What are Tapas: Spanish Tapas Unveiled

Step into the enticing and delectable world of Spanish tapas, where each bite tells a story of rich flavors and culinary tradition. Discovering Spanish tapas is like opening a treasure chest of varied tastes, from perfectly spiced patatas bravas to the savory allure of chorizo bites. Join the journey and let the small plates transport you to the heart of Spain’s vibrant gastronomic culture.

1. Introduction to Spanish Tapas

Spanish tapas

Spanish tapas have a rich history steeped in tradition and cultural significance. It traces its origins back to the southern regions of Spain, where a culinary practice of offering petite, flavorful bites alongside beverages has transformed into a beloved tradition. There are numerous versions of how the custom of Spanish tapas began, with some involving Medieval kings and other historical figures.

Each region of Spain claims to be the birthplace of the famous cuisine, accompanied by its own story. However, one thing is in common: the term “tapas” supposedly originated from the Spanish word “tapar,” which means “to cover.” The word “tapa” in Spanish means lid. It reflects the early custom of serving tapas with a slice of bread topped with a small piece of cheese or ham to shield drinks from dust and insects.

1.1. Medieval Roots

The setting of one popular story of the origin of Spanish tapas is the Medieval Times when the luxury of the refrigerator was not yet available. Barkeepers sought some solution to maintain the quality of their patron’s drinks. They came up with the idea to cover the drink with a thin slice of meat or cheese, which proved to be effective. They were more affordable and expendable than napkins, and their rapid spoilage in the heat ensured that customers consumed them quickly. Hence, the term “tapa” truly embodied its essence as a lid, shielding beverages and giving rise to this time-honored tradition.

This practice not only prevented the contamination of drinks but also gave birth to the concept of Spanish tapas, where small, flavorful bites accompanied beverages. The practice became more popular when King Alfonso XIII of Spain—who ruled from 1886 to 1931—visited the city of Cadiz. There, he tried the “tapa” and found the practice impressive. Over time, the tradition evolved, with tapas becoming an integral part of Spanish social culture. 

Tapas refers to anything that comes in a small dish on the table. Each tapa finds its perfect match in the light and bubbly caña, making it a harmonious symphony of flavors. The communal act of sharing these small, diverse dishes at bars, and taverns fostered a sense of camaraderie and conviviality among patrons.

1.2. Spanish Tapas With Wine

Another popular story of the Spanish Tapas origin was during the time of King Alfonso X the Wise, who ruled from 1252 to 1284 in the kingdoms of Leon and Castille. He purportedly recovered from an illness by consuming large quantities of wine paired with small portions of food. The main purpose of the food was to diminish the effect of alcohol. After the successful treatment and recovery, he insisted that every household in the kingdom should serve small portions of food alongside wine to prevent drunkenness.

Today, Spanish tapas represent not only a culinary delight but also a cultural phenomenon that brings people together to celebrate the essence of Spanish life. Spanish tapas-style restaurants are continuously gaining popularity worldwide and is now one of the most loved culinary traditions.

2. Pintxo as Spanish Tapas


The history of Pintxo is a tale of culinary ingenuity that emerged from the northern regions of Spain. The term Pintxo comes from the Spanish word “pinchar,” which means “to spear.” This method of food preparation involves puncturing the ingredients with a small stick is called “Pintxo” in Euskera, the language in the Basque country. It is similar to the term “pinchos” in Castellano.

2.1. Basque Country Origin

Pinxto began in the 1930s in the Basque Country, San Sebastian, known as the food capital of Spain. This culinary creation originated at a financially struggling bar. In a bid to revive the establishment’s fortunes, the head chef thought of offering small portions of colorful foods that he secured together using a small stick. He displayed these skewers on the bar’s window.

Eventually, the practice became more prominent in a lot of bars, and some used it as a billing system. The management would compute the final bill based on the remaining toothpicks or the number of pintxos consumed. This practice also gained popularity among wealthy individuals and aristocrats frequenting the bar, prompting other establishments to replicate the process.

2.2. Pintxo vs. Spanish Tapas

In contrast to the commonly held belief connecting it to the beginnings of tapas, Pintxo has a distinct and fascinating journey. Take note that Spanish tapas came first before pintxo.

Pintxos serve as the Basque Country’s equivalent of Spanish tapas. It consists of small pieces of a vibrant array of ingredients and a medley of flavors that are all stacked on a slice of bread and secured with a small stick. The ingredients could include bread, cheese, ham, pepper, or an omelet. In essence, pintxos offer a canvas for creativity, allowing for the incorporation of various ingredients in countless combinations. 

Another difference between these two dishes is that the pintxo is meant for individual consumption, whereas the Spanish tapas is intended for sharing. While both serve as appetizers ideally enjoyed with a drink, they diverge in their serving styles. They typically serve pintxos in batches, and patrons must await the arrival of a new batch for purchase once they consume the previous batch. In contrast, tapas come with the drink. However, there are some bars—particularly in Seville—that now offer them separately.

Today, Pinxto has become a phenomenal appetizer that has made a trending competition in the culinary world. There are also specialized courses on how to properly prepare it. This will not only enhance the quality of preparation but also infuse art into the process.

3. Types of Spanish Tapas

spanish tapas

Spanish tapas, with their delightful simplicity and versatility, encompass a wide array of flavors and textures. Although rich in history, it has continuously evolved to satisfy the tastes and cravings of its patrons.

Among the traditional Spanish tapas offerings are patatas bravas, a delectable dish featuring fried potatoes accompanied by a bold, spicy tomato sauce; jamon iberico, thinly sliced cured ham renowned for its rich and distinctive flavor; and gambas a pil pil, succulent prawns cooked in sizzling garlic-infused oil. Other Spanish tapas styles include pan con tomate, a timeless preparation of bread adorned with ripe tomatoes and drizzled with olive oil; pimientos de padron, small green peppers charred to perfection; and Spanish tortilla, a modest yet gratifying omelet crafted from potatoes and eggs.

Modern Spanish tapas, on the other hand, have evolved into a more complex landscape, divided into four categories: Pintxos, cheese and meat plates, hot tapas, and cold tapas. Let us explore each one of them.

3.1. Pintxos

People often confuse pintxos with Spanish tapas. Pintxos originated in the Basque Country and are skewered slices of bread with different toppings. Bread toppings can range from cheese, seafood, meat, and vegetables. 

This style allows different arrays of unique combinations to choose from. It also allows the chef to explore unique flavor pairings, producing a work of art. Many bars in Basque Country exclusively focus on serving this culinary style, with an array of Pintxos showcased on their countertops.

You simply grab a plate and pick your favorites. San Sebastian boasts of diverse Pintxos combinations that deliver a burst of flavors to your palate. When you finish, the bartender tallies the number of sticks and charges you accordingly.

spanish tapas Gazpacho

3.2. Cheese and Meat Plates

This category focuses on the artful combination of artisanal cheeses and cured meats. The types of cheese can range from blue cheese, and soft cheese, to Manchego (Spanish cheese). The selection could also include other cheeses made from different milk and some other classic Spanish cheeses like Mahon and Cabralles.

Curated meat—known as “Charcuterie” in Spanish or “embutidos”—can be classified into varieties. This can be in the form of “Chorizo” (a kind of salami with paprika), Jamon Iberico, and the Fuet (a cured salami typed sausage from Cutanya).

Cheese and meat plates showcase the richness and diversity of Spanish-cured meats and cheeses. This experience invites the exploration of contrasting flavors, whether enjoyed individually or in delightful combinations.

3.3. Hot Tapas

These Spanish tapas contribute a warm element to the dining experience, featuring dishes that are cooked and served warm or hot. Examples include patatas bravas (fried potatoes with spicy tomato sauce), gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp), pinchos morunos (Moorish pork skewers), chorizo al vino (Spanish chorizo sausage cooked in wine), and albóndigas (meatballs) in a flavorful almond sauce.

People consume hot Spanish tapas more as a snack than part of a meal. However, you can still make a meal out of creative combinations of the dishes. The sizzling and comforting nature of hot tapas adds a cozy element to the dining experience. With their bold and savory flavors, these dishes encourage diners to savor each bite slowly.

3.4. Cold Tapas

Cold tapas provide a refreshing contrast to the palate. These dishes are served chilled and are known to have fresh, seasonal ingredients ranging from salads to cold soups. Classics like gazpacho (cold tomato soup), boquerones (marinated anchovies), pan con tomato (base for open sandwiches) and ensalada de pulpo (octopus salad) fall into this category.

Ready-to-go dishes like potato salad are ideal for a quick and light meal or snack. The emphasis is on freshness and allowing the natural flavors of the ingredients to shine. Cold tapas deliver a refreshing and crisp sensation, perfect for warm days or as a palate cleanser between heartier dishes.

4. Ordering Spanish Tapas Like a Local

Spanish tapas bar
Spanish tapas bar

When ordering Spanish tapas like a local, embrace the informal and communal nature of the experience. While there’s no strict protocol for enjoying tapas, the “etiquette” may differ among various regions in Spain. The essential aspect is sharing, except for pintxos, and even this rule is not rigid. Many bars craft their unique tapas dishes, so feel free to inquire with your bartender, and they will gladly provide explanations for each specialty. You’ll also find a menu from which you can select hot dishes from other taverns.

4.1. Pintxos Tavern

If you are in a Basque-style pintxos tavern, you can find cold pintxos displayed on the bar for you to choose from. Simply grab a plate and help yourself. If plates aren’t readily visible, you may need to request one. However, if the bartender doesn’t offer a plate but instead asks what you want, you can simply point, and they will serve your order on a plate.

4.2. Drink Options

Once you take your seat, it’s common for the server to promptly inquire what you’d like to drink. Embrace the local spirit by opting for a local beer, a classic sangria, or the refreshing tinto de verano (a blend of red wine and lemon soda).

The flavors and styles of Spanish local beers differ across regions. Common Spanish local beers include Lager and pale ale. Whether it’s a crisp lager in Barcelona or a flavorful ale in Madrid, local beers often reflect the preferences and brewing traditions of the area.

Sangria is a popular Spanish punch, which is a combination of red wine, fruits, sweeteners, and sometimes a splash of brandy. Served chilled and adorned with fruits like oranges and berries, it is a refreshing and fruity beverage, ideal for warm days. 

Tinto de Verano, or “red wine of summer,” is a refreshing cocktail created by blending red wine with soda or lemon-lime soda is a lighter alternative to sangria, ideal for hot summer days, and a popular choice for its simplicity and versatility.

4.3. Spanish Tapas Pairings

Certain establishments often include a complimentary tapa with each drink, while in others, they serve tapas separately. In this ordering setup, it’s beneficial to be aware of which drink complements the type of Spanish tapas you plan to order. Here are some recommended pairings to consider.

Patatas Bravas, consisting of crunchy fried potatoes topped with a zesty tomato sauce, excellently pairs with a cold beer or a glass of cava. Gambas a Pil Pil, featuring succulent prawns in garlic-infused oil, complements a crisp Albariño white wine very well.

Pimientos de Padron, with their charred green peppers, pair well with a light and refreshing white wine, such as Verdejo. Jamon Iberico, known for its rich flavor in thinly sliced cured ham, pairs wonderfully with Manchego cheese and a glass of Rioja red wine.

Spanish Tortilla, a modest yet gratifying omelet of potatoes and omelet, pairs beautifully with classic Spanish vermouth or a light beer. Pan con Tomate, the classic combination of bread with ripe tomatoes and olive oil, finds harmony with a glass of sparkling cava.

5. Tapas Bars and Tapas Hopping

tapa and Cana

A classical experience in Spain is tapas hopping, a tradition celebrated with enthusiasm, particularly in cities like Granada. This is commonly practiced during the weekends. Numerous establishments, particularly in Granada, provide complimentary tapas with every drink purchase. This unique practice encourages patrons to embark on a tapas adventure, moving from one bar to another, solely ordering drinks while enjoying the diverse and complimentary Spanish tapas offered at each location.

In Granada, it’s customary for each tapas bar to present a distinct free tapas dish, inviting patrons to discover a range of flavors in a single evening. This practice elevates the experience of bar-hopping into a culinary expedition, where the focus is not just on the drinks but also on the delightful bites that come alongside them. To experience this tradition firsthand, you can join our Granada Tapas Tour.

The term “bars” in the context of Spanish tapas takes on a special meaning. It signifies the enduring tradition where patrons converge around a bar, sipping on their chosen beverages and simultaneously indulging in the complimentary tapas provided.

People in the bar usually consume their drinks and tapas while standing and most people can visit five to six bars a night for their tapas hopping. This delightful ritual has become a cultural staple that invites locals and visitors to traverse the city’s lively array of flavors one tapa at a time.

6. Tapas Restaurants and Tapas Bars

Jamon Iberico
Jamón ibérico

Spanish tapas were originally served at the bars, where these small flavorful dishes are typically accompanied by a drink. The setting is often casual, and patrons may stand at the bar or sit on high stools. This encourages people to interact and socialize with each other while savoring their order. Today, Spanish tapas are also served at both simple and fancy restaurants, where people can now enjoy their tapas while sitting comfortably in their chairs. Let us get to know some of the famous tapas bars around Spain.

6.1. Madrid

Situated on Calle de Don Ramon de la Cruz in Madrid, Entre Caceres y Badajos stands out among Spanish tapas bars for its unique offering of a complimentary tapa with every drink order. As you sip your beverage and savor the complimentary tapas, you can enjoy the lively cityscape visible through their window. This establishment specializes in Jabón Ibérico, octopus, and tomatoes in oil and herbs.

For an al fresco tapas experience in Madrid, Lateral is a top choice, with various locations across the city and country. This place takes pride in its proprietary red wine, Lan Rioja, which pairs perfectly with its diverse tapas platter. Indulge in delicacies like tender grilled beef with caramelized onion and salmon with brie while enjoying the vibrant outdoor setting.

6.2. Barcelona

In Barcelona, Bar de Pla is a cherished Spanish tapas bar among locals and is famous for its freshly prepared dishes that strike a balance between affordability and high quality. The mushroom carpaccio with wasabi vinaigrette, squid-ink croquettes, and Iberian pork blade are among their best-selling delights. Aside from that, this bar is celebrated for its warm and welcoming service.

Another noteworthy Spanish tapas destination in Barcelona is Contracorrent Bar, which has made its mark amidst neighboring dive bars with a name inspired by going “against the current.” Their legendary menu features culinary delights such as steamed mussels with ginger and a roast chicken-based twist on the classic Russian salad. This is a great place where you can immerse yourself in the local Barcelona atmosphere while enjoying their reasonably priced Catalan wine.

6.3. Seville

Experience a relaxed nightlife ambiance in Seville’s La Alameda district at Duos Tapas Bar, which offers both indoor and outdoor seating options. Their specialties include mushroom risotto, fried eggplant, shrimp tempura, and tuna tartar. All of these expertly pair with selections from their affordable and extensive wine list.

In the Candelejo neighborhood, Bar Alfalfa exudes a rustic and laid-back charm that draws both locals and tourists. The atmospheric bar tends to get crowded, especially during the evening. Sangria is a standout specialty, though patrons can also savor beer and wine. Bar Alfalfa’s homemade plates boast a diverse range, from pork cheek and bruschetta to salmorejo (chilled Spanish tomato soup), paella, octopus, and croquettes. Additionally, the bar is celebrated for its enticing Asian fusion menu featuring stir-fries and noodles.

6.4. Granada

In Granada, La Bodeguita stands out for its spaciousness, making it a favorite among locals despite its location in La Chana, away from the city center. Both locals and tourists are drawn to its delightful menu and lively terrace setting that provides an authentic Spanish tapas experience. Menu favorites include fried eggplant drizzled with honey, patatas bravas, Spanish omelet, lomo stroganoff, and a pork loin sandwich with pickle sauce.

Los Manueles is the ideal destination for a classic ambiance during your Spanish tapas experience. You can find it in Reyes Catolicos, Granada. This has become an iconic bar serving Spanish tapas since 1917. It is also renowned for serving the largest croquettes in town. The locals love to celebrate their special events in this cozy place.

7. Tapas in Andalucia

Gambas pil pil
Gambas pil pil

In Andalucia, Spanish tapas culture takes on a distinctive and delightful form, offering a diverse range of flavors that showcase the region’s rich culinary heritage. When savoring these Andalucian tapas, explore the richness of local sherry varieties like Fino or Manzanilla, or Spanish wines such as Rioja and Albariño to elevate the overall experience.

7.1. Hot Tapas Pairings

Let’s start with Spanish meatballs (albondigas) are typically made with a mixture of beef and pork, which can be complemented by a glass of Tempranillo.

Another specialty in coastal areas is pescaito frito, which consists of lightly fried small fish, such as anchovies or sardines. Enjoy the crispiness with a side of aioli and a glass of chilled Manzanilla sherry.

Delight in the crispy and golden-fried croquetas, filled with creamy ham or seafood, and complement their rich flavors with the effervescence of Cava for a delightful contrast in textures and a burst of flavors.

7.2. Cold Tapas Pairings

When it comes to cold Spanish tapas, the first thing that comes to mind is Ensaladilla, a refreshing potato salad harmoniously blended with mayonnaise, tuna, peas, and carrots that is frequently relished as a light tapa.

The mojama, a specialty in coastal regions, is made from salt-cured tuna. The fish is thinly sliced to impart a savory, umami-rich essence that beautifully pairs with a glass of crisp Manzanilla sherry.

Salmorejo, a chilled tomato soup with a heartier consistency, blended with bread, garlic, and olive oil, offers a cool and creamy texture, and enjoy it with a glass of Albariño white wine.

8. Cooking Your Own Spanish Tapas at Home

Spanish tortillas

Transform your kitchen into a culinary haven as you embark on a flavorful journey inspired by the rich tapestry of Spanish cuisine. Whether you’re planning an intimate gathering or a lively fiesta, bringing the essence of Spanish tapas to your home is an opportunity to savor the diverse and delightful flavors of Spain. Here are some easy steps to cook some Spanish tapas in your kitchen.

8.1. Gazpacho

Creating Gazpacho at home is a breeze with this simple vegan recipe. Combine ripe tomatoes, cucumber, bell pepper, red onion, and garlic in a blender, blending until smooth. Add tomato juice, red wine vinegar, and olive oil, blending again for a well-combined mixture. Season with salt and pepper, and chill the soup in the refrigerator for at least two hours. Before serving, stir it well and adjust the consistency if needed. Garnish with croutons and fresh herbs, if desired, for a refreshing and delightful homemade Gazpacho.

8.2. Patatas Bravas

Making Patatas Bravas at home is a straightforward process. Begin by cutting potatoes into bite-sized cubes and parboil them until slightly tender. Meanwhile, prepare the spicy tomato sauce by sautéing garlic and onions, adding diced tomatoes, paprika, cayenne pepper, and salt. Simmer the sauce until it thickens. Fry the parboiled potatoes until golden and crisp. Drizzle the spicy tomato sauce over the crispy potatoes, and serve with a side of aioli for an authentic and flavorful homemade Patatas Bravas.

8.3. Pan con Tomate

To make Pan con Tomate, start by toasting slices of rustic bread until they are golden and crisp. Cut a ripe tomato in half and rub the cut side over the toasted bread, allowing the bread to absorb the juicy pulp. Drizzle extra-virgin olive oil on it and sprinkle a pinch of salt. For an extra burst of flavor, you can also add a clove of garlic to rub on the bread.

8.4. Spanish Tortilla

Begin creating a Spanish Tortilla by thinly slicing potatoes and onions. Cook them in olive oil until tender, then drain any excess oil. Whisk eggs in a bowl, season with salt and pepper, and blend with the cooked potatoes and onions for an even mixture. Heat olive oil in a skillet, pour in the amalgam, and cook until the edges firm up. Flip the tortilla using a plate to cook the other side. Serve it warm or at room temperature.

8.5. Garlic Prawns

Preparing Garlic Prawns at home is a delightful culinary experience. Begin by peeling and deveining fresh prawns, leaving the tails intact. In a pan, heat olive oil and sauté minced garlic until fragrant. Add the prawns and cook them until they turn pink and opaque. Season with salt, pepper, and a touch of red pepper flakes for a hint of heat. Finish with a splash of dry white wine and a sprinkle of chopped parsley, then allow the flavors to meld.

9. FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

Patatas Bravas
Patatas Bravas

1. How many tapas per person is enough?

On average, two to four tapas per person are recommended for a light meal or snack, but the quantity can vary based on factors like tapa size and personal preferences. If planning a shared meal or dining with a group, you can simply order more tapas. Keep in mind that Spanish tapas are meant for sharing, and portion sizes can differ from one establishment to another.

2. How does tapas work?

Spanish tapas involves ordering and sharing small, appetizer-sized dishes in a communal and social dining experience. The tradition is to order a drink, often accompanied by a complimentary tapa, and enjoy a variety of flavors rather than a single large meal. The goal is to savor diverse dishes through shared food and conversation.

3. Are tapas free in Madrid?

In Madrid, tapas are not usually free with drinks. Unlike some other regions in Spain, such as Granada, where complimentary Spanish tapas are common, in Madrid, tapas are typically ordered separately. Patrons pay for the specific dishes they choose to accompany their drinks.

4. Can I have vegetarian tapas?

Yes, vegetarian tapas are readily available in Spain, offering a variety of flavorful options such as gazpacho, patatas bravas, pan con tomate, pimientos de padrón, and Spanish tortillas.

5. What is the origin of tapas?

The term “tapas” is thought to have originated from the Spanish word “tapar,” meaning to cover. It dates back to the 16th century in Spain when small snacks were used to cover drinks in taverns to prevent contamination. This practice evolved into a culinary tradition, and Spanish tapas have become a significant aspect of Spanish culture.

6. Is tapas lunch or dinner?

Tapas can be consumed during both lunch and dinner. Spaniards traditionally have a later dinner, often starting around 9:00 PM or later. Spanish tapas are versatile and can be enjoyed as appetizers or snacks throughout the day,

7. How much do tapas usually cost?

On average, you can expect to pay anywhere from €2 to €5 for a tapa in many places. The cost of tapas can vary widely depending on the region, the type of establishment, and the specific tapas being ordered. In some places, particularly in cities, you might pay a few euros for a small tapa, while in others, especially in more rural areas or traditional taverns, you might still receive a free tapa with your drink.

8. Can tapas be vegan?

Yes, some classic tapas recipes are already vegan, such as patatas bravas, pan con tomate, gazpacho, grilled vegetables, and more. 

9. Can tapas be sweet?

Yes, although sweet tapas are not as common as savory ones, some establishments offer dessert options as part of their tapas menu. These sweet tapas may include items like mini desserts, churros with chocolate sauce, flan, fruit skewers, or other bite-sized sweets.

If you’re vacationing in Malaga, you can go on a Malaga tapas tour with wine and drinks to experience Spanish tapas firsthand. Alternatively, read our guide to the best markets in Malaga to scope out the top spots for food, shopping, and community engagement in this port city.

For more information on Andalucia, go to Andalucia’s official Tourism website. You can check out Andalucia’s dedicated page for transport to plan out your vacation route in the region.