My first experience traveling abroad was to Spain. I will always have a special love for Spain. It was there that I was introduced to tapas and other small plates. You could mingle, eat one of these, a bite of that, never too much. A fantastic social atmosphere, where conversations and complements are a cultivated art form, that deserve a research papers unto themselves. My sister, cousin, and I sat for hours in good company outside a neighborhood tapas bar in Barcelona. It was late and the night was just starting, conversation was welcoming and lively. The specialty at this particular bar was Patatas Bravas, Spicy Fried Potatoes, something that to this day I never make well enough to quite match my memory. That trip opened up a whole new world for me in so many ways, If I didn’t love food before, I was now addicted. Not just addicted to food but to sharing food.
Tapar: the Spanish verb “to cover”
Tapas are small plates or bites of food. Slices of ham, cheese, olives, nuts and fish, are simple selections that are the most classic. Often eaten standing up and paired with wine, the salty snacks pair well with wine and sherry and seem to encourage drinking. Tapas can be closest compared to appetizers, sort of. They can be appetizers but are not always. It is more of a way of eating. Small plates of food, not as a first course, nor to replace a meal, but as an accompaniment to a drink.
The Spanish, dating back to the 19th century in Andalusia, in southern Spain. The generally accepted history is that drinkers in the local taverns took to covering their glass of sherry with a slice of bread, ham or cheese to keep the flies out of the sweet drink. Of course having salty meats makes one thirsty, the business opportunity must have been recognized and a clever barkeep realized that a small sum could be made for charging for those bites of food.
There is no class barrier when it comes to Tapas, they are enjoyed by all. Students, professionals, doctors and tourists co-mingle. The tourists sample traditional sherry and wine, while the locals drink international cocktails, but they all eat the same Tapas. This is a type food that seems to level the playing field and is widely accessible.
Widespread in Spain, tapa-style bars are springing up all over! Some bars specialize in items such as ham (oh the succulent shavings jamon!) or salt cod. Tapas are rarely consumed in the home mostly because so much of eating, sharing, tasting tapas is the culture of the cuisine. In Spain, these bars are lively and animated not to mention a good place to practice your Spanish. Actually, that might be hard because they all seem to want to practice English!
This is a form of food entertainment best enjoyed anytime other than breakfast. Ok, so early evening is ideal, but almost anytime of day is Perfect! Just don’t be in a hurry, Tapas should be consumed always with a glass of sherry, wine, or beer and accompanied with many hours of conversation. I suggest that you spend an evening chateo (like “pub crawling” at tapas bars)
Why Not? It’s a classic pairing of wine, food and conversation. It’s a built in conversation starter. If you are hosting a party then consider tapas. The spread can be as simple (olives and nuts) or complex (empanadas and pulpo con allioli) as you want it to be. Tapas let you eat all of your favorites without choosing just one! They are already in sample size. Above all…Food always goes better with wine!
Start with the unintimidating tapas like marinated olives, seasoned almonds, slices of good Spanish cheeses, meats and breads, even top of the line tinned seafood like smoked clams, anchovies, and cured fish.
Here is a recipe for a simple and flavorful ensalada (salad) tapa. Serve with toothpicks.
Marinated Cauliflower Salad from Seville
Marinade: whisk all together in a bowl
- 6Tb olive oil
- 2 ½ Tb sherry vinegar
- 2tsp lemon juice
- 2 garlic cloves, pressed or very finely chopped
- 1 ½ tsp mild paprika
- ¼ tsp cayenne pepper
- salt to taste
Pour marinade over:
- 1 head of cauliflower, seasoned with salt and boiled or steamed until stems pierce with a toothpick. Break into bite sized florets. I like to use purple, orange or green cauliflower because the color looks great but white will work just as well.
Cover and let marinate over night. Serve room temp, toss and garnish with 2T chopped mint.