Food & tapas in Spain
Spanish tapas and food in Spain
Spanish cuisine is exciting! The fact Spain´s history has been influenced by a myriad of cultures and that the country´s geography provides many different ingredients has contributed to a very rich and varied gastronomic world. Spanish tapas is the first thing that may come to our mind when we think about Spain and food. But there is much more than tapas to Spanish gastronomy, and in this article, we will provide an overview of ingredients, dishes, and main styles.
One could claim that Spanish cuisine, like many others, has evolved from families and the creative exploitation of local ingredients. Traditional Spanish gastronomy can be described as hearty, country food, with easy recipes and straightforward presentations. This cooking concept is still today the base of most “menus de día”: dishes based on rice and beans, hearty soups or summer soups like gazpacho or richly flavored casseroles.
The Spanish way of life made room for the concept of tapas, which will be treated in depth below. But besides family traditional cooking and tapas we should also mention the gigantic revolution Spanish gastronomy has undergone in recent times. A culinary revolution took place thanks to genius chefs like Arzak and Ferran Adria. With their creative minds and those of other followers, Spanish gastronomy has reached new heights and completed an amazing gastronomic world which only waits to be tasted!
What are tapas?
They could be considered as appetizers, though if eaten one after another they may well make a dinner. They are very varied and range from a small cheese portion or olives to a piece of fried fish, omelets, chorizos, etc.
Originally, and still the case in many bars today, tapas were just a few olives, or maybe almonds served next to a drink. On some occasions, you could find a bit of cheese, or sausage, or maybe some slices of serrano ham or tortilla cubes with bread. These examples would have been offered free to accompany a glass of wine, or a caña (beer).
Todays´reality is very different: tapas can be any type of hot or cold dish, served in small portions. Some bars display them proudly along with their counters and curious customers ask questions about this or that tapa, pintxo, or new creation. Portions have become far more substantial and with diversity, quality and size, the price has come along.
Although tapas originated in Spain, tapas eating is so well suited to today´s life that the concept has adapted and has caught attention out of Spain. Today we can find Italian tapas, Greek tapas, or “international tapas” advertised at bars and restaurants alike. Tapas are ideal for informal meals, and they make for the perfect picnic, barbecue starters, or party buffet menu.
Whilst the idea of tapas at the origin was to ensure a quick preparation, today many tapas recipes need preparation in advance and to be served at the right temperature at the last time before serving.
"Ir de tapas"
This is the Spanish expression for dining eating tapas. Dining like this is equally about being social as it is about food. Locals do not stay at one place, but shift bars and enjoy the specialty at each place. You should expect quite a noisy atmosphere at Tapas bars and we recommend that you get ready for it before you go for this experience.
Another tip is about time: Spaniards are used to late dinners and restaurants do not usually start serving till as late as 9 p.m. Tapas can be enjoyed earlier since bars are open all day long and most tapas are ready to serve and do not require major preparation. We would like to stress again that "Tapas" is not a particular type of food but small portions of many different things served cold or hot. Years ago Tapas used to be given for free at most places. This is still the case sometimes, mainly in the South, where a Tapa is given for free to accompany a drink. However, you should expect to pay in most places, mainly if the tapa is of a certain size.
Tapas is very much a portrait of the Spanish way of life: friendly dinners, where socializing and talking is very important, and with rarely pretentious food. Spain is however well-known also for renowned restaurants, and the last ten years have witnessed an important development in this area, with many Spanish chefs gaining world-class recognition and awards.
One of the best options to enjoy tapas in a relaxed manner (not worrying about the selection of bars and making sure you try the best typical tapas) is to join a tapas tour. You will be able to enjoy quality tapas tours in most mid and large cities in Spain. We have selected what we believe are the best 10 tapas tours in Spain in this section. They are all experiences we strongly recommend to enjoy in Spain. You will also be able to find other pintxos and tapas tours in our city pages.
Typical tapas ingredients
Cheese: Spain produces a huge variety of cheese, though probably the only one known is Manchego. Different Spanish cheese is used for tapas and they are the main ingredient of many traditional and modern tapas. You can find more about Spanish cheese in this post and we have also put together an article on the region in Spain with more cheese varieties: the North of Spain. Asturias is well-known in Spain for the quality and variety of its cheeses. North Spain cheese is very different from Manchego and it is an entire world of flavour to be discovered.
Peppers. A very typical tapa is pimiento del padron (chillies from a village in Galicia, Northwest Spain) but chillies are used for many tapas dishes, adding flavour and texture to fish or meat tapas dishes alike.
Olives: a great simple tapas can imply a good variety of olive styles on the same platter
Herbs: Among the different herbs used in Spain, parsley is probably the most frequently used in Spanish cooking and also in tapas
Chorizo: Spanish chorizo is exquisite when there is a very high proportion of pork in it (Iberico). They are cured and can be eaten without cooking and can be used for simple tapas or to add flavour in smaller bites to more complex tapas dishes.
Ham. Raw, air-dried hams are essential to tapas. Jamon serrano is the “everyday” version and can be very tasty. It is used on many tapas and traditional Spanish cooking recipes. The equivalent in Italy is prosciutto. A step higher in the quality ladder is Iberian ham, made from Iberian porks which have a special diet and whose live is spent in dehesas where they can stroll and enjoy the fresh air.
Cod: this is the most frequently used fish for tapas in Spain and it can especially be found in pintxos in the Basque country.
Tuna: Well, Spaniards love top quality Canned Tuna fish or bonito (white tuna). This has nothing to do with the cheap versions found on many supermarkets worldwide. Give a try and taste the difference!
Olive oil: Spain is a top producer of fine, top quality virgin olive oil. Not only it is very healthy, but it also adds a characteristic flavour to many tapas dishes.
Onions. Spanish cooking makes use of onions on so many occasions. It can be used raw or cooked with sherry vinegar. You will find it on many hot tapas dishes
Meat: All sorts of meats are used for tapas and small “cazuelas” (casseroles) are even used today to offer small versions of “tapas stews” Really tasty!
Typical Spanish food dishes
Gazpacho. It is a chilled tomato soup, excellent for hot summer days and very healthy. Gazpacho is made out of tomato, olive oil, garlic, and sometimes bread. It is very typical of Southern Spain.
Paella. This world-known recipe can today be found anywhere in Spain, but the “real thing’ originated in Valencia. It consists of a mix of rice, fish, and shellfish, though it can also be made with meat, or chicken, or only with vegetables: there are in fact many versions of Paella and probably the best place to enjoy it continues being the seaside in Valencia… facing the sea with a glass of rosé. You get it. If you wonder about which wines pair best with paella you can find all information in the guide we have prepared.
Pisto Manchego. Original from La Mancha, this is a vegetable dish, where all ingredients are slowly cooked together. It can be very tasty and is normally served with a fried egg on top.
Tortilla (Spanish omelet). The most typical one is made with onions and potatoes. The secret of this tortilla lies in the olive oil used for frying it and in the quality of the potatoes. When a tortilla is good you will understand that the result is much more than what the ingredients suggest.
Octopus. Pulpo a feira, the top dish from Galicia, is a very popular dish all over Spain. Not frequently eaten in other western countries, Spaniards love this dish served a starter or main dish.
Fabada Asturiana. This could well be described as the Spanish version of the French Cassoulet. Fabada is tyical from Asturias, and its secret lies in using the best quality ingredients included (beans, chorizo, morcilla, etc) Normally it is enough by itself for a full meal.
Bacalao con tomate (cod in tomato sauce). Spaniards mainly use salted cod. To prepare this recipe, the cod is soaked in water to get rid of the excess of salt. It is then fried with tomato sauce and roasted red peppers. This recipe is typical from the Northern regions in Spain.
Patatas a la riojana. This is the most typical dish in Rioja and one that is usually served on any wine tour in Rioja as an example of traditional local gastronomy. It is such a humble dish that people may not believe it is worth the inclusion of this dish during tours... Once tasted, however, opinions change and most people enjoy this hearty, simple hot soup which produces an effect on us similar to the one displayed by the gastronomic critic in the Disney movie Ratatoui.
We recommend you always try and taste wine with your food in Spain. Spanish recipes usually rely on the quality of the ingredients to get the best result, and are not as elaborated as French cuisine in general. There is for sure a perfect wine to match all Spanish dishes. It is normally correct to say that the local wine of the region pairs in the right way with the local food, but do not limit yourself to that: the wine diversity in Spain has expanded so much (even for whites) that you will have chances to taste and enjoy many different things. If you plan a holiday in Spain, a short-break in Barcelona or a getaway in Madrid, we strongly suggest you visit markets, and get well informed about local food to make the most out of your trip.
Cities in Spain famous for tapas
You will be able to find tapas in basically all cities in Spain. However, there are some cities which are better known for the quality of their tapas and pintxos than others.
In this section, we will go through some of these cities. As you may expect, the most important cities in Spain are in the list. There are however some smaller towns that may be a surprise for you.
Pintxos San Sebastian
We could argue if San Sebastian or some other city in Spain should receive the award of “the tapas Capital” In any case, and if it would not be won, San Sebastian will be high on any ranking. It is not just the old district of San Sebastian, but nearly in all the neighborhoods of Donostia, you will find a large number of bars and taverns which both follow tradition and innovate. Walking into any of these bars ends up being a temptation. You can find recommendations on tapas bars plus other things to do in San Sebastian in this post, and also a list of the best tapas tours in San Sebastian in this other section.
Pintxos in Bilbao
The largest city in the Spanish Basque Country, Bilbao, may not be able to compete in Michelin-starred restaurants with San Sebastian. Its old district, the Casco Viejo, can however rival the old district in San Sebastian in the number of bars and the quality of pintxos you will find in them. The Casco Viejo is the most traditional area in Bilbao to enjoy pintxos. Locals in Bilbao say “ir de txikitos” when they enjoy bar hopping and drink a glass of wine (or chato) along with a pintxo. In all this area of the Old Quarter of Bilbao, you will discover a wide variety of places where you will be able to taste many different pintxos and tapas. Most bars are to be found in Plaza Nueva, Calle del Perro or calle Somera. You can find more information on bars and things to do in Bilbao in this post. Bilbao has stayed traditional and you will always be able to find the most classical pintos at hand: the tiger, La Gilda, mushrooms with garlic, cod with tomato, fried stuffed peppers, and tortilla. But many bars are being innovative and propose new versions of classics, or totally new recipes. One of the best options to enjoy this mixed pintxo culture in The capital of Biscaya is by joining one of the excellent pintxos tours in Bilbao that run daily, for both lunch and dinner.
Tapas in Madrid
Madrid is full of terraces and tapas bars. Locals and visitors alike enjoy bar hopping. Being the capital city of Spain, you could well imagine there are many districts where tapas can be enjoyed. The most obvious choice for tourists are those areas closer to the city center. But if you enjoy exploring and would like to go where locals go, you should give it a try and visit the area of Ponzano or the Retiro district (streets Menorca, Ibiza for instance) In this post you will find the best traditional tapas bars in Madrid, so you can compose your own route. If you prefer to get guided by a local expert, in this section you will find our selection of the best tapas tours in Madrid. Lots of food and wine await you!
Tapas in Barcelona
Barcelona is a city that has welcomed tapas from the south of Spain or paella from valencia as if these foods had been born there. Today many visitors to the city enjoy excellent paella in Barcelona, even more than classical dishes from Catalan gastronomy like excalivada. We cannot say that Barcelona offers the best tapas in Spain, but there are so many bars, and some of them offer such high quality, that there is a tapa for everyone in Barcelona! The most successful and traditional tapas in Barcelona (like the Bombas) have been offered for years and years and prepared following the same recipes. they continue to be very popular. But with the arrival of new chefs, techniques, and ideas a gastronomic revolution arrived in Barcelona, and it is not to be found only in restaurants. Many bars have transformed themselves or have been newly created. They have taken risks and some of the tapas they offer are amongst the best in Spain with no doubt. You will be able to enjoy some of these tapas by joining one of the many recommended tapas tours in Barcelona. They combine culture, tapas, and wine. A great mix for sure!