What are tapas? Tasty treats to start enjoying Spanish style

Tenth edition of the Tapas Route in Torremolinos from May 28

Beer and tapa for €2.50

What are tapas? Well, that’s sort of a trick question, because ‘tapas’ is not a dish or even a type of dish.

Nowadays, anything can be a tapa, but personally, I prefer the classics…

In any case, a small dish, often about a quarter of the size it would be if you ordered it as a main meal, of hot or cold food, can be a tapa.

Known worldwide

They have become popular and trendy, and now you can find tapas bars all over the world, but traditionally they were given to customers with their drinks as an aperitif, so you’re not drinking on an empty stomach and as a way to cover (tapar) your drink, or so legend has it…

At the very beginning of their history, tapas would have been a simply slice of bread or ham placed over the top of a glass to stop the flies getting in and are thought to have originated in the hotter climates of Andalucia. This theory is disputed in other parts of Spain, as many would like to claim the now world-famous treats as their own.

Disputed history

Some say it was simply a way of getting people to drink more, due to the saltiness of the tapas. Other people believe it started in Medieval Times and was a way to get people to drink slower, so that there would not be brawls.

I could go on for pages about the history and theories of how, when and where tapas originated, but let’s get one with the interesting bit, the food.

Talk about it

In Spanish, have their own verb, ‘tapear’, which means to eat tapas, or you might hear the word, ‘tapeo’, for example, ‘Esta noche vamos a ir de tapeo’, which means ‘Tonight we’re going out for tapas’. This often implies not staying in just one bar, but going from one to another to see what tapas they have on offer.

This practice has now become official every time what’s known as a ‘Ruta de la Tapa’ is held. This is when a group of bars and restaurants in a town or city join an event in which they offer a drink and tapa at a special price, usually following a particular theme, encouraging people to visit several local businesses, often for prizes by getting a sort of passport is stamped en route when you visit each place.


My favourite tapas are when I don’t know beforehand what I’m going to get. In certain areas of Spain, for example, the lovely provinces of Granada, Almeria and Jaen, it is traditional, every time you order a drink, to be served a tapa with it, but you rarely know what it’s going to be, especially in rural areas.

I have had all sorts, from ham and cheese, to cooked sausages, mini hamburgers, meat in sauce, delicious pan-fried chicken fillets with garlic, paella, meatballs, tortilla (Spanish omelette), asparagus tips, beans and ham, croquettes, stuffed peppers, Russian salad, tomato salad… some simple but delicious dishes.

Make a meal of it

They can be just a starter, or you can have numerous tapas shared between the diners, until you’ve made a full meal of it. Of course, you can order what you want, when you want, and wash it down with some lovely red wine or a few beers.

So, get out and support your local businesses, who need it now more than ever, while enjoying this addictive way of eating out… ¡Feliz Tapeo!

What are tapas
PAELLA: Served as a tapa or as a main meal, it’s a Spanish favourite
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Jennifer Leighfield

Jennifer Leighfield, born in Salisbury, UK; resident in Malaga, Spain since 1989. Degree in Translation and Interpreting in Spanish, French and English from Malaga University (2005), specialising in Crime, Forensic Medicine and Genetics. Published translations include three books by Richard Handscombe. Worked with Euro Weekly News since November 2006. Well-travelled throughout Spain and the rest of the world, fan of Harry Potter and most things ‘geek’.