That depends on who you ask. Tapas vary across Spain, region to region and town to town. The general definition is that tapas are snacks, appetizers, canapés – samples of food on small plates. They can be cold – olives, cheese, onions – or hot – squid, vegetables, fish, spicy chorizo sausage, slow-cooked beef cheek, sweet potato puree and everything in between.
There are some wonderful stories about where tapas came from, which of course are firmly set in folklore.
One story claims that King Alfonso X, El Sabio or “The Wise One” gave birth to tapas. While on a long journey across Spain, he stopped to rest in Ventorillo del Chato, a town in the southern province of Cádiz. He ordered a sherry, and as Cádiz is known for being very windy, the inn keeper covered the sherry with a piece of ham to prevent dust blowing into the glass. The king really liked it and when he ordered another sherry, he requested it come with a tapa, or a cover. King Alfonso is said to have then passed a law in the province of Castile that all drinks had to be served with a small portion of food to slow down the effects of alcohol and thus reduce rowdiness, boisterous behaviour and arguments.
Another story tells how tapas became popular in inns which had sprung up along the major routes across Spain. Most of the travellers and inn keepers could not read, so when exhausted travellers stopped for refreshments, instead of a menu, they were offered samples of the dishes on offer before they placed their order. These were served on the covers of the pots, or tapas.
Many early food establishments only offered standing room, and so, due to lack of space, people placed their small portions of food on top of their drinks. This became known as tapas.
Some say that sherry and wine were used to ‘cover up’ the taste of very strong smelly cheese, hence tapas.
Whatever the etymology of tapas, it is a very social way to eat. The sharing of small dishes of food seem to encourage conversation and create a relaxed environment and a social atmosphere.
Join your friends at a local Spanish restaurant and do as the Spanish do.