Culinary By Dayna Engberg

Vamos de Tapas, Discovering Spain's famed foodie fare


Spanish Tapas are definitely having a moment in the limelight right now, with tourists flocking to secure reservations at the hottest new restaurants at virtually any price. Their newfound popularity, however, has wooed many of us foodies away from the true origins of tapas—which were not born in the swanky upscale restaurants of Barcelona, but in the humble local pubs of Andalusia, a region bordering the southern coast.
Tapas history is teeming with urban legend. Some claim they were created by King Alfonso X in Seville, who, while recovering from an illness, was only able to consume his wine with small portions of food. This method supposedly brought him a quick recovery, so he proclaimed that all alcohol must be served with a small plate of food, and voilà! Tapas were born.
Other accounts tell of barkeeps serving drinks topped with a slice of bread or cheese to keep out flies, as the word “tapas” literally translates to cover or lid. Some explanations are simple: serving salty snacks entices patrons to continue drinking, while filling their stomachs dissuades public drunkenness.
Whatever the reason, tapas have become even more popular in Spain over the years. Today, it is not unusual for diners to make a meal of tapas, visiting several bars in an evening. In fact, there’s even a name for it: ir de tapas or tapear—literally translating as “to go tapa-ing.”

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Wherever you choose to tapear, your experience will vary greatly among regions and even cities. For example, plates are likely to be free in Granada, but not in neighboring Seville. In Basque country, tapas are often called pintxos, a one-bite morsel atop a square of bread, pierced with a toothpick. In the south, you’ll be served a few dishes that pair best with your wine, while in the north, you’ll select your own dishes à la carte. The one factor all tapas have in common is that they typically feature the celebrated staple of that particular region.

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The central plains surrounding Madrid are known for their livestock, producing cured meats like jamón Iberico and salchicón, as well as Spain’s most famous cheese: manchego. Therefore, popular tapas menus in Madrid often include embutidos—a tray of cured meats, often served with cheese and bread or crackers. For a wine pairing, enjoy a local varietal produced by Madrid’s northern neighboring regions: Rioja and Ribera.
Catalonia’s proximity to France produces tapas integrating bold sauces like romesco and allioli (much like aioli, but with a milder flavor and more letters). The Balearic food scene in Ibiza yields tapas bursting with spicy, Moroccan flavors. Valencia is known for its sparkling coastline, orange and almond groves, and expansive rice fields—hence tapas like sea-salted raw almonds, fresh seafood and savory paellas.

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The Andalusian cities of Málaga and Seville are surrounded by Spain’s highest density of olive groves, so in addition to coastal favorites of gambas (shrimp, usually with garlic) and boquerones (fresh anchovies), you’ll find plenty of fresh olives and dishes dressed or fried in olive oil, like pescaito frito (fried fish). While in Andalusia, don’t pass on cold soups like gazpacho or salmorejo. From seafood to cured meats, Andalusian tapas pair perfectly with a chilled copita of Manzanilla sherry.

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