There are many legends as to the origin of tapas. One claims that King Alfonso X of Spain started the tradition when he recovered from an illness by drinking wine with small dishes between meals. He then ordered taverns to serve wine only if was accompanied by a small snack (tapa). Another origin story is that King Alfonso XIII once ordered a cup of wine in a tavern. Before offering the cup, the server covered it with a slice of cured ham to protect it from the sand since the area was very windy. The king then drank the wine and ate the tapa, and ordered another wine “with the cover”. A common explanation for the origin of tapas is that an item like bread would be placed on top of a drink to protect it from fruit flies. At some point it became common to top the drink cover with a snack. The word tapa actually means lid, so it as appropriate name if this origin story is true.
Whatever the origin may happen to be, it is now a common finding all over Spain and throughout the world. Tapas are small snacks to be had between meals, typically with a drink like wine. In Spain, dinner is usually had between 9 and 11pm and lunch is between 2 and 4pm. This leaves a long break between meals, which is a perfect time for tapas. In some cities and restaurants, a tapa will be served for free when a drink is ordered. Some places, especially northern Spain will call these snacks pinchos, because they have a toothpick (pincho) through them.
There are so many varieties when it comes to tapas. Some include seafood or meat, while others may be purely vegetarian. Tapas have changed over the years due to regional influences and invasions. When the North African Moors invaded in the 8th century, the introduced almonds, citrus, and certain spices. The discovery of North America brough tomatoes, corn, potatoes, and sweet and chili peppers. Tapas can be served hot or cold. Inland Spain is found to favor hot tapas, while the southern areas tend to prefer cold ones. The coastlines, much closer to the oceans, will feature seafood.
The three main categories of tapas include cosas de picar, cazuelas, and pinchos. They differ in how easy they are to prepare. Cosas de picar means things to nibble, generally including finger foods like olives. Pinchos means toothpick and these tapas require the toothpick in order to be eaten. Cazuelas means little dishes, which may include foods that come in a sauce like shrimp in garlic.
If you happen to travel to Spain, be sure to find a local tasca (tapas bar) in order to experience the tapas scene. We can all agree that tapas have become a world-renowned way of eating that is here to stay.