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Tapas: What are they?


GSBravo
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I have a vague idea of what Tapas are, but I’m pretty sure I’m missing something. It seems that they are “small dishes”, almost appetizers, but not really.

So if they really aren’t appetizers, then what are they? If they are appetizers, then why can’t someone put out some pizza rolls and call them Tapas?

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The term "tapas" which originally meant a vast array of appetizers hot and cold served in Spanish bars, has now come to mean just about any sort of appetizer, probably including microwaved pizza slices that a certain sort of restaurant is trying to push.

Here's probably more than you want to know about tapas:

http://www.evevancouver.ca/food/dishes/tapas.htm

Arthur Johnson, aka "fresco"
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Tapas are, in many instances, small portions of larger dishes. They are also called pinchos. A tapa was a plate used to cover drinks in bars, the obvious purpose of keeping flies away. Evolving from that to being a repository for bits of cheese, olives, cured meats etc. Today tapas bars, which are found all over Spain, range from very simple to extensive. Since Spaniards typically dine at incredibly late hours an early evening visit to a tapas bar helps tide one over.

Dishes are both hot and cold and always small, usually just a mouthfull or two. Grilled shrimp, fried calamari, baby squid cooked in its own ink, serano ham, chicken wings or legs simmered in garlic, oil and wine and salt cod dumplings are among a few of the many offerings.

Under the circumstances, I suppose, one could consider any small dish a tapa.

Jay

You are what you eat.

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Tapas are what U.S. visitors to Spain eat for dinner because they can't wait for 10:00 or 11:00 when the rest of Spain sits down for the evening meal. :laugh:

We cannot employ the mind to advantage when we are filled with excessive food and drink - Cicero

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I don't know that you can really know tapas until you've been to Spain. Once you've been to one part of Spain and understood the tapas there, it should be easy for you to explain them. As you travel to more regions, it will get harder. I believe I've had pizza rolls as tapas. Tapas can be hot, cold, eaten out of hand or require a fork, spoon or toothpick. In many tapas bars you can get a tapa, a racion and likely a demi racion as well. It's not uncommon to see a half dozen friends sharing a racion or stew or braised meat all eating from the same plate.

There is no time of day when tapas are not possible, although not all bars are open all day. The great thing about tapas bars is that you can snack all day long in the more civilized parts of Spain. A slice of tortilla (the Spanish fritatta) or a ham sandwich is great for breakfast, although many Spaniards prefer toast with fresh tomato sauce and a little olive oil for breakfast. I've been in tapas bars close to midnight and many Spaniards have dinner by eating tapas, especially if they've had a large lunch. It's not just the tourists who eat tapas for dinner. Many tapas bars are holes in the wall with a limited selection. Others are full blown restaurants prepared to served meals or tapas at tables.

There is no pattern to tapas. You may have to order them from a menu; you may have to point to a display case of bowls of food; or you may be able to just pick up a canape from a plateful on the bar. Various items may have different prices, or they may all be the same price. In either case, the bartender may keep your tab; you may have to pay for each order or round; there may be an honor system; or they may count toothpicks or skewers.

Every region has many of its own tapas and its own styles of bars, but some things are common all over Spain. The tortilla is the most universal tapa, that and ham. In some parts of Spain, you will always get something to eat when you order a drink, even if it's just a slice of sausage or a few olives. Sevilla is reputed to be the city with the greatest tapas and the greatest variety. That may also be why it has so few recommended restaurants. For all that, San Sebastian is the place I'd want to be for tapas. In Barcelona there's been a trend for Basque style tapas, but the bars that advertise themselves as Basque seem only to be capitalizing on the Basque reputation.

The more we see of tapas in Spain, and in the last few years we've driven the north in a zigzag route from Barcelona to Santiago de Compostela, and from Madrid through much of Andalusia and along the coasts of Murcia, Alicante and Valencia in the course of a half dozen or more trips, the less I am critical of anything that advertises itself as tapas, but doesn't remind me of Spain, for I wouldn't be surprised to find it the next time I visit Spain. In San Sebastian, we saw bars with awards for their creative tapas. Attention on all things gastronomic has been focused on Spain in recent years and not without reason. Spanish words are creeping into the way we talk about food, the way French ones have for hundreds of years. All snacks seem to qualify as tapas these days.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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From the introduction of Penelope Casas' outstanding book, Tapas...

It is difficult to say exactly what tapas are, for tapas are not necessarily a particular kind of food; rather, they represent a style of eating and a way of life that are so very Spanish and yet so adaptable to America.

and

All tapas do, however, have several things in common.  The are generally served in small portions (there are actually two sizes; the tapa and the racion, which is about double the size) and they are meant for immediate gratification.  In Spanish bars and taverns, tapas are served quickly and consumed just as quickly; any delay in service diminishes the tapa's raison d'etre.  I have devised many other definitions, but all were quashed as I investigated tapas more thoroughly and found tapas in Spain to contradict every rule.

I love this book and have really enjoyed everything I've ever tasted that's been made from the recipes therein. Still, as much an authority as Casas is considered to be, her 'defintion' is hardly, well, definitive. :biggrin:

=R=

"Hey, hey, careful man! There's a beverage here!" --The Dude, The Big Lebowski

LTHForum.com -- The definitive Chicago-based culinary chat site

ronnie_suburban 'at' yahoo.com

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I have seen portions much larger than what she describes as a racion presented as tapas they are to be shared, but she qualifies it as "general" rule. Other than that, she does credit to her reputation by leaving the definition of "what is a tapa" wide open and going for the "way of life" as defining. Smart woman, and I suggest that was written some time ago before more recent changes and developments. She's managed to hold her position of definitive authority precisely because she didn't try to be too defining. A wise authority always knows when to punt. :laugh:

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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In the US when some one says "let's go to that new tapas restaurant in Nolita, west village, tribeca etc. . . " what I hear is "let's go to that new clip joint that doesn't have a liquor license but will gladly serve you Manischevitz with rotten apples in it for 35 bucks a pitcher and that calls itself a restaurant but doesn't want to buy anything other than a microwave and some frozen shit from costco."

The word tapas has been used to violate well-meaning diners all over the US. It would take a couple of excellent recommendations and a team of mules to get me into an American tapas place.

You shouldn't eat grouse and woodcock, venison, a quail and dove pate, abalone and oysters, caviar, calf sweetbreads, kidneys, liver, and ducks all during the same week with several cases of wine. That's a health tip.

Jim Harrison from "Off to the Side"

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In the US when some one says "let's go to that new tapas restaurant in Nolita, west village, tribeca etc. . . " what I hear is "let's go to that new clip joint that doesn't have a liquor license but will gladly serve you Manischevitz with rotten apples in it for 35 bucks a pitcher and that calls itself a restaurant but doesn't want to buy anything other than a microwave and some frozen shit from costco." 

The word tapas has been used to violate well-meaning diners all over the US.  It would take a couple of excellent recommendations and a team of mules to get me into an American tapas place.

Which is completely loony. Good Spanish tapas are either inexpensive to make, or easy to prepare, or both. You'd think restaurants or bars in North America could serve their own great versions of tapas, with healthy markups, and do a roaring business. Wonder why they can't.

Arthur Johnson, aka "fresco"
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The word tapas has been used to violate well-meaning diners all over the US. It would take a couple of excellent recommendations and a team of mules to get me into an American tapas place.

I don't think it would take much arm twisting to enjoy a meal at Jaleo here in Washington. The best tapas I have had outside of Spain.

Heather Johnson

In Good Thyme

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In the US when some one says "let's go to that new tapas restaurant in Nolita, west village, tribeca etc. . . " what I hear is "let's go to that new clip joint that doesn't have a liquor license but will gladly serve you Manischevitz with rotten apples in it for 35 bucks a pitcher and that calls itself a restaurant but doesn't want to buy anything other than a microwave and some frozen shit from costco."

The word tapas has been used to violate well-meaning diners all over the US. It would take a couple of excellent recommendations and a team of mules to get me into an American tapas place.

"Bitter? Party of one."

:blink:

Kidding, kidding...

I second hjshorter's rec of Jaleo in DC and add n (with a tilde - I don't know how to insert that here) in NYC.

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So Tapas are what I thought they were, aside from another, shall we say cuisine, bastardized by the restaurant industry.

It's doubtful that I'll ever go to Spain, my only overseas travel desire is to go to Easter Island to see the Maoi statues. But I think, as Bux says, to get real Tapas, I'd have to go to Spain. So short of real Tapas in Spain, are they any places in Southeastern Virginia (i.e. Virginia Beach/Norfolk area) that serve "authentic Tapas"?

Also, which direction should I look for authentic Tapas recipes? I don't know when they stuck in my head, it was a few days ago, but I think I want to make them.

Fresco, thanks for the link. It wasn't more than I wanted to know, I have an insatiable appetite for food knowledge/lore/recipes, etc. And sorry for what seems like a bad pun. :hmmm:

Bux, thank you for that very informative post. I like the manner in which you come across, I’ve read several other posts of yours, and they are always informative. OK, enough of the kissing up. :wink:

Thanks to everyone that has helped, and I’m sure will continue to help with filling in the blanks.

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Alas, I can only answer one of these questions -- the Penelope Casas book is a great place to start. Okay, I have not had tapas in Spain, but I have had them in a lot of other places and with spanish friends as well as people who go to spain quite a bit. As far as I can tell she gives a good idea of the overall, um, philosophy I guess is the word.

Another thing: Is ordering pitchers of sangria with tapas an american thing? It is such a nasty combination with almost all foods involved in tapas I have a hard time believeing it would be the drink of choice. I usually go for red wine or fino sherry.

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So short of real Tapas in Spain, are they any places in Southeastern Virginia (i.e. Virginia Beach/Norfolk area) that serve "authentic Tapas"?

If you're up for a day trip, the best tapas restaurant in America is in D.C. -- Jaleo as mentioned upthread.

I let Jsmeeker tell me where to eat in Vegas.

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Sangria goes with hot weather, not food.

Yes, chilled fino is perfect with traditional tapas.

I don't believe it is fair to call American "tapas" bastardized. The idea of finger-food, mezze, appetizers, etc. is universal. What makes tapas unique is that it is the Spanish way of doing finger-food.

I believe that Casas herself may have started the idea of tapas as a "lifestyle". It certainly calls up images of urban life, and many little "meals" on-the-run; hopefully adding up to real nourishment. If you accept that general principle, then it makes sense to "invent" American tapas, as it were.

On the other hand, if you visit D.C., don't miss Jaleo.

BB

Food is all about history and geography.

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There's a place in Waltham Mass. called Solea that serves tapas, hot and cold, and some entrees, and I thought it was very good. I've only been there once but it was packed. Its website, http://www.solearestaurant.com/, says it "embraces the romantic spirit of colonial South America while honoring its southern European culinary heritage".

I went to Spain on a school trip in high school but sadly I don't recall experiencing tapas.

Check out the website and I'll get a couple other recommendations and that pack of mules. :biggrin:

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On the other hand, if you visit D.C., don't miss Jaleo.

And to confirm what you say about small dishes being universal, after you go to Jaleo (or before) go to Zaytinya for very well executed small dishes with Greek flavors.

Stephen Bunge

St Paul, MN

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Another thing: Is ordering pitchers of sangria with tapas an american thing? It is such a nasty combination with almost all foods involved in tapas I have a hard time believeing it would be the drink of choice. I usually go for red wine or fino sherry.

I have never been a great fan of Sangria, but it is an authentic drink. I have seen it made by the glassful in one or two Spanish bars, but I've not seen it ordered very often. It's hardly the first drink of choice anywhere that I've seen. I supsect that varies from region to region and from bar to bar.

A caña, or small draft beer would probably be as common an order as anything, but in the south a fino sherry or even more likely a manzanilla might be at least as common. Red wine is very common and white wine probably not much less common. In Madrid, I've been to tapas bars that were also wine bars with nice selections of wines by the glass. In San Sebastian, a common order is a thurrito or zurrito, which is literally a dribble of beer--maybe a half inch in a wide glass. It allows one to sample a great number of tapas on a pub crawl in a town the has more great tapas bars than one can manage in one night. One doesn't see loud or rowdy drunks in good tapas bars.

I don't believe it is fair to call American "tapas" bastardized. The idea of finger-food, mezze, appetizers, etc. is universal. What makes tapas unique is that it is the Spanish way of doing finger-food.

I believe that Casas herself may have started the idea of tapas as a "lifestyle". It certainly calls up images of urban life, and many little "meals" on-the-run; hopefully adding up to real nourishment. If you accept that general principle, then it makes sense to "invent" American tapas, as it were.

I believe tapas are a life style although the style itself may be different in each part of Spain. The idea of tapas as a life style hit us quite strongly one evening as we were sitting on barstools at a corner bar/cafe in Jerez. We lingered for a while because the place was so well situated for people watching and had excellent little plates of food that were generally presented with some flair and decoration--squiggle os sauce from a squirt bottle a la nouvelle cuisine. It was remarkable to watch people meet after work or shopping, have a drink and a croquetta or slice of jamon talk and then separate to go home. Couples met other couples. Families joined, or met other families. It was a chance for a stolen moment of social interaction without having to devote a whole night to it.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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In the US when some one says "let's go to that new tapas restaurant in Nolita, west village, tribeca etc. . . " what I hear is "let's go to that new clip joint that doesn't have a liquor license but will gladly serve you Manischevitz with rotten apples in it for 35 bucks a pitcher and that calls itself a restaurant but doesn't want to buy anything other than a microwave and some frozen shit from costco."

The word tapas has been used to violate well-meaning diners all over the US. It would take a couple of excellent recommendations and a team of mules to get me into an American tapas place.

That's true about a lot of bad food in small portions at large prices abusing the good name of tapas, but have you tried Batali's Casa Mono? It's too crowded and the price of two small plates might be a bit more than you'd pay if it was one large plate, but the food is excellent. It's not necessarily authentically Spanish, but it's within a legitimate range of sensibility. It's a range I exten for quality of that sort.

Jaleo in Washington is different, maybe more authentic, and a superb choice. the food is more authentic than the service as the service in waiter service at tables and there's no other bar around the corner to try next.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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FWIW, the 'San Sebastian' episode/section of Bourdain's A Cook's Tour provides one excellent perspective of the 'tapas lifestyle.' I'm not sure if FN is still showing them, but that portion of Bourdain's book is also fantastic--although you don't get to see the hunger-inducing foods via reading about them. :wink:

=R=

"Hey, hey, careful man! There's a beverage here!" --The Dude, The Big Lebowski

LTHForum.com -- The definitive Chicago-based culinary chat site

ronnie_suburban 'at' yahoo.com

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