A tapa is an appetizer or snack in Spanish cuisine and translates to a small part of any sort of food, very similar to Chinese dim sum. It could be hot or cold. In the first days of tapas, a piece of ham or cheese was served with your drink and put over the mouth of the glass (stored on washing plates). They were essentially designed to tide one over until the traditional means of eating dinner late in the evening, when most Americans are sleeping. It could be cold (like mixed olives and cheese) or hot (like chopitos, which can be fried baby squid). In select bars in Spain, tapas have developed into a whole sophisticated cuisine.
Legend has it that Castilian King Alfonso the Tenth (circa late 13th century) had formerly been stricken with a severe illness that only allowed him to eat tiny portions of food with small quantities of wine. (Maybe he simply got too hungry between lunch and dinner) The U.S. has embraced this cuisine through tapas restaurants, wine bars and a few micro breweries, compared to Spain, where it is usually served up in easy tapas bars. Popular dishes include many traditional Spanish delicacies which are worth trying (be quite courageous, now):
Aceitunas – various olives (no meal is complete without them)
Berenjenas – eggplant/ (aubergine) can be cooked or raw
Caracoles – snails,usually baked with spices (like French escargot)
Chipirones – a bit different, little squid cooked on a griddle
Chorizo – a favorite spicy sausage
Gambas al Ajillo – fresh prawns in hot olive oil with garlic and peppers
Gazpacho – a chilly tomato-based chopped vegetable soup
Jamón Serrano/Iberico – Spain’s favorite ham (like Italian prosciutto)
Paella – a dish
Pisto – stew of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and zucchini
Pulpo – your fundamental octopus
Queso con membrillo – cheese with a sweet quince sauce
Salchichón – any hot sausage or salami
Tapa de sardinas en tomate – lettuce with a tomato sauce
Tortilla – omelette with potato and onion (not like the Mexican tortilla)
Sorry, no mac and cheese
If you’re overwhelmed or confused, ask the server for aid. One of the wonderful benefits is that someone at your desk is very likely to enjoy a dish that perhaps nobody else does, so it will not go to waste.
For many, tapas is an acquired taste. For others, just not their cup of tea. However, it’s definitely worth a try with a few good friends (who are culinary”great sports”). It just might lead to a new cuisine for the adventurous diner, so take a look. You can do it.