Tapas are one of the most iconic Spanish symbols. There is no way you went to Spain without going crazy for it. It is an all-Spanish tradition that we think you need to know about.
This is why we decided to write this ultimate tapas guide and to prepare you for the best Spanish experience.
Let’s start with the first lesson – What is tapas exactly?
Many cafes around the world like to give their customers a compliment snack with their drinks, but none do it like the Spaniards – trust us. Forget about one bowl of peanuts for the table or a handful of potato chips for the 4 of you.
In Spain, these things are the compliments of the compliment snacks you get. The main tapas can be everything from sandwiches, hamburgers, salads, seafood, paellas, and soup.
If you hit the right place, you can even skip dinner after only two rounds of 0.20 glass of beer, and compliment snacks that you get alongside.
How did tapas originate?
It is thought that the word tapa comes from an old Spanish custom of covering a glass of beverage with a piece of bread or ham.
This was done to prevent the mosquitoes or flies from finding their place inside your glass. The verb TAPAR in Spanish means TO COVER, which is logically related to the custom.
Another story says that one day King Alonso XIII was in Cadiz when he ordered a glass of wine to drink it outside.
”…It was a windy day, and the wind started carrying the sand from the ground. When the sand rose too much and threatened to get into the wine of King Alonso XIII, the bartender saved the day. He quickly covered the king’s glass with a piece of ham. The king loved the idea, so when he finished his drink, he asked for another glass with a “tapa” (a cover).”
There are many stories like these, and every part of Spain has its own legend. So, if you want to know the answer to the question “How did tapas originate?”, we may disappoint you. No one knows the real truth. However, the origin of the word is clear – “tapa” is a “cover”.
The most used word, however, is the word tapas, which is a plural form of the word tapa. That is because most times tapas are served for the whole group at the table. A secret to getting the most out of this tradition is to order in rounds, and not individually.
Waiters usually serve tapas when you order for everyone at the same time. If you finish before your friends and make an order, you may not get a second snack.
Table of Contents
Tapilla is a diminutive word for tapa. This doesn’t mean you will get a teeny tiny tapa; it is common in the Spanish language to use diminutive forms of words. So, tapilla is a popular word that can be heard a lot from waiters in Andalusia.
You can ask the waiter for specific meat or ingredient telling you would like tapilla de cerdo, tapilla de ternera, tapilla íberica, etc.
Pare picar is an expression that metaphorically means to have a bite with a toothpick as if you would at a party. This expression can describe tapas, or it can describe food plates that can be shared among friends.
These are mostly cheese plates or meat plates as Plato Iberico and Plato de queso. Also, Plato Marinero for those who like seafood, or patatas caseras for those who prefer veggies.
It is referred to as bigger portions of tapas that are meant to be shared among the group, which is something that Spanish people do a lot.
Raciones can also be regular-sized one-person servings. In Madrid and the area around it, the culture of tapas is truly a culture of raciones.
Para compartir literally means for sharing, and that is another way of describing raciones. In some bars, you will find only tapas and raciones (tapa only for you or a plate for a group), and in some, you will find meals, the plates for sharing, individual tapas, etc.
If you order something under para compartir you will get a serving enough for two people to be almost full, and for three or four people too, well, picar while drinking.
As I said before, Spanish people love to dine this way. They will go out with friends or family on a Friday night and order 4 or 5 different plates for sharing and share it all while drinking a beer or a soda. They sure can decide as a group, don’t they?
Pintxo-pote or pincho
Pintxo-pote or pincho is a northern, Basque version of tapas, pintxo referring to food and pote to drinks. It is served on a specific day of the week for a couple of hours, and the price is a bit higher than when ordering just a drink.
👉 If you want to make tapas at home we recommend this awesome book with more than 60 recipes.
If you’re more of a dine-out kind of a person, then keep reading to learn where to find tapas bars in Spain, how to order, and what’s the cost.
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What is a Tapas bar, and where to find it?
If you ask for a tapas bar in Spain, you may be referred to a lot of different places. The truth is that in Spain, almost every bar is a tapas bar, or at least serves tapas, even if the main purpose is not that.
Every bar and cafe in Spain serves food, so they also have some of the above-listed versions of tapas.
Places that don’t serve tapas are coffee places, restaurants, pubs, and nightlife bars. But even when I say they don’t serve it, they do. I get excited when bars in my country serve free handfuls of chips or peanuts with beer, and that is usually a the-manager-is-in-a-good-mood surprise.
For the Spanish people, who are used to much bigger stuff than just chips, this is the least they expect. Potato chips in Andalusia are like a side dish for tapas and every place serves it. Fancier places and restaurants serve chips, or other small tapas even if you already ordered some food and drinks.
How much do tapas cost in Spain?
Tapas are sometimes completely complimentary, and sometimes they cost. It all depends on the place, city, or region, but the cost is usually something that is “worth it”.
In Andalusia, with an accent on Jaen, the tapas are usually free, and you will get one tapa per drink.
I tried a lot of different places in Jaen, and I haven’t got into one that charges for tapas. But, in Cordoba and Seville, I was charged every time.
When you pay for them, tapas tend to be a bit bigger than those that are free, but they are a lot of exceptions. Jaen had some places that had free tapas that were huge. But they say Jaen is the center of the tapas culture.
So, how much do tapas cost?
When bars charge for tapas, it is usually a small amount compared to what you get, so it is still a good deal. Those tapas that you pay for are usually something like a small size main course, like meatballs in sauce, chicken with mushrooms, seafood, etc. The food is not so much of a snack, but a small course.
It can differ from place to place but in Andalusia a regular meal costs from 8 to 15 euros. Knowing that you can conclude what the size of the tapas is according to its cots. If the tapas costs 6 euros, it is the size of two or three people. If it cost 2 euros, it is probably only for one person (2-3 meatballs).
How is tapas served?
In some places, you get to pick your tapa, and in some, you get a random tapa. Of course, if you are paying for it, you have a menu from which you choose. But, if tapas are completely complimentary, you either get a surprise tapas or also choose from the menu.
There are a lot of places that have free tapas but also have a menu for you to choose from. Those tend to be bigger but simpler – less quality and more quantity. These tapas are mostly hamburgers, ham and cheese sandwiches, sausages, etc.
Other tapas bars in Spain bring you tapas of their choice. The charm of not knowing what you will get is both risky and amusing. Those tapas are usually some homemade recipes, so it is somewhat more interesting and unique. Of course, you have the risk of getting something that you don’t like, but hey, you tried something new.
So, speaking from personal experience, no way is better than the other. It is simply your mood (or stomach) that chooses whether you would go with safe and big, or small and bold.
In fancier, more modern places, the tapas will most likely be those small fancy bites. There will be a menu from which you can choose a tapas plate for the table, but for a cost. My favorite places are traditional family places where the tapas are not as big, but they are fun, fresh, and delicious.
For the hungry ones, some places let you choose a regular-sized sandwich or a burger, alongside a drink of 1.5 euros.
There are also chain-places, or the fast-food of tapas, where the balance between quality and quantity is great, but they lack the cultural atmosphere.
How to order tapas?
When you first come to Spain and somebody takes you to tapas, you will lose your head over the food that keeps coming to your table. It keeps coming because you keep ordering drinks.
So, that is one way of ordering tapas – to order a drink. Tapas go with ordering a beer, wine, or soda. Sometimes you can get it with sparkly water, but usually not. So, if you order water, strong alcohol, or fresh juice, you will not get tapas.
So, the drinks are not big. This is a shock for people who are used to drinking 0.5 or a pint, but that means that you will order two or three, even four beers. And with every new order, you will have food coming to your table. This means that with the beer and food, you will be full by the end of the night.
Everybody loves free food. So, when you always pay for food in your country, you are enlightened when you come to Andalusia.
Ordering Tapas from the menu
If you order the drinks, the waiter may bring the surprise tapas to you, or he may ask you what would you like to snack. He will do this by asking “Y de tapilla?” or “Algo para picar?” (something to bite?), for example, and that is when you have to order something from the tapas menu. So, be sure to check the menu before ordering and see what the bar is offering.
If the tapas are not complimentary, then you will have to order them. If you don’t do it, you will not get them, clearly. Check the menu, and remember the name or the number of your order. Be sure to check the price, and conclude if the tapa is for one person, or for the table.
When you decide, you can say “Para picar (the name of the snack)” or “De tapa (the name of the snack)“. There will probably be the tapas menu, and the main course menu, so try not to mix up those two (search for the prices under 5-6 euros).
Tapas culture in Spain
So your first impression is that Spanish people love to eat, and you love them for feeding you.
But there is a lot more to it, than just love for the food and drinks. They don’t go to tapas only for the food, but to hang out with friends, to have a get-together or simply to have some alone time.
People get to their local bars every day to have a drink, eat a tapa, and talk to the bartender, the owner, or whomever.
These bars are also places to be when football (soccer) is on TV. Spanish people rarely watch games in their own homes.
The atmosphere in the bars when the game is on is indescribable. Basically, they love to be out, they love to be with other people, and tapas is giving them a nudge. It also justifies beer or wine at 13 o’clock, so that’s a nice one!
Tapas culture in Spain just describes their relaxed and positive approach to life. If you have the time in your day to sit down and have a drink and a bite without working, or stressing, you will cherish the day more.
Spanish people are hedonists, and they know how to enjoy simple moments. This is the main culture of the tapas – to cherish the moments and the people in your life.
So, now when you passed your first lecture, you can go through our yummy list of classic Spanish tapas.
Better read it with your stomach full so you don’t get hungry?
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