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Tapas 101

Tapas 101

An intro to tapas

The Spanish custom to eat tapas is a great way to enjoy Spanish fare because it allows you to try lots of different dishes at once.

Going from bar to bar for drinks and tapas is an essential part of the social culture of Spain, especially in the south, and is something that every visitor to Madrid should experience.

 

What are tapas?

At its' most basic level, tapas are a variety of small savory dishes served as a snack with drinks.  However, having tapas is also about the social experience.  It's about eating standing up in a noisy bar packed with locals.  It's about the TVs blaring football, the walls decorated with posters for bullfights and the cured hams hanging from the rafters.

You will never feel more immersed in Spanish culture as you do when you step into a tapas bar.

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History of tapas

There are a few different tales when it comes to the origin of eating small snacks with drinks.

One of the most popular tales is that of King Alfonso XII.  After a voyage along one of the longest routes in Andalusia, the King arrived at a restaurant where he was served a glass of wine with a slice of cheese over top.

At the time the purpose of the slice of cheese was to protect the wine from mosquitoes and from dust from the road.  The king who had come from far away was hungry so he ate the slice of cheese and from that time on wherever he went he would order his glass of wine with a "tapa" which is Spanish for "top".
tapas history
 

History part 2

Another popular tale is that of King Alfonso X.  To recover from an illness he drank wine with small dishes between meals.  After regaining his health, the king ordered that taverns would not be allowed to serve wine to customers unless it was accompanied by a small snack or "tapa".

Still others believe the origin comes from King Felipe III.  The king noticed that the work rate and performance of his subjects was suffering.  The peasants could not afford both wine and food so they would drink on an empty stomach instead of buying something nourishing to eat.

To solve the problem he passed a law that stated that when anyone bought a drink, the bartender had to place a small quantity of food on top of it in order to slow the effects of the alcohol and fill the stomach to prevent overdrinking.
tapas history
 

How to order tapas

Some bars, especially in Granada and Madrid, will include a plate of assorted tapas whenever you order a drink.  The bartender will pour your drink and also select a few random bites from the buffet of tapas he has sitting behind the bar.

If tapas are not included with your drink then you must order them separately.  A plate of tapas can cost anywhere from €3-€5 ($4-$6) but you'll pay up to €12 ($14) for seafood.  If you're with a group you can also order a larger portion called "raciones" which come on a dinner plate rather than a saucer plate.  Some places will also have 1/2 sized raciones called "media-ración".

To start, you could get an inexpensive sampler plate by asking for "una tabla de canapés variados".  You could also order an assortment of meats (surtido de charcuterie) or cheeses (surtido de queso).  If you're feeling adventurous, order a banderilla (named after the spear matadors use to spike the bull) which is a small skewer of spicy picked vegetables.

Don't worry about paying until you're ready to leave.  The bartender will keep track of your tab.  When you're ready to leave, just simply ask for for "la cuenta".
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