When you get to Spain, you shouldn’t miss out on traditional Spanish tapas. These dishes may be small, but they’re packed with flavor that will surely tickle your taste buds.
It shouldn’t be too hard to look for a tapas bar in the country. You’ll find one almost everywhere you go. The challenge now becomes which of the traditional Spanish tapas you should try, if you even have to choose one in the first place.
What are Traditional Spanish Tapas?
Spanish tapas refer to small plates of appetizers that are meant to be shared.
But these are more than just dishes meant to make your mouth water. Spanish tapas also carry with them the joy of having the companionship of friends and family over food.
There may be differences in the ingredients used to make traditional Spanish tapas among the regions and towns in the country. Nevertheless, all of them are delicious just the same.
History of Spanish Tapas
Taken literally, the word “tapas” is translated into “cover” or “lid” in English. It is speculated that the word came from earlier practices of serving drinks that had ham or cheese slices over the rim of the glass. No one knows for sure why this was done. But some believe that it kept the flies out, prevented wine from spilling, or cunningly masked the taste of wine that was poor in quality.
Another origin story goes way back to the 13th century. At that time, King Alfonso X el Sabio was recommended by his physician to consume small portions of meals at frequent intervals. He should also pair these with a glass of wine. Doing so would promote the improvement of his physical health. And he did just that. But even if he did not need to practice this anymore, he still continued to do so. Eventually, more and more of the general public followed suit.
A List of Traditional Spanish Tapas
1. Jamón Ibérico Pata Negra
Jamón, or cured ham, is one of the traditional Spanish tapas that travelers are most familiar with. It is often served together with picos and colines, which are crunchy breadsticks common throughout the country.
The Iberian jamón is the best one there is. Look for the Pata Negra ham since it is of the highest quality. This is because only hams that come from purebred Ibérico pigs can be called “Pata Negra.”
2. Pimientos de Padrón
These are small, bright green peppers that originate from Padrón, Galicia. They are seasoned with salt and then fried as a whole. Eating Pimientos de Padrón comes with an element of surprise. You’ll never know what you’ll get because both the mildest and the spiciest variants of the seeds are planted together. Farmers scatter the spiciest of the seeds all throughout the plantation, making it difficult to distinguish which one is which. The only way to know if you’ve got the hottest pepper is to take a bite.
3. Salmorejo and Gazpacho
Salmorejo and gazpacho are cold soups that come from Andalusia. The main ingredients used for both of the soups are tomatoes and olive oil.
You might be wondering if there is any difference between salmorejo and gazpacho. Well, the difference lies in their texture. Tomatoes, garlic, and stale bread are used as a base for salmorejo. On the other hand, gazpacho makes use of a base that includes tomato, green pepper, and cucumber. Because of this, salmorejo has a creamier and thicker texture than gazpacho.
Despite their differences, blending all of the ingredients together creates one of the most refreshing dishes on a hot summer day.
4. Pulpo a la Gallega
Pulpo a la Gallega is named as it is because, in Galicia, the octopus is served on a wooden board. It is also in Galicia, specifically in the city of Melide, where you can get the best pulpo in the country. Some even call Melide the pulpo capital.
This dish is made by boiling and cutting the octopus. It is then sprinkled with salt and paprika, and, of course, drizzled with olive oil.
5. Pan con Tomate
Bread, tomatoes, olive oil, salt, and sometimes garlic. Just four to five ingredients are needed to make one of the most popular traditional Spanish tapas. Its very simplicity is what makes this dish very delicious. In Catalonia, where it is said to originate from, pan con tomate is also called pa amb tomàquet.
For those who want an extra flavor, it is also sometimes served with ham, cured meats, or cheese.
Traditionally, croquettes are made with ham. However, many have started to become more creative by adding the flavors of the sea to them. You can already find croquettes with king crab, prawns, squid, or cod. They are also sometimes made with wild mushrooms or cheese.
Croquettes are made with creamy white bechamel and leftover Serrano ham, which are fried to produce a crispy and light tapa. It’s so easy to pop them in your mouth that you’ll be surprised that you have reached the end of the plate.
7. Tortilla Española
Tortilla Española, also known as tortilla de patatas, is traditionally made with eggs, potatoes, and olive oil. However, onions and spices could also be added. This traditional Spanish omelet is well-known across the country, so finding a tapas bar that serves it will not be a challenge.
8. Patatas Bravas and Patatas Alioli
Bravas and alioli are drizzled over fried bite-sized potatoes to create this dish. The potatoes are crispy on the outside but soft on the inside.
Translated into English, brava means “strong.” This perfectly captures the taste and look of the Bravas sauce since it is spicy and bright red in color. For those who prefer something milder, they can opt to choose the alioli sauce, which is made from olive oil and garlic.
9. Gambas al Ajillo
Gambas al Ajillo is another Spanish tapa for seafood lovers. It is made by sauteing prawns in sizzling olive oil, garlic, chili peppers, and peppercorn sauce. Don’t let the oily sauce go to waste. Get a piece of toast and slather it over the dish. This gives a crunch to the soft, juicy prawns.
10. Ensaladilla Rusa
Ensaladilla Rusa is a traditional dish from Russia that is popular across Europe and in many of the Slavic countries. It was created by the Franco-Belgian chef Lucien Olivier in the 1860s. He came up with this dish for the restaurant Hermitage, which was located in Moscow.
Many of the tapas bars in Spain continue to serve Ensaladilla Rusa as it goes well with the other traditional Spanish tapas.
This creamy dish is made with mayonnaise, eggs, boiled potatoes, tuna, and different vegetables like carrots, peas, or green beans. It is served cold, making it a perfect dish to take a bite of should you end up getting the spiciest Pimientos de Padrón there is.
Albóndigas, or Spanish meatballs, won’t be as big as Italian meatballs. Their size usually only reaches up to an inch in diameter. They also aren’t seasoned too much, but that doesn’t mean they lack flavor. The tomato sauce in which the meatballs are simmered gives this seemingly simple dish character.
12. Chorizo a la Sidra
Chorizo a la Sidra, commonly found in Andalusia, is cooked in homemade cider. The acidic flavor of the cider balances out the fat from the chorizo.
But when you head to Galicia, you’ll most likely find Chorizo al Vino. Compared to Chorizo a la Sidra, this Spanish tapa is cooked in wine. Whatever you choose, both of the traditional Spanish tapas will surprise you with their spicy and smoky flavors.
Tigres is a popular Spanish tapa that comes from the city of Bilbao. In Galicia, it is also known as Mejillones Rellenos.
Just as tigers love a challenge, this Spanish tapa will surprise you with its spiciness hidden underneath the anchovy- and tomato-based sauce in which you dip them in. The mussels are stuffed with a bechamel sauce made with the mussels themselves and other ingredients. Then, they are covered in breadcrumbs and, lastly, deep-fried.
While this might remind you of the other traditional Spanish tapas, such as the patatas bravas and croquettes, the Tigres stands out on its own.
Those who want to cut back on eating fried food (which you really shouldn’t do while in Spain), can find other variations of the mussels. Some also serve them steamed and seasoned with lemon, tomato, onion, and pepper.
14. Boquerones en Vinagre
Boquerones en Vinagre is a dish made with anchovies. But these aren’t the usual canned anchovies you find along the aisles of the grocery store.
In this Spanish tapa, anchovies are marinated in a mixture of vinegar, garlic, and oil. Pairing them with a glass of Spanish white wine balances out the strong flavors of the dish.
15. Chipirones a la Andaluza
Last, but definitely not the least, is the Chipirones a la Andaluza. This is made from battered squid that is fried in olive oil. Seasoned simply with lemon and salt, this traditional Spanish tapa will leave you wanting more.
We’ve reached the end of the list of traditional Spanish tapas. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t many more left to be discovered. Nevertheless, the tapas listed above are a good way to start your food journey across the country.