Tapas are a famous example of traditional Spanish food. You may know Spanish tapas as small plate snacks or appetizers, or bar food served with beer or wine. They’re small plates meant for sharing, usually just a bite or two to go along with your drink that protects it from flies or dirt and gives you something to munch on so you’re not drinking on an empty stomach.
These drink coverings and snacks are usually salty, designed to make you become more thirsty as you drink so you’ll order more. Drink and eat enough tapas, and you can make a meal of it.
Tapas have a few different origin stories, and there’s no end to the number of ways this rich Spanish culinary tradition can be enjoyed. Here’s what you should know about traditional Spanish tapas—including how to make some of the most iconic dishes at home.
Want to know how Spanish tapas came to be? Trained Spanish chef Juan Hormiga of Buena Vida Tapas & Sol in Atlanta explains the word tapa translates to cover or lid, typically placed on top of your drink:
“As the story goes in Andalucia, a southern region in Spain, it is thought that a glass of wine was traditionally covered with a piece of bread or a slice of Serrano ham to keep the flies and sand out of your wine, which you could then enjoy after drinking.”
The Spanish King Alfonso X (“The Wise One”) is credited with creating the tapa tradition. When he was sick, he could only eat small bites of food with his wine in between meals. The king recovered from sickness, but the way he consumed food and wine remained: He declared that no wine was to be served unless accompanied by something to eat.
“This was a way for him to try and counteract the adverse effects of wine consumption,” says Hormiga. In other words, King Alfonso X found a way to keep his people from getting too drunk.
Historically, tapas are free and served along with your drink. Today, it’s rare to get a free tapas plate of anything more than chips, nuts, or olives. But more elevated tapas are worth paying for, anyway. However, in some traditional Spanish cities, your tapas will come free with your drink.
Tapas can be a fun snack or appetizer. Or if you’d like to go out for the night in Spain, you can bar hop and make a meal out of your tapas, getting a new dish on top of every drink. If you’re going out with friends, you can share and sample a variety of tapas and not get too full.
Outside of Spain, you may find tapas bars where you can order multiple small plates with or without a drink. And traditional tapas can be a good fit for parties, when it’s a good idea to take a lesson from King Alfonso and encourage guests to eat while drinking.
A small tapas spread is also a fun Friday night dinner option.
So what exactly is a tapa? These dishes can be anything that fits on top of your drink or on a small plate. Tapas can be hot or cold, and can come in any form ranging from skewers of meat to charcuterie plates or pieces of crusty bread piled high with toppings. Tapas can be simple or complex, as basic as a few olives or slices of meat and cheese or more satisfying hot dishes.
Clueless what to order when you hit the tapas bar? Or want to recreate the tapas experience at home? Hormiga shares some of the most famous traditional tapas you should try:
A Spanish omelet filled with potatoes, vegetables, and eggs. You can find many different types of “tortillas” around Spain, but usually with a potato and egg base. Traditionally, the “tortilla” is a way to use up the ingredients in your refrigerator, and that is why there are a large variety of recipes for this dish. For a classic version, try José Andrés’ Tortilla de Patatas recipe.
Gambas al Ajillo
Spanish prepared octopus, which is a staple in the Northern coastal region of Galicia. Try this Pulpo Gallego Spanish Octopus recipe.
Canary Wrinkly Potatoes (Papas Arrugadas)
Wrinkled potatoes refers to a potato cooking method popular in Spain that hails from the Canary Islands. In this tradition, potatoes are boiled down in salt water from the surrounding sea. Try this Wrinkled Potatoes recipe.
Some other common components of tapas include piquillo peppers, chorizo, manchego cheese, and marinated anchovies. Check out our Spanish recipes for more nontraditional options too. And be sure to make yourself some sangria to go alongside!