Traditional Spanish Food: A Tapas Adventure

Though I have yet to venture into the realm of making traditional Spanish food in my own kitchen, I love a good tapas meal and I know you will, too.

When my husband and I were in college, we discovered our first tapas restaurant. We’ve loved this style of eating ever since, and have found favorite restaurants that serve up tapas every day in Philadelphia (Bar Ferdinand)  and Cambridge (Kika Tapas). We’ve had tapas on vacation, too. What could be more perfect than a varied selection of tasty treats to nibble on alongside a refreshing cocktail, or a glass of sangria?

spanish tapas

For those not in the know, Spanish tapas is bar food. In Spain it’s generally considered late night food, or sometimes pre-going out food.

I called upon my friends Stef Sampedro (previous resident of Spain) and Clara Badimon (a Spanish native) to describe their favorite traditional Spanish foods and elements of Spanish dining culture. They had so much to share! Whereas most of Stef’s experience with Spanish cuisine is centered in Mallorca and Grenada, Clara’s area of expertise is Madrid.

Casual vs. Formal

spanish tapas

As my friend Stef, frequent traveler to and student of the culture of Spain, recently told me, “I think it’s kinda cool that at a lot of tapas bars, you just throw your garbage on the floor of the bar and then at the end of the night they sweep up all the napkins and peanut shells, etc. If you are in Granada, Spain you can order a beer or wine or soda at a bar and get a FREE tapa.”

Sounds fantastic, but it looks like you’re going to have to go to Spain for this experience.

spanish tapas in America

In the US, most restaurants claiming to serve Spanish tapas (or even Italian or Greek or Vietnamese “tapas”) include table service, and the food isn’t free. The word tapas has come to mean “small plates” in America, and the food is served (and priced) accordingly.

Waiters will often arrive at your table asking if you’ve dined tapas-style before, and advising you to order at least five plates for a table of two, since the portions are small and the dishes are meant for sharing. They bring the food out when it’s ready, rather than starting with drinks and serving the food in courses.


spanish tapas

Describing tapas to the uninitiated always makes me think of a conversation that I had years ago with my younger brother, when tapas was just coming onto my radar.

“I’m so excited, Steve! We’re going to a tapas place for my birthday!” I said.

“That’s…. cool…” he replied, unenthusiastically and with a bit of confusion in his voice.

It wasn’t until days later that I heard from my mom, asking how the “topless bar” had been. It was at that moment that I finally realized the reason for my brother’s confusion. Tapas and topless are not in fact the same thing! A topless tapas bar might be fun, though…

Table for two, please

I have not been to Spain yet myself, and I have not yet experimented with much traditional Spanish food in my own kitchen at this point, beyond a single attempt at patatas bravas (a classic tapas dish made with potatoes and tomato sauce).

Though this is perhaps a lame excuse, coming from someone who loves to cook at home and experiment in the kitchen so much, I blame the tapas restaurants that I have been to for this reluctance to take on the task myself.

For me, so much of the tapas experience is about the atmosphere. Though it would take countless hours to prepare such a huge and varied quantity of dishes just for your date or a small group of friends, restaurants allow you to relax and unwind while someone else does the work for you. I know- I’ve worked in a few restaurants.

spanish tapas

The honest truth is that a huge batch of patatas bravas or gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp), cooked in full batches the “normal” way, would result in a week’s worth of leftovers for a household of two.

Somehow, these tasty bites that are so delicious right off the stove or out of the oven, with a piece of fresh, crusty bread to sop up all of the sauce and a big pitcher of sangria on the side, just isn’t as appealing heated up in the microwave at home after the bread has begun to go stale and the fruit leftover in your sangria has begun to soften and brown.

Eating tapas style is about the dining experience. Perhaps, if I lived in Spain, my entire approach to food would be more relaxed and celebratory. For now, this is one type of cuisine that, I have to say, I’m really an advocate of leaving to the experts.

Tapas around the clock?

According to Stef, delicious traditional Spanish food can be enjoyed at any time of day. She told me that some of her favorite dishes are pisto (kind of like ratatouille, served with a fried egg on top), tumbet (like a Mallorcan-style pisto), espinacas con garbanzos (a traditional Sevillian dish made with spinach and garbanzo beans), and pa amb oli (Mallorcan crusty bread topped with grated tomato and olive oil, delicious at any time of day, especially dunked in a steaming cup of café con leche for breakfast).

Don’t forget the jamón! And seafood… And sausage…

Though traditional Spanish cuisine is in some ways surprisingly vegetable-heavy, meat and seafood are also on the menu. Spain has a lot of coastline for a small country. This is also, after all, the land of the dehesa and the home of jamón ibérico (ham from the Iberico region of Spain, known famously for being fed a special diet of olives or acorns), a world-renowned delicacy.

spanish tapas

Traditional Spanish food is all about simplicity and flavor, providing the best there is to offer—from land, air and sea—with close attention to locally sourced, seasonal foods.

Even the name for tapas varies depending on the region. They’re called tapas throughout most of Spain, but you’ll be ordering pinchos or pintxos if you find yourself in Pais Vacso or Mallorca. You can’t expect to stick with those vegetables all of the time, though (unless you choose to). This is Spanish sausage’s time to shine.

Stef told me that a wide variety of Spanish sausages exists, made in different ways from different ingredients in every region. Chorizo, salchichon, sobrasada… They’re hard to make (another reason to rely on the experts!) but delicious. Stef is partial to the Mallorcan way of serving sobrasada, on a roll (bocadillo) with just a drizzle of honey. As she said, and I quote, “it is sooooo delicious.”

Booking your Spanish culinary tour

If you are lucky enough to be travelling in Spain in the near future and you’re hoping to enjoy the local cuisine, Stef has some tips for you. First of all, “You will sound more like a local if you ask for una caña as opposed to una cerveza when you order a beer. A caña is a small glass of beer [sold for about] one euro, and its what all the locals do.”

churros chocolate

Secondly, “If you go out for a night of dancing in southern Spain – mainly in Seville- head to a kiosk anywhere in the city to get churros y chocolate. It’s customary to eat them at like 5 a.m.”

And finally, “Oh, and in Granada they make a tapa that is fried eggplant with honey on top – so delicious!”

spanish tapas

Thanks, Stef. Our mouths are watering just thinking about all the amazing noshes we could be enjoying. If only we were in Spain right now…

The rain in Spain falls mainly on the dehesa?

This brings us to Clara, who is currently in Spain. (Lucky!) She had so much valuable culinary information to share, letting me know that it’s actually also common to get a tapa for free with a drink order in Madrid, though they aren’t as tasty or hefty as those you’ll find in southern Spain… with one exception. She advises us to check out Alcalá de Henares, the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes and president of the Second Republic Manuel Azaña.

San Sebastián in the Basque Country (Euskadi) is also known for its pintxos bars, and attracts a lot of culinary tourism. Meanwhile, I’m adding all of these places to the ultimate travel list in my mind…

pintxos bars

Regional differences in the cuisine, the culture and even the language are alive and well in Spain. The pa amb oli that Stef mentioned loving to eat for breakfast? Clara let me know that it’s referred to as barrita con tomate in Madrid. As Clara said, “Surprisingly, a lot of people will have a pincho/pintxo de tortilla (Spanish potato omelet) for breakfast, or the delicious barrita con tomate.”

Special sauce

Remember those patatas bravas that I mentioned earlier? Clara told me that most of the higher-end bars in Madrid have their own special, secret recipe for the spicy tomato sauce that coats the dish. She also let me in on a Spanish trend that doesn’t seem to have hit the small plates-focused tapas restaurants in the US yet— most tapas in Spain can also be ordered in bigger sizes called raciones.

patatas bravas sauce

For the best churros in the land (or at least the most famous churros in Madrid) Clara says to go to San Ginés, right by the Puerta del Sol in Madrid. This is sort of like Spain’s version of Times Square, especially on New Year’s Eve.

Pork is what’s for dinner!

Back to jamón, Clara spoke of its significance in traditional Spanish cuisine. As she told me, “In Spain we say, “del cerdo, todo menos los andares,” which means we’ll eat any part of the pig, except its walk. You’ll find that a ton of the most typical Spanish foods include pork.”

spanish tapas pork

Swatting flies, and seafood sandwiches

Clara also provided me with some fascinating information on the history of the word tapa itself. She told me that it’s actually somewhat contested, pointing to the idea that tradition can morph and change with time.

As Clara told me, “The version I’ve heard as the most likely is that it comes from the slice of bread [that was] given at tabernas way back when, to cover the ale or wine to protect it from flies. Eventually, this was replaced with a small plate of food.”

Clara also finally surprised me with something that I’d never heard of before, in the realm of seafood. In her words, “Oh! And it’s super typical to have a bocata de calamares (a calamari sandwich; calamari by itself are called calamares a la romana) in the Plaza Mayor in Madrid. All of the restaurants in this plaza serve them.” Yum!

bocata de calamares

What is traditionally Spanish?

My beliefs about traditional Spanish cuisine were quickly reinforced through these conversations with my friends.

What we’re able to get here in the US is often an Americanized version, a “fusion” of Spanish dishes from various regions, or sometimes even the cuisine of a particular region. Though the skewers of apple sorbet with grilled manchego cheese that I love so much at Bar Ferdinand may not be “authentically” Spanish, they are delicious.

Though neither of my friends mentioned scallops in saffron sauce like I loved to order over and over again from Kika Tapas (with extra bread to soak up all of that delicious sauce!) I’m sure scallops are served in the coastal areas of Spain, and saffron is a popular spice, often used in paella.

spanish tapas

No matter the particular dish or ingredients, Spanish food is largely about celebrating the foods that are locally available according to region. But even more importantly, Spanish food is meant to be shared: with friends and loved ones around a big table bubbling with conversation, at the corner bar after midnight, or even at a kiosk in the town square at five in the morning after a long night of dancing.

Have you been to Spain, or to a Spanish tapas restaurant? Do you like to cook your own Spanish food at home? What are your favorite dishes? Share with me in the comments!

About the author

Allison M. Sidhu

With a master’s degree in gastronomy, this girl’s got food on the brain! Allison’s a Philly native and recent transplant to LA. When she’s not exploring the local food scene, she loves snacking on homemade goodies in front of the TV with her husband.

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