Tapas or Tapa means ‘small bites’ in Spanish. It is more than a dish; tapas is an integral part of Spanish culture, and the custom of eating tapas varies from region to region. Usually served as small portions of the main course dish, people enjoying tapas at restaurants can typically be seen across the country.
Speaking to Gulf News Food, Michelin-starred chef Ricardo Sotres of El Retiro restaurant, Spain, said: “It is a custom in Spain to get together over tapas and have a good time with your friends and family. Like how watching a game of football or going to the stadium is very important and a vital cultural part in Spain, similarly we enjoy life by having small bites of the things we like and tapas is the perfect example of it.”
Dubai-based Spanish Executive chef at Asador de Aranda, Chef Antonio Santos said: “French cuisine is high level, Italian food trendy. Whereas when it comes to Spanish food, people only talk about paella, but there is more to it. Tapas is one of the most popular concepts. It is not a dish. You have to try tapas to explain it.”
It is a shared dish or rather a food concept much like the culture of Spain, where people like to spend time outdoors with friends and family. Putting it in perspective, eating tapas is a way to enjoy various dishes in small bites. Chef Santos, added: “Tapas is a food concept, an eclectic one, and it is something that the Spanish do.” It is safe to say that Spaniards do tapas and not just eat tapas.
In Spain, people usually go from one outlet to another and share small bites of tapas along the way. UAE-based international Spanish Chef and gourmet consultant Ager Uriguen Uribe said: “In Spain people love to go out, meet friends and they basically love to be on the streets, getting to know people, saying hello to their neighbours and inviting them over for tapas.”
If you walk into any tapas place in Spain, you will find various small bites to choose from. According to Chef Uribe, before Covid-19, one could just go to the counter and find an entire counter filled with tapas. You could be served four tapas, 10 or even 100, depending on where you go and the number of people you are with. People would pick and choose from the many different kinds and as eat as many as they wanted.
In Spain, Tapas can be found everywhere, but the names can vary. No two regions will serve the same kind of tapas. Head chef at Lola Taberna Espanola, a Spanish restaurant in Dubai, Daniel Perez Delgado told Gulf News Food: “There are different kinds of tapas in Spain, and it varies depending on the region. Each region has specialised in different variety, with a base of different products depending on the products that are available in a particular region.” In some cities, it is customary to serve tapas alongside beverages, just like breadbaskets, and it is considered rude if they aren't done complimentary.
In the northern part, it has a different name compared to the southern regions of Spain. The dish largely relies on local produce.
Different types of tapas and their names
On the north coast of Spain is Cantabria; a region well known for its milk quality and blue cheese. Also known for its anchovies, this region calls its tapas as queso de nata and queso picon. In the Basque country, a part in North of Spain, look for Pintxos, their version of tapas. Whereas Valencia is all about their seafood. Esgarraet – a salad made with red pepper, cured cod (salted fish), olive oil and garlic is a favourite type of tapa in this region. In the Canary Islands, the word for tapas is enyesque, which have Latin American and North African influence.
Chef Delgado said: “People in the UAE are fond of tapas and some of the popular ones that they usually order are gambas al Pil Pil (Garlic and chilli prawns), our well-known croquetas (Spanish fritters), patatas bravas (Spanish potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce) and all’i’oli, (traditional homemade garlic mayo), and pimientos de padrón (Padron peppers).
A medieval tale and history of tapas
Like every food dish and concept, there is a history and some mystery to the origin of tapas. In Spanish, the word tapa is a verb, which translates to ‘to cover’. It is also a word commonly used for lid covers. According to Chef Uribe, people would begin covering drinks with small slices of bread and cheese to prevent flies and dust. So it literally translated to protecting a drink. Whereas, another famous tale has it that the custom of tapas was started by King Alfonso X of Castile, also known as ‘The Wise’. History has it that while he was recovering from a prolonged illness, he was prescribed large quantities of grape juice, he ate small portions of food to keep away the side effects of the drink. And upon his recovery, he instructed that every kingdom in the household should serve small amounts of food alongside beverages to prevent any side effects.
What does tapas pair well with?
According to Chef Delgado, “In general, a tapa is always accompanied with a beverage. There are no particular rules to serving tapas, except that they come in small bites and are mostly served in clay dishes, just to help them keep warm. In this way, we can always enjoy different pairing between food and beverages found in different regions.”
Chef Delgado usually has a vegetarian tapas called Pan con tomate (bread with brushed tomato) every morning and said it is so easy to make it at home. He shared his quick breakfast recipe and said: “We toast some bread, preferably crystal bread (similar to traditional ciabatta bread) as it is crispier, but you can do it with any type of bread, as long as it is sliced thin. Once toasted, rub some garlic, cut a tomato in 2 and rub hard to extract all the juice onto the bread. We drizzle a generous amount of Spanish Extra Virgin Olive Oil and add some salt. Vamos Buen Provecho! (Translates to enjoy your food in Spanish)”
Another recipe that Chef Delgado prepares is - Calamares a la andaluza or Andalusian breaded calamari
Take 2 squids, clean them to remove the ink and cut them in cubes, then leave it to marinate with lemon juice and parsley for 1 minute. Next, batter them in a mix of chickpea flour, potato flour and parsley, then fry them in hot Spanish extra virgin olive oil until they are golden and crispy, perfect serving it with All’i’Oli or Spanish homemade garlic mayo.
Here is a recipe for making Tomatoes Alinados or Tomato salad with roast pepper tapas by Chef Antonio:
220 gms seasonal tomatoes
60 gms cherry tomato
20 gms spring onions white/green
2 gms fresh oregano
5 gms chive
4 gms Maldom salt
60 gms roasted peppers, recipe below
60 gms garlic/parsley oil, recipe below
25 gms vinaigrette, recipe below
Cut the tomatoes in half and each half into six slices. Furthermore, cut them in half again. Then, cut the cherry tomatoes in half. Place all the cut tomatoes and mix it with vinaigrette, garlic/parsley oil, roasted peppers in a bowl and let it marinate for two minutes. Take some green olive oil and smear a thin layer of it on a plate. At the same time, place the roast peppers by spreading them in five different places, leaving the centre of the plate clean, for the marinade tomatoes. Now, place the tomatoes in the centre and use some garnishes (chives and spring onions) to decorate them on top.
To make the vinaigrette, you will need
200 gms extra virgin olive oil
50 gms halal red wine vinegar
5 gms salt
5 gms sugar
2 gms pepper
In a bowl, put all the ingredients, mix and reserve it
To make garlic/pasrley oil, you will need
150 gms parsley
30 gms garlic
400 gms sunflower oil
Chop the parsley and the garlic and put them in a jar with half of the oil.
And with a hand blender, start mixing until you have a puree, and little by little, add the rest of the oil (like a pesto) reserve it.
To roast peppers, you will need
300 gms red peppers
10 gms salt
20 gms olive oil
Pinch of sugar
Spread out the peppers on an oven tray. Drizzle with olive oil, followed by salt. Place them in the oven for 30 minutes at 250C. Followed by an additional 15 minutes, wrapped in aluminum foil. This will allow the peppers to preserve the aroma and make peeling the skin easier. Next, with the help of a strainer, reserve the cooking juices left in the oven tray.
Peel the black skin, de-seed and cut lengthwise, drizzle the reserved juice. Season with salt and a pinch of sugar.