When cabin fever begins to terrorize even the most cheerful Midwesterner, tapas are the perfect excuse to socialize. This Spanish tradition is a great way to enjoy the last stretch of winter without too much planning or stress.
In recent years, tapas have exploded onto the American food scene. These small snacks, eaten between meals with wine, date back to a 13th-century Spanish king, Alfonso the Wise.
Tapas don’t have to be intimidating or pretentious to be enjoyed. And many recipes are simple to prepare, even at a moment’s notice.
After living in Spain for six months and experiencing the endless varieties of Spanish food, Jane Di Leo of Columbia came to understand the essence of tapas.
“Tapas are a good way to get a party started,” Di Leo said. “In Spain, eating food is a social thing, and tapas are the center of that.”
Tapas aren’t meant to be eaten as a meal. A tapeo, a gathering for eating tapas, is mostly about the mingling.
Local restaurateur Miguel Martinez, co-owner of Dali’s Spanish Restaurant in Columbia, shared his secrets for a fulfilling tapeo in your own home.
“When I have people at my house, I put 15 to 20 tapas on the table. The people are there to enjoy the food, but mostly, they are there to socialize,” Martinez said.
Originally from Barcelona, Martinez explains the distinctiveness of tapas. “Each tapa has a different flavor, from the patatas bravas to the calamari. Our tasting of each tapa is so different. Everybody comes in to enjoy the food but really to celebrate … themselves.”
Even if there is little time to cook, a small gathering can turn into a tapeo with just a few items. Spanish food consists of a few main staples, such as olive oil, green olives, crusty bread, serrano ham or prosciutto, a semi-hard, semi-sweet Spanish cheese like manchego, and mahón, a gouda-like cheese from Majorca best served with sherry.
Arrange the food on serving platters, then slice some baguettes and let guests serve themselves.
If you have more time for planning and preparation, Martinez suggests preparing some traditional favorites such as the
Spanish tortilla, shrimp with garlic and olive oil and sangria for your get-together. And for something sweet to top off the evening, try toasted bread and bittersweet chocolate. Martinez also suggests finishing the evening with a liqueur such as Gran Marnier as a digestive aid.
For the authentic tapeo, follow the lead of Spanish bars. Just set out small plates and allow the quests to serve themselves with toothpicks. Make sure you have enough food for about four to five tapas per guest. There is no need to worry about seating, as tapas are generally meant to be eaten while standing and mingling.
Serve red and white wines from the Rioja region of Spain. It is the highest-rated wine region of the country. Martinez strongly suggests sangria, a traditional beverage made with wine and citrus fruits.
Martinez has his own theory about why Spanish food has become so common in the United States.
“Spain began to export more serrano ham, Spanish wine and cheeses. This led to people being more excited about the Spanish gastronomy. And tapas have become popular due to places like Columbia. People travel around Europe and Spain and they try foods. And they want those foods again when they come back,” he said.
Excited by his own memory, Martinez explains what it means to eat tapas in Spain.
“Bars in Spain are a place to have espresso, beer, wine and to socialize. At a table, you order a ración (a plate of tapas) from a menu. And you share them with everybody at your table. …All the tapas are out on the bar. It’s more like, ‘Hey! Give me another croquette!’ It’s more intimate,” he said.
Due to food regulations in the United States, tapas are ordered off the menu and served for everyone at a table to share.
The Spanish seem to be more relaxed about the tapeo.
“In Spain, you can show the food on top of the bar and you pick up everything you want, hot or cold. In the south (of Spain), when you order a chato (a glass of wine) you get a pinxto (a small tapa), a tortilla or even a croquette,” Martinez said.
Even when you are not in Spain, do as the Spanish do — tranquile — relax and have a tapas get-together. Or as Martinez said, “Vamos a tapeo! (Let them enjoy and eat the tapas!)”