The Foodie

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The Foodie: Tapas

September 11, 2008
by Christopher Coats
An array of snacks and bite-sized culinary delights to accompany your evening drink, Tapas have become as much a part of the Spanish identity as bullfights on Sunday, the claps and strumming of Flamenco, and summers on the beach.

The Origin of Tapas

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It’s a known fact that Spaniards eat late, but don’t think they allow themselves to go hungry. In fact, sitting down to dinner at a quarter to midnight isn’t just common—during the warm weather months it’s the norm. Whether it’s the late lunches or long days of sun that drive dinner times toward midnight is up for debate, but try finding supper on the streets of Madrid around 7 p.m. and you’ll be sadly disappointed.
 
This is not to say, however, that the Iberians go without. Instead, they fill the early evening hours with a tradition that is part snack, part social exercise; sharing, picking and sampling a little bit of everything, with a glass of wine or beer thrown in for good measure.

Indeed, the driving force behind the tapas tradition has always been drinking. While origin stories vary, the practice of snacking in Spain has always been deeply intertwined with a heavy Rioja red or crisp glass of Sherry.

Beginning centuries ago, Spaniards began serving their drinks with a small snack to accompany each glass. The explanations of how the tradition came to be vary from innovative imbibers placing a piece of bread on top of their glass to keep insects at bay, to King Alfonso the Wise, who was said to have been unable to sip his wine without a solid accompaniment. Whatever its origin, the tapas tradition has since become a pivotal part of Spanish life—as much about being with others as filling one’s stomach.

Where Are Tapas?

Today, virtually every bar you enter in Spain provides some variety of tapas to choose from. Whether it be a selection of simple creamy salads stored in a glass case or a sample of cured ham from the dozen legs left hanging from the ceiling, tapas are everywhere.

Filling the free time between the end of work and the beginning of dinner, tapas invites diners to sample small bits of meats, cheeses, seafood and vegetables along with their evening drink, usually standing with friends in a bar.

While most treat the practice a way to make it through the evening until dinner, tapas can just as easily become a meal unto themselves; stand around and sample long enough and you’ll get your fill.

Regional Variation

However, as much a part of Spanish culture as tapas may be, their recipes and presentation are far from universal. From the rich, heavy snacks of Catalonia, to the lightly fried seafood of Andalusia, to the tooth-pick pierced pintxos of the northern Basque Country, tapas have allowed regions to develop favorites all their own.
While local ingredients can create a culinary divide between neighboring towns, most of Spain can be broken up into four major regions when it comes to tapas.

In the northeast, Catalonia reigns supreme with dishes that rely heavily on pork and also provide the specialty of small, sautéed land snails, eaten fresh from the shell.

Further west, the Basque Country mounts its tapas on pieces of bread, each held into place with a different size of toothpick, determining its price; a simple short stick will usually represent the lowest cost tapa, such as a slice of cheap ham or Spanish tortilla, while a plastic sword or long, elegant stick will accompany a higher end sample, such as a cut of steak cooked in whiskey.

Hundreds of miles south, Andalusia provides a similar seafood focus, but with a light fried batter. The southern-most region also hosts an array of tapas influenced in one way or another by Morocco to the south, including a heavy, chickpea stew served in small, dark brown pottery bowl.

Finally, the country’s center, anchored by Madrid, celebrates a little of everything while emphasizing the national favorites, including a simple plate of dry Manchego cheese, a slice of Spanish tortilla with a dollop of garlic mayonnaise or a stuffed bell pepper, cooked with a thick tomato sauce. 

Just as there are regional differences of ingredients, so too are there differences in the way tapas are served and consumed. In Granada and parts of Madrid and San Sebastian, tapas will automatically accompany your drink with no charge. In the Basque Country, a drink is often served with only a small amount of beer or Txacoli, the region’s crisp white wine, as guests are never expected to stay in one bar for too long. A few pinchos, a few sips and one moves on to the next stop.

Migration

Always popular among travelers making their way across Europe, tapas have come to America in the last few years, with restaurants popping up across the country.

Further, a small cottage industry has arisen around tapas recipes from every corner of Spain. However, should you find yourself whipping up a round of tapas sometimes soon, don’t forget that perhaps the most important ingredient to include is a large group of friends to share them with.
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