Whenever Spaniards are asked to go to a tapas restaurant abroad, their heart might break a little each time. Even though the food is generally a good approximation of the Spanish ‘tapeo’, the way that it is served is not.
What are tapas exactly?
When it comes to Span history, the use of tapas goes back a long way. Some suggest that it was the Spanish King Alfonso X ‘The Wise’ who came up with the idea of tapas. He would have a glass of wine and some small portions of food between meals.
Even though that is certainly an interesting theory, it is more likely that tapas originated as a snack for fieldworkers to still their hunger between breakfast and lunchtime. The word ‘tapa’ literally means ‘lid’ or ‘cover’, meaning that the wine during these snacks was served in a ceramic jug covered with a piece of bread and some cheese or Serrano ham. The piece of bread would make it impossible for flies to get into the wine – thus explaining the use of the word ‘tapa’.
These tapas are meant to be light appetizers between meals, perhaps help the guest drink down some beer or wine. It should come as no surprise that the most popular time for tapas for Spaniards is midday or during the evening. If you are one of the millions of people who have been sold on an entirely different concept of tapas, this may come as quite the shock. There are some difference between an authentic Spanish experience and the tapas restaurants that have popped up.
Paying for tapas
Even though there are countless restaurants to the contrary, in Spain, you are not expected that you pay each time that the waiter brings you a drink and something to eat. You do not pay for tapas, they are complimentary for ordering drinks in a bar. The price of the drink is going to remain the same, regardless of whether you eat the tapa or not.
The different types of tapas
This is another misconception that most people have about tapas. The tapas that you eat in Spain do not offer you the finest representation of what the Spanish kitchen has to offer. Instead, it is an economically convenient export.
With a true tapa, you will notice that the food itself is modest. Traditionally there is minimal preparation needed for making Spanish tapas, which is why there are so many pickles, cheeses, and cold cuts involved in tapas.
Even though chicken in garlic sauce (pollo al ajillo) is a very traditional Spanish tapas recipe, chances are that you will not receive this as a tapa anywhere. Even though some bars will offer tomato, pepper and onion salad (pipirrana), pork with tomato (magro con tomate), and potato omelet (tortilla), that is because these are easily produced in larger portions and it is possible to store them in the fridge throughout the day.
There is an amazing variety when it comes to tapas. Including a list of cheeses and cold meats served on top of slices of white bread. A few other notable examples include: croquetas, roasted vegetables, sardines and other small fish, tortilla de patatas, olives, and pickles.
Unlike the traditional tapas restaurants that most people outside of Spain have become accustomed to, tapas in Spanish restaurants and bars are typically offered. Nevertheless, some regulars will ask the staff if they have any tapas (¿tienes alguna tapa?)
If you want to try that for yourself, it is important to be aware of what your waiter is going to do. If they nod and decide to walk away, chances are that you are getting what you want without charge. If they start reciting a menu, chances are that whatever you order comes at a charge. There is an obvious, yet somewhat subtle difference between free and paid tapas.
If you pay for the tapas, feel free to order whatever you are hungry for at that time, but free tapas are usually offered, not chosen. Traditionally the paid tapas portions are called raciones (for upwards of three people) and pinchos (one or two smaller portions).
Where do I get free tapas?
Now if you want free tapas and you want them authentic, you will have to get off the tourist path a little bit and go into the more modest Spanish taverns (the tascas). Try some of the working-class neighborhoods in the largest cities or the satellite towns. This is where you are far more likely to get the most authentic experience.
Because most bars are in stiff competition with one another, tapas are often generous in size and quite original. The Spanish capital of the free tapeo has to be the city of Granada. There is an entire blog (De Tapeo Por Granada) dedicated to offering a local perspective about the best and latest places to eat some free tapas in the city of Granada.