All About Tapas

Tapas are small savoury snacks that accompany drinks. Tapa is the word for a ''saucer.' Saucers were reportedly used to cover drink glasses to keep out flies. Gradually, so the story goes, the saucer began to carry little morsels of food and so the beginnings of the wide variety of tapas grew.


In Madrid there are hundreds of bars in the town centres, shopping streets and down side streets that serve Tapas. Generally, Tapas snacks are displayed on the counter and others are listed on chalkboards or menu cards for you to make your selection. If you need a light meal you can order several tapas at one time, mixing and matching flavours and textures of meats, vegetables and fish. If the Tapas are put together on a plate then they are known as 'Racione'


Colours and flavours of tapas can come from the fragrant saffron and spicey smoked paprika.

My first tapas was Chorizo, smoked paprika sausages served warm (he actually just heated them between two saucers in the microwave!) They arrived looking like fat red torpedo sausages with the red oils oozing out and smelling of warm garlic. A little knife and fork was balanced across the white earthenware plate and a small brown terracotta dish piled up with crusty bread accompanied the Chorizo. I sliced the sausage and used the bread to mop up the tasty oil. The flavours were rich, strong and excitingly true of Spanish smoked paprika.

Tiny portions of chorizo served with bread and coffee,  

Next, I had a Patato Tortilla portion. This was a cooked, sliced potato in circular omelette that was cut into slices.  It was almost cold but not enough to mask the flavour.  Buttery and smooth with rich eggy moistness, it was the perfect complement to the pungent Chorizo.  I drank cafe-con-leche, very much like a nice latte. We also had 'Tinto' the local red wine which tasted particularly good in the balmy evening weather.

The following evening selected a few Tapas from the menu.


Croquetas, four creamy potato croquettes that were deep fried with a delightfully thin crisp coating (probably egg and semolina). Inside they were smooth creamed potato. (How they could handle them in a deep fat fryer I do not know! I guess they are frozen first and then cooked straight from frozen.) Croquetas can also contain flakes of fish, mushrooms and garlic but these plain ones were extremely good.

Pimentos, fried in oil and piled high on a dish were my next choice. Apparently one in 12 pimentos can be scorching spicy hot in the mouth whereas the others will be mild and peppery. I got one hot one as predicted and was glad of my 'Tinto' (red wine) to cool things down. I also had fresh bread and small snippets of dried bread (like breadstick bread) the shape of small torpedoes.


Another Tapas we ordered was Tostas (Toasts) layered with anchovies in rich olive oil. Simple and flat and unassuming, they did in fact taste monumental, mainly due to the anchovy fillets.


A final trip to the Tapas bar the next day gave me opportunity to try Boquerones, little fishy anchovies in vinegar or lemon juice.  This time I chose lemon juice and worked my way through the portion of fish in an individual terracotta dish delighting in their sharp citrus flavour and juiciness.  I was beginning to feel comfortable with my experiences of the local Tapas. I tried a plate of elegant gambas prawns served as tapas with a garlic (mayo) known as aoli, from a gorgeous silver presentation dish.


I noticed the ham hock holder takes pride of place in many tapas bars and the owners wield their extra long, thin carving knives with the skill of the sword. So the following day I discovered Embutidos. These are cured meats that are served very thinly sliced and sometime hand-carved from the hock.  Prize winning 'Iberean cured hams' is much sought after and you can see the cured ham hocks hanging up high in all the tapas bars.


Jambon Serrano is cured ham frequently cut so fine you can almost see through it. I remember one notable one was at the Bernebau football stadium bar where the ham was topped with the finest ribbon strips of carrot.


Some Tapas were based on cheeses (Quesos). Manchego is probably the English cheddar substitute, a hard yellowy cheese that sliced well. It was served on  little portions of toast or 'Tostas' with a tomato garlic spread at several Tapas bars.


Whenever we bought a drink Tapas morsels were presented to tempt us, in fact it was a shock if they were not. Ensaladas rusa was the mayonnaise bound diced vegetable selection of peas, carrots, potatoes and onion with optional hard-boiled egg diced up and possibly with anchovies or tuna. I have to say it looked and tasted very similar to the Heinz tinned variety I used to have at Christmas as a child, but that is by no means de-valuing it. I loved it then and I love it now.

Banderillas are skewered pickled mixtures with onions, gherkins, pimentos and olives.  They look glorious and make your mouth water.  Eating them is addictive until the number of cocktail sticks you accumulate becomes embarrassing.


Fish based tapas are based on sardine, anchovies, cod, salmon and of course calamari or squid and Gambas (prawns). The flavours and colours were intense but not magical, as you might get from seaside fishing ports in the UK or elsewhere. Madrid is land locked and relies on deliveries of fresh fish each day.  Markets are important sources of good fresh ingredients


I was becoming accustomed to seeing Tapas and to experiencing their flavours and textures.

I could see how good ingredients could be served quite simply.  It was interesting to note the concern for food safety.  All the tapas bars had chilled and covered storage units.  In fact cleanliness in Madrid very impressive in the streets, bars and washrooms.  Food service was obviously important to their way of life and my Tapas research was a joy.

On my return to the UK I reflected on the trip and listed ways I could take inspiration from the Tapas I had seen and tasted:

  • Use more smoked paprika and Spanish pepper chilli spices
  • Use olive oils, saffron and Spanish cured meats in dishes
  • Substitute bacon with chorizo
  • Use anchovies and prawns and squid more imaginatively
  • Consider portion size and offer choices from a selection
  • Create dishes that can be served on 'toast'
  • Make dishes look attractive using fruits and vegetables, herb leaves and drizzled oils
  • Extend the uses of egg in sweet and savoury dishes

Learning to cook?   Find my Tapas selection recipes