"Tapas-style" has become a ubiquitous term in the dining landscape, signifying the sharing of small plates of any type of cuisine. Of course, we have Spain to thank for the convenient format, specifically the southwest region of the country, known as Andalucía.
Like most age-old customs, the origin story of tapas varies depending on who you ask. Javier Candón, a native of Huelva and the owner of SER and Joselito Casa de Comidas, explains that it all started in the interest of hygiene. "Tapa" translates to "cover" or "lid," and it was used in bars to prevent bugs from getting into your drink. "You order a beer, you order a glass of wine, they will give you a tapa, they will give you a lid, and they will put a piece of cheese, or a piece of ham, or a piece of chorizo [on top]." This evolved into the popular tradition of small, often free bites paired with each drink at a bar.
Tapas are also an answer to the leftovers dilemma. Spaniards don't typically make a tapas spread on purpose. It happens when the fridge is full of bits and bobs that need to be used and there's no plan for dinner. "We have a little bit of ham, we have olives, we have chorizo, we have some fish," Candón suggests. "You will not have enough of one of those dishes, but you have a lot of little things and do a meal of leftovers."
This anti-food waste mentality is behind a lot of common Spanish staples, like sangria (the dregs of lingering liquor bottles plus fruit and wine), paella (not enough protein for a full meal, but perfect when combined with rice) and gazpacho (old bread and tomatoes given a new lease on life).
If you're sold on the idea of tapas and looking to experience the real thing in Spain, Candón has a few tips.
In most of the cities in Andalucía, you're never more than a few steps away from a bar. "Every 100 meters, you have four or five different tapas bars," Candón says. Many still offer free tapas with drinks, especially in Granada. That's why locals are keen on tapas crawls, hopping from bar to bar, having a drink and a tapa at each.
When picking your next stop, keep in mind that there are tapas bars that exclusively serve tapas, as well as restaurants that serve tapas at the bar and a multi-course menu in the dining room. "In most of the restaurants, you are not allowed to order tapas in the dining room," Candón says.
In bar settings, the atmosphere is casual and boisterous. Service is often transactional, without excess pleasantries. You'll probably end up standing while you drink and snack, often atop discarded napkins and sawdust, the latter a common practice to protect the establishment's wood floors from spills of olive oil-laden food. "Visually it doesn't look the best, but as long as the kitchen is clean, that's what I really care about," Candón says. "Because it looks dirty anyway, people just say, 'Well if it's already dirty I'm just going to throw my paper napkin on the floor.'"
One final thing to note is that tapas portions in Spain are much smaller than what Americans might be accustomed to. "A tapa is just a bite and it costs you like one or two dollars," he says.
Throughout Andalucía, you'll be guaranteed to find gazpacho and tortilla Española—dishes so common that they've that have even gained popularity in the U.S. But beyond these two standbys, here are specialties from each province for you to enjoy:
Soldaditos de Pavía (Sevilla): fritters made from bacalao (dried and salted cod), coated in egg and flour and deep-fried.
Salmorejo Cordobés (Córdoba): cold tomato soup similar to a classic gazpacho, but with a thicker texture and more substantial toppings such as hard-boiled egg and jamón.
Espinacas Jienenses (Jaén): salted spinach with chickpeas, cumin and olive oil. (Jaén is the largest producer of olive oil in Spain—the number one olive oil producer in the world.)
Sopa Moruna (Granada): stew made with meat scraps, Moroccan spices and wine.
Fried Fish (Almería): fresh fish from the province's vast coastline, simply floured and fried.
Tuna (Málaga): the region's staple ingredient, served every way imaginable.
Tortillitas de Camarones (Cádiz): flat, thin shrimp fritters made from tiny shrimp in a batter of flour and water and deep fried.
Jamón (Huelva): one of the country's most coveted gastronomical products, produced from free-range acorn-fed Iberian pigs raised in Jabugo.