Tapas are traditional small plates of Spanish bar food that you share with the whole table. It’s honestly one of the most glorious eating traditions I’ve ever encountered and I wish every country in the world would take note (although Greece kind of does, with their mezedes). You get to bond with friends while sampling a variety of tastes, and it’s never a disappointment. Plus the wine is cheap – a full bottle of red will only cost you 15 EUR in most restaurants.
There’s a lot more to tapas historically and culturally than meets the eye, plus everything differs by region. While no one can say for certain how tapas came to be, most people agree it was because of a 13th century king named Alfonso X (aka Alfonso the Wise), who was ill and had to eat small snacks with his wine between meals. (What a cure, right?) They might’ve been served with olives and bread to keep flies and dust away from drink. Manual labourers (like farmhands) would also eat tapas throughout the day to tide them over until mealtime.
It’s October in Mallorca and although most of the beachy resort areas have shut down, all the restaurants are still in full swing. My friends and I have been taking part in self-devised “tapas crawls.” These are the results.
Jamon serrano is mountain-cured, wind-dried ham that’s been through a long cellaring process to help develop its flavor. Jamon iberico tends to be the most famous kind of ham and is found predominately in the Catalonia region. What makes it so special? The butcher cuts off thin slivers of meat so the ham practically dissolves on the tongue. Don’t use a fork! The meat is meant to be finger food. My friends and I watched this happen at a market in Puerto de Pollensa and were impressed by the carver’s awesome skills. It’s basically a fine art.
Sometimes on the menu you’ll find jamon wrapped around items you wouldn’t normally think to pair ham with, like figs and mangos. Give them a shot. They’re delightful.
2. Jamon, queso, chorizo con pan
This one is quite easy and makes for another delicious way to serve jamon. It pairs jamon with cheese, chorizo sausage, and bread – kind of like a mini sandwich. Even if you’re not the most exuberant cook, putting together something like this for a crowd of friends is always a good idea. How can you go wrong with meat and cheese?
The words “anchovies” might immediately strike fear in the heart of even the most enthusiastic seafood lovers, but I promise you, the anchovies in Spain aren’t what you think. These anchovies are lightly pickled in vinegar and dusted with salt and garlic. They’re usually served in a dish with olive oil and sprinkled with chopped parsley. Just pop the whole thing into your mouth!
Croquettes are one of those dishes that you may have experienced in restaurants around the world – it’s caught on perhaps because it’s a fried food. Apparently everyone in the world loves fried food. Who can blame ‘em?
Croquettes are small bite-sized round pieces of béchamel (usually made with stock) with ham, shrimp, chicken, or cheese. Then the croquettes are covered in breadcrumbs (mixed with eggs) and fried to a golden crispy brown. The inside is soft while the outside is crunchy, and yes it is absolutely delicious.
5. Patatas bravas
Perhaps it’s a regional difference, but my friends and I have been trying to find proper patatas bravas all over Mallorca and haven’t been very successful. Patatas bravas are like potato wedges, deep-fried or sautéed and covered in a wonderful chili. Sometimes it comes with tomato and garlic and a dollop of VERY garlicky aioli on top. A restaurant in Barcelona apparently invented patatas bravas, and you can expect to stand in line forever to sample it (but it’s well worth the wait).
6. Banderillas (pinchos de encurtidos)
Banderillas are skewers with small items of food that are pickled in vinegar. Usually they consist of olives, baby onions, baby cucumbers, chilies, peppers, or other veggies. Sometimes they’ll also have anchovies, and might be called gildas or piparras.
Otherwise known as the Spanish omelet (you might’ve heard of it before!). It’s apparently the most commonly served dish in Spain, sometimes referred to as the country’s national dish. It might also be listed on a menu as “potato omelet.” All it takes is eggs, potatoes, and onions to serve up a delicious small dish or large dish, depending on what you’re in the mood for.
8. Pulpo gallego
This is a traditional dish from Galicia, but it’s served all over Spain. It consists of octopus, cooked to tenderness with boiled potatoes, olive oil, and paprika. If you find octopus or squid in Spain that’s rubbery, you know it hasn’t been cooked very well.
9. Pisto manchego
Pisto manchego is a hearty stew that’s usually more than enough to feed a really large crowd. This is usually considered a main dish, but it’s easily shareable. It includes chorizo sausage, cooked ham, onions, green peppers, courgettes, tomatoes, and olive oil. Typically it’s served with bread, and of course wine (what isn’t served with wine in Spain?) It doesn’t pop up on a whole lot of menus, but when it does, you should definitely opt for it.
It’s worth noting that Spaniards LOVE garlic. I mean, not just a little bit of garlic – a LOT of it. In almost everything. One of my favourite garlicky dishes is clams a la murciana. Small fresh clams are prepared in a sauce of white wine, Spanish sweet paprika, garlic, and onion. It can bit a bit spicy as well. Make sure you order some lovely crusty bread with it to soak up all the excess sauce!
11. Gambas al ajillo
Similarly infused with garlic, this dish is simply translated as “shrimp in garlic.” It’s one of the most popular menu items in Spain, and it’s prepared in such a way that the shrimp basically soaks up the garlic sauce. Like the clams, it tends to be served with crusty bread to dip in the sauce once the shrimp has been devoured.
12. Marinated olives
A simple tapas offering, but a lovely one. Never trust anyone who doesn’t love olives – that’s my motto. Clearly they haven’t tried them in Spain. Olives are a big thing here, and often you’ll find them stuffed with various delightful foods, like (of course) garlic. They’re not your typical olives you’d find at home in North America, so even if you’re opposed to olives, you still ought to give these a try. They’re much different!
Being from Newfoundland, I do tend to take my cod (bacalo) quite seriously. However, so does Spain. These are salt cod fritters, and (like in Newfoundland) are based on the old tradition of preserving cod by packing it in with salt. In fritter form, this salty goodness has extra flavor.
After all that salty, oily, meaty goodness, you’re apt to find yourself craving something sweet. Tiramisu is my absolute favourite, and you’ll find it on just about any menu. There are a ton of sweets with mascarpone found around the country. I also LOVE Crema Catalana, which is essentially Catalonia’s version of crème Brulee. Show me a person that doesn’t love crème brulee and I’ll show you a liar.
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