With an international spread of World Tapas Day events one week from today (15 June, 2017), Molly McLaughlin investigates the origins of a concept that, not just the Spanish, but people from all over the world have developed an appetite for.
I was introduced to tapas as a naïve nineteen-year-old, fresh off a flight to Barcelona on my gap year. In a dingy bar down a cobbled side alley, I managed to order something to eat and a glass of red wine using mostly hand gestures. One by one, I discovered the joys of unexpected flavour combinations and tiny portions. My favourite was a combination of bread, ricotta, honey, walnuts and apple; a sweet version of traditional tapas. Of course, I’m not the only one who has become enamoured with this style of snacking, with trendy tapas bars popping up all over the world over the last couple of decades.
The word “tapas” refers to the size of the portions, rather than any specific style of food. However, even the Spanish aren’t quite sure of the origins of dish. The concept is known to date back several hundred years, and there are rumours that in the nineteenth century Alfonso XIII, King of Spain, ordered wine in a tavern in Cadiz and the bartender served the drink with a slice of ham on top of the glass to keep out the dust. The king started a trend for placing food on top of the cup, which eventually developed into the dish we know today. The fact that the word “tapa” translates to “lid” or “cover,” lends credibility to this story. But perhaps the king was not involved, and farmers simply began putting plates with snacks on top of their drinks to keep the flies out. Or students began stacking their plate on top of their drink in crowded bars to save space. Whatever the reason, we can all agree that snacks plus drinks is a great combination.
Tapas are famously served for free in many bars in Granada, while in other parts of the country, and even in Latin America, local twists on the original dish can be found. The informality, simplicity and convenience of tapas reflects the Spanish cultural attitude to eating as a social affair that should be shared among friends, rather than the daily chore it has become for many people. The tiny serving sizes and variation in ingredients has also been hailed as an easy way to improve eating habits. Because tapas are intended to be eaten while standing, they are perfectly designed for a bar setting (while also reducing the chances of unintended inebriation). Of course, they are also great as easy-to-prepare snacks at home or for parties. It’s no wonder the Spanish have even come up with a verb to describe the practice of spending a night out eating tapas: Vamos a tapear!