The History of Spanish Tapas

Whether you’ve visited the country of Spain or you have a favorite tapas bar in your own neighborhood, you know how tasty those small plates can be. Cured ham, savory olives, or even a charcuterie plate all prove that tapas are the perfect way to share yummy dishes with friends while enjoying your favorite drinks. Whichever dish is your favorite, have you ever wondered how the concept of Spanish tapas came to be?

What are Tapas?

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If you’re familiar with tapas, you know that they refer to small plates of food. But the literal translation in Spanish means “cover” or “coaster.” In the beginning, tapas were usually given to tavern patrons as a complimentary side to their glass of wine, ale, or cider. However, depending on where you happen to be in Spain or even around the world, the name for those small plates can vary.

How Did Tapas Become a Thing?

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It turns out that there are countless origin stories for tapas—some of them contradictory and some more of an old wives’ tale. But we’ve compiled a few of the most common theories you’ll come across. So, kick back, relax and grab a small plate and a glass of sangria!

The Utilitarian Origin

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In Castilla, Spain, it was common for taverns to keep wine barrels for housing their most popular drink. But all that wine would attract flies and other bugs that would often fall into the customers’ drinks. Over time, people began covering their glasses with coasters or “tapas” to keep out the pests.

The Royal Declaration

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While we’re partial to the utilitarian origin story, another popular belief is based on a royal decree. According to legend, Alfonso X el Sabio—the king of Spain—forbade taverns and pubs from serving wine without food to accompany it. According to the king, imbibing wine without anything to eat could lead to drunk and disorderly behavior. (Truthfully, anyone who’s spent even one night in a bar would probably agree with King Alfonso.) As the story goes, to comply with the king’s requirements, taverns began serving small portions of food that would fit on those coasters covering the glass of wine. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The King Alfonso Theory - Part Two

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In another origin story, we’re again focusing on King Alfonso, but this time we’re dropping the royal decree. In this version, the king was traveling through the country and decided to stop at a tavern in Ventorillo del Chato for a glass of jerez (sherry). It just so happened that there was a bit of a dust storm while the king was there. So, the innkeeper covered the king’s glass with a slice of ham to keep the dust out of his drink. Apparently, the king enjoyed the pairing so much that he ordered a second drink and specifically requested it come with another tapa.

Again With King Alfonso …

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Once again, King Alfonso factors into the tapas origin story. This time, the story centers around the king’s health. According to the story, the king was recovering from an illness and could eat only small amounts of food at a time. As he got better, he realized that eating small plates was more enjoyable than a massive meal and then decreed that all taverns serve wine with small plates of food.

The Bait and Switch

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Anyone who’s ever had a not-so-great glass of wine knows how unpleasant that can be. Apparently, tavern owners were tired of their patrons complaining about the quality of their wine and came up with a plan. They opted to serve strong cheese on those coasters covering the cheap wine to mask the flavors. As a result, the patrons were happy, and the tavern owners no longer had to listen to complaints about bad wine.

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Now that you know—somewhat—the origin story behind tapas, you might be wondering what types of dishes are the most popular. There are many of options out there. If you’re in Spain, the most common dishes will be dependent on regional tastes. Still, core ingredients such as nuts, olives, cheese, and meats are common options no matter where you are in the country.  In some tapas restaurants, the dish can be simple like a bit of tuna or olives. In other places, it can include small portions of savory, fully-cooked beef cheek with sweet potatoes.

Outside of Spain, tapas can be just as diverse in flavor, presentation, and price. While some places create Michelin-quality small plates, others stick to simpler fare like cold meats and spicy olives. Whether you order tapas from a traditional restaurant or an actual tapas bar, the variety of options is endless. Whichever version you experience, it’s safe to say that tapas are no longer limited to their origin country.

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