Spanish Tapas Decoded for the Curious Traveler

An Intriguing Taste of Authentic Spanish Culture and Cuisine...

More than just a way of eating, Spanish tapas illuminate a way of life: a culture that prioritizes leisurely meals and casual socializing. No tour of Spain is complete without a visit to a Tasca (tapas restaurant), and no visit to San Sebastián Spain should skip the local Basque interpretation, known as pintxos.

These sampler-sized dishes are built for sharing. Some are small portions of entrees such as stews or paella, also orderable as a half (media ración) or full portion (ración). Others, such as a plate of paper-thin leaves of Iberico ham, fill an appetizer role.

Hot or cold, traditional or innovative, tapas provide the perfect introduction to the food of Spain, letting you try a variety of dishes and sample some unfamiliar ingredients with minimal commitment. Blood sausage, octopus, salt cod: These are quintessential Spanish cuisine, which the cautiously adventurous may prefer to try in small quantities.

When to Eat Tapas

Lingering over wine, beer or hard cider, locals order tapas a few at a time, as an appetizer or a meal. Hot tapas are often ordered off the menu, while cold tapas may be displayed at the bar. Locals savor them at lunch, from about 1:30 until 3:30, and again in the evening from around 8:30 until midnight – remember Spaniards generally dine late.

Familiar and Exotic Ingredients in Tapas

Ingredients in tapas reflect the wide-ranging Spanish palate. Every imaginable meat and seafood makes an appearance, along with cheese and the occasional vegetable. Culinary traditions employ ingredients seldom seen on the American table. Visitors familiar with shrimp and scallops may shrink at bacalao (salt cod), squid, even barnacles, and snails. Blood sausage, foie gras (liver of a fatted duck or goose) and other organ meats may be on the menu. There are also plenty of dishes relying on familiar ingredients: ham, pork, beef, sardines, anchovies, potatoes.

Spices are vibrant and flavorful, but seldom hot. Paprika, saffron, garlic, sweet peppers, olive oil, vinegar, and herbs are expertly combined to luscious effect, reflecting Spain’s history as a crossroads of the Mediterranean Sea.

4 Classic, Popular Tapas on the Menu

Here are four classic dishes to introduce this rich and diverse culinary tradition.

Name notwithstanding, Tortilla de Patata has no relation to the Mexican tortilla. This hugely popular tapa is a simple, rustic potato frittata. Fried potatoes and onions are cooked with eggs, lightly browned on both sides and cut in wedges.

Croquettes are breaded, fried nuggets of béchamel, stuffed with savory extras like ham, cheese, and bacalao.

Instead of French fries, think Patatas Bravas. These potatoes, fried to perfection, are topped with a vibrant paprika-tinged sauce.

Jamón is ham, one of Spain’s most celebrated culinary achievements. Assorted varieties have cult-like followings, with the cured Iberian acorn-fed ham, Jamón Ibérico, arguably at the top of the heap.

Tapas Includes Simple Fare Like Bread and Ham

Cautious diners, take comfort: Bread, olives, ham, and cheese are always available. The thousands of olive trees dotting the hillsides of Spain mean cured olives are a local art form. Manchego, the internationally celebrated sheep’s milk cheese, is one of the dozens of domestic cheeses. With fresh crusty bread, incredible ham, and a cheese for every palate, you’ll never go wanting.

Don’t like culinary surprises? Review or download a glossary of Spanish ingredients for informed ordering. Otherwise, embrace the opportunity to share a small plate of something new on a delightful, delicious Spain tour.