlic is one of the star ingredients in the famous grilled mushrooms at Madrid’s Mesón del Champiñón.

Bread

Bread is another common addition to tapas. Whether blended into a cold soup to achieve a perfectly creamy texture, used as the base for tostas or pintxos, or simply served on the side, countless classic dishes involve bread in some form. Picos, small crunchy breadstick crackers, are also common.

Small clay dish of spinach and chickpea stew served with crackers.
The secret ingredient in spinach and chickpea stew? Bread!

Eggs

Though most commonly associated with the tortilla de patatas and other omelets, eggs make an appearance in many other tapas dishes. They’re especially perfect when broken over fried potatoes to make huevos rotos, baked with veggies and meat in huevos a la flamenca, or hard-boiled and chopped up to garnish any number of dishes.

Stack of fried potato rounds topped with an egg and garnished with crumbled chorizo.
A modern presentation of huevos rotos in Madrid.

What Are the Top Spanish Tapas Recipes?

Plate of fried anchovies
Delicious boquerones fritos (fried anchovies) always hit the spot.

What Do You Drink with Tapas?

Cerveza (Beer)

Most people are surprised to learn that beer is one of the most popular drinks here in Spain. When it comes to smaller portions, you’ll want to go with a caña, or a small draft beer. The caña‘s compact size ensures that it will stay nice and cold for the short amount of time you’ll need to devour a tapa.

Two small draft beers next to a tapa of boiled shrimp and crunchy breadstick crackers.
With cañas, there’s no need to worry about your beer getting warm long after you’ve finished your food.

Vino Tinto (Red Wine)

Red wine is another classic option. Rioja and Ribera are two of the most famous varieties, but there are dozens of other Spanish reds worth trying. And though they’re not as well-known abroad, Spain also makes some pretty incredible white wines!

Vermouth

Speaking of wine, vermouth has come back into style in full force over the past few years here in Spain. Its unique bittersweet taste makes it an especially perfect pairing for salty bites like olives and anchovies.

Seven glasses of vermouth, a plate of appetizer skewers, and a plate of olives on a bar top.
The perfect Spanish aperitif spread: vermouth, olives, and banderillas.

Sherry

Down in Andalusia, you’ll also find many locals enjoying sherry with their tapas. This fortified wine comes in a variety of styles, making it easy to pair with all kinds of dishes.

Cava

Yet another fantastic wine to enjoy with tapas is cava, Spain’s excellent sparkling wine produced mainly in Catalonia.

Artichoke and romesco sauce tapas on a table with several glasses of sparkling wine.
Cava makes a perfect addition to any tapas crawl!

Refrescos (Soft Drinks)

If you don’t or can’t drink alcohol, no worries—you can also order soft drinks and water at bars.

What Spanish Cities Are Famous for Tapas?

Two of Spain’s most famous tapas areas are Andalusia in the south (especially the cities of Granada and Seville) and the Basque Country in the north. But they’re not the only places to enjoy this emblematic staple of Spanish cuisine.

Granada

In Granada, tapas are typically large and free, getting increasingly more fantastic with each drink you order. This helps ensure you stay at one place for longer.

San Sebastian

Up north in San Sebastian, pintxos (as locals call them) are often small and more gourmet. Many, though not all, are served atop a slice of baguette.

Three small slices of artisanal bread topped with white anchovies and black olive tapenade.
Incredible anchovies with black olive tapenade in San Sebastian.

Madrid

Tapas in Madrid vary hugely, from a simple bowl of potato chips to a plate of meatballs. That being said, when you order a drink in the capital city, it will come with something to snack on more often than not.

Seville

You do have to pay for tapas in Seville, but that means they tend to be higher quality and often larger. For €2–5 you get the freedom to choose exactly what you’re in the mood to try!

Tapa of artichoke hearts with diced Iberian ham
An incredible tapa of artichoke hearts dotted with Iberian ham in Seville.

Malaga

Another member of Andalusia’s excellent tapas culture, Malaga offers a fascinating blend of traditional and contemporary eateries. Not all tapas are free, but even those that aren’t are well worth the money.

Barcelona

Last but not least, the tapas scene in Barcelona is a bit different than elsewhere in Spain. Here, it’s common to sit down at a tapas establishment and order multiple shared plates, rather than “crawling” from one bar to another.

Group of people seated around a table eating shared plates and talking.
Sitting while eating might be a rarity at many Spanish bars, but not in Barcelona!

When Is the Best Time to Eat Tapas?

Mastering Spanish mealtimes is an art form in and of itself. But when it comes to tapas, it’s surprisingly simple.

There are two main tapas-eating times: before and during lunch (from about 1:30 until 3:30), and in the evening from roughly 8:30 until midnight. In smaller towns, people pop down to their neighborhood bar around 1:30 p.m. to have a drink and a tapa or two before lunch. On Sundays, even in big cities like Madrid, it’s very popular to spend the afternoon tapeando, or going for tapas.

Tapas time in the evening really starts to get underway around 8:30 p.m. Some people go for one tapa and a drink before dinner; others eat a dinner composed entirely of tapas themselves. Tapas bars typically start to close around midnight.

Spanish Tapas FAQs

What is a tapas style dinner?

You can enjoy a tapas dinner in Spain simply by heading out on a tapas crawl, or by staying at one bar and ordering multiple shared plates. And if you’re not in Spain, the same concept is relatively easy to recreate at home.

How many tapas make a meal?

That depends on how hungry you are and the size of the tapas! Order one or two dishes at a time to get an idea of how large and filling they are. You can always order more until you’re full.

What’s the difference between tapas and appetizers?

Appetizers are always eaten before the meal, which is not always the case with tapas. You can eat tapas before your main meal if you want, or you can order various tapas dishes and have that be your meal.

Are tapas free in Spain?

In some (but not all) places in Spain, tapas will come free with your drink. Granada is particularly famous for this—the free tapas here can get quite elaborate. Elsewhere, free tapas can be as simple as a dish of olives or nuts.

What is the most famous dish in Spain?

Paella is probably the most famous Spanish food abroad. However, here in Spain, our national dish would arguably be the tortilla de patatas (potato omelet). It’s a popular tapa, too!

Update Notice: This post was originally published on June 24, 2015 and was republished with new text and photos on March 9, 2021.

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