What Are Tapas and Where Do They Come From?

Overview and Origin of the Spanish-Style Small Plate

Friends eating tapas

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Tapas are snacks, canapés, or small plates that originate in Spain. But many people don't realize that tapas come in many different forms and can vary greatly throughout Spain―even from town to town!

What's in Tapas?

There's really no definitive answer, as it depends on who you ask. In Spain, tapas can include practically anything―from a chunk of tuna, a cocktail onion, and an olive skewered on a long toothpick, to piping hot chorizo sausage served in a small clay dish, to a gourmet slow-cooked beef cheek served over a sweet potato puree. Tapas are served day in and day out in bars and cafés throughout Spain―though each has a different interpretation of the word and different prices.

Though the concept of tapas varies throughout the country, they are so much a part of the culture and social scene that the Spanish people even use the verb tapear, which means to go and eat tapas! Tapas keep the Spanish fueled for their long journeys from bar to bar before their midday meal, as well as in the evening before dinner.

Are Tapas Included With the Cost of a Meal? 

In most regions of Spain, you must order and pay for your tapas, which may be listed on the menu under the tapas section or column, or called a ración, which is a larger serving and meant to be shared. The price of a tapas portion varies enormously and generally, depends on the size of the tapas served and the ingredients used (simple fried chorizo versus grass-fed beef, for example).

Yet, in the most traditional Spanish cities, you aren't charged for tapas―you get a free tapa with the price of your drink! Popular cities with this practice include Madrid (only in the city's most traditional tapas bars), Alcalá de Henares and Granada.

The Origin of Tapas

There are several stories about the origin of tapas, which are a part of the folklore. One legend involves King Alfonso X, El Sabio or “The Wise One,” who made sure that Castilian taverns serving wine always accompanied it with something to eat so that the wine would not go straight to the clients' heads (and potentially cause rowdiness and disagreements).

Another story claims that while on a long trip, King Alfonso had stopped to rest in the town of Ventorillo del Chato in the southern province of Cádiz, and he ordered a glass of jerez or sherry. There was a gusty wind, so the innkeeper served him his glass of sherry covered by a slice of ham to prevent the sherry from getting dirty with sand in the air. King Alfonso apparently liked it, and when he asked for a second glass, he requested another tapa (which means 'lid' or "cover") just like the first.

Prepare one or several tapas then enjoy them like the Spanish do―with a big glass of wine and a relaxed attitude. ¡Qué rico!