Tapas are small plates, or appetizers. They originated in Spain; the Spanish prefer to eat while drinking, so establishments would offer tapas for free for drinkers to pair with their wine or beer. The tapas generally were snacks such as almonds, olives or cubes of sheep's milk cheese. Today, the tapas menu has expanded to include a variety of both hot and cold dishes, and there are restaurants throughout the world that are dedicated to selling these small plates.
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When tapas first originated, they consisted of foods that required little to no preparation. In Spanish, "tapa" means to cover or lid, and many believe the first tapas were merely a hunk of bread that was placed over a glass to keep the flies away. The tradition of having a snack while drinking stuck, and as the tradition developed, the small dishes became more elaborate and diverse. Regions began creating their own specialties, and bar owners strived to cook up tapas that stood out from the rest. Tapas continued to evolve as Spain came in contact with other countries and cultures. The Romans, for instance, introduced olives to Spanish cuisine, while the discovery of the New World introduced beans, potatoes, sweet peppers and chili peppers.
Tapas by Region
Because Spain's landscape is diverse and the climate ranges throughout the country, tapas are different in each region. The northern coastal regions, for instance, specialize in seafood tapas that are rich and hearty and feature fish from the Atlantic Ocean. The eastern coast, on the other hand, has a Mediterranean-like cuisine, with oranges, almonds and aromatic herbs.
Tapas have come to encompass a variety of ingredients and flavors, from marinated olives and cubes of Manchego cheese to small portions of paella. Ingredients are fresh and the flavors are robust, but generally the dishes are unpretentious. Some of the most popular tapas include patatas brava, which are fried potatoes covered in a spicy tomato sauce; tortilla patata, a simple tapa consisting of potatoes cooked with olive oil, onions and eggs; and fresh seafood, such as shrimp sautéed with olive oil and garlic.
Entertaining with Tapas
Tapas are the perfect foods to prepare for a get-together with friends, and preparing tapas will give you a good introduction to cooking Spanish cuisine. Tapas can be simple and still delicious enough to wow a crowd. Sample menus may include a small bowl of tamari-roasted almonds, toasted bread with roasted garlic aioli and piquillo peppers and fire-roasted potatoes on a wooden skewer.