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Tapas: A Spanish Culinary Tradition

June 13th, 2009

tapas-spanish-cooking.jpgTapas originated in Spain when the King of Castile, Alfonso the Wise, was convinced of the health merits of drinking wine with small bites of food between meals. After using this formula to recover from an illness, he ordered all taverns in Spain be forbidden from selling alcohol unless there were snacks or tapas also offered.

Originally slices of meat or bread that were used to cover the glasses and prevent fruit flies from getting into the beverages, these meat tapas were either chorizo or ham. Both of these were very salty and encouraged patrons to drink more. Tavern owners quickly caught on to the fact that these salty snacks increased alcohol sales, and soon the variety of tapas expanded and they became as important as the wine itself.

The original tapas have changed over the years by the number of outside countries who have gently influenced the general culinary environment of Spain. When the Romans invaded Spain, the use of olives and citrus were folded into the flavor profile of Spanish cooking. The invasion of the Moors in AD 711 brought almonds and many fragrant spices into common use in Spanish cuisine. Regular trade between the New World and Spain brought an influx of tomatoes, beans, potatoes, corn, and chili peppers which quickly became staples in Spanish cooking.

Today, Spanish culture has evolved such that the last meal of the day isn’t served until 9:00 p.m. or later. As a result, the hungry masses now consume tapas as a small social meal after work, but before this last meal of the day. It is not uncommon to see the smallest bars offering up to a dozen varieties of tapas, each of which is kept warm and glass covered so that patrons can see what is available. Regularly strongly flavored and with at least several varieties of tapas containing seafood, these tapas are also served with a variety of breads.

Tapas have evolved as a social food. Meant to be enjoyed with good conversation and good company, each variety of tapas is appreciated for what it is and a small snack worthy of culinary appreciation.

Today, tapas have become an international phenomenon with bars and restaurants in Europe and North America catering to the “tapas only” crowd. These bars will offer a larger variety of tapas often paired with a variety of wines. There is a variety of standard tapas fare that is offered but chefs are struggling to come up with new and exciting flavor combinations which can be offered as small bites.

Regardless of where you’re enjoying your tapas, one thing remains constant. The pairing of fantastic small bites of foods with stellar vintages of wine is a tradition that is pleasing to practice.


Jennifer Allen is a professional writer who holds an Honors B.A. in English Literature from the University of Toronto and has been published in a variety of venues. Her secondary love of all things food led to a career as a chef before she returned to full time status as a freelance writer.


One Response to “Tapas: A Spanish Culinary Tradition”

  1. comment number 1 by: Heidi / Savory Tv

    Thank you for the interesting history of tapas, I enjoyed it very much!

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