Tapas is Synonymous with Spanish Food
I bet you automatically think “tapas” when you think of Spanish food. Here in the U.S., we have come to think of tapas as the whole category of small plates of food from Spain. Sometimes they don’t even need to be Spanish. Sometimes tapas just means the restaurant serves small portions and encourages sharing. It’s pretty simple. Things get much more confusing when you try to eat tapas in Spain. Have you heard of pintxos?
What are Tapas?
Tapas might mean that you get a slice of cheese or a little bowl of olives when you order your glass of wine or beer. Sort of like chips and salsa appear as if by magic at a Tex-Mex restaurant here in Texas. It’s automatic. Complimentary tapas accompanying your drink order used to be the norm in Spain. In some places, like Andalucia and in more rural areas, this is still true. These days though, it can mean ANY small plate of food, which means ANYTHING can be a tapa if it is a small enough serving. It is more a style of eating than a type of food. It’s my favorite way of eating, btw. Order one as a quick, delicious snack or order several as a full meal to share with your friends. To my mind, there is no better way to eat.
What are Pintxos?
Matters get a bit more confusing when you head north. There you will see small plates referred to as pintxos or pinchos. You will often see the term used instead of tapas and in the same way. This type of small plate originated in the Basque country. Initially, it described small bites on skewers. These days many people use the word pintxo/pincho like we Americans use the word tapas. It might specify a type of tapas or the whole category, so context matters. Did someone ask you if you want a pintxo? Is there is a pintxo specific chalkboard posted in the bar? Expect food on a skewer. Did someone tell you she LOVES pintxos? They mean the whole category. I know… confusing.
A La Plancha: Griddled Things
More of a cooking method than a category many small plates begin on the plancha. This cooking method involves placing food on a screaming hot sheet of metal. The plancha is not dedicated to meats either. Anything can go on the plancha. It could be steaks, fish, mushrooms or red peppers. Everything is more delicious when cooked on the plancha! Once cooked the items might find themselves on a skewer or as part of a montadito (see below). The possibilities are endless!
The Spanish love of beans becomes clear once you spend any time in Spain. In Spring expect small sweet peas and all sorts of beans that only appear when they are at their peak. These beloved green peas, favas, and spring legumes are anything but humble. They are key components in refreshing cold salads in the spring and summer. When the weather cools, you will find their dried cousins in a hearty warming braise. They often come served in small ceramic cazuelas that are typical of the Spanish table.
Estofados: Stewed and Braised Things
Other items you might find in a cazuela are a variety of long-cooked foods like braised oxtails or a fish stew.
Fritos: Fried Things
Here in the US, we fry many, many things. Generally, fried fish fillets, fried potatoes or fried chicken. Well, let me introduce you to the world of Spanish fried foods! How about a little cup of golden crispy artichoke leaves with a side of light yellow, creamy lemon aioli? Or would prefer a small plate of croquetas de bacalao? Delightful little golden brown balls of deep-fried salt cod and cheese. Even more traditional, a plate of tiny whole fish breaded and deep-fried. Spaniards eat them in one or two bites with an accompanying ale. Why yes please, I would like that very much!
These small plated salads are usually light on lettuce, but big on flavor. You might get a plate of paper-thin shaved mushrooms with a light vinaigrette. Or a plate of roasted beets and fresh apple dressed in with sherry vinegar and fresh herbs. Spanish salads are always delicious. You will never receive a dull plate of iceberg lettuce and sliced tomato!
Pintxos: Things on Skewers
Most often found on plates on the bar. These cold but delicious little creations are a sight to behold! Imagine, a creamy white and yellow deviled egg topped with a curled pink and white striped shrimp. Now envision that shrimp wrapped around a thin, leaf-green pickled Padron pepper. Then it is all held together with a small bamboo skewer called a “palillo.” Right next to that pintxo there is a little white plate. On it is a stack of purple caramelized shallots. The shallots sandwich a creamy white square of idiazabal cheese. The whole dish is also drizzled with a sherry vinegar reduction. Beautiful right?
Montaditos: Things on Toast
You can find these lovely little bites on most bars waiting for hungry diners to snatch them up. These small bites are no less gorgeous and creative than their skewered counterparts! Imagine, an oval of golden toast spread with herbed creme fraiche. Then draped with a dark green arugula leaf. On top of the arugula, a bright red roll of seared beef. The entire bite crowned with a dollop of onion jam.
Bocadillos: Little Sandwiches
Here in the US, we call these sliders. They are oh so much more than that! Like all sandwiches,
Warm or cold, the Spanish love their soups. The most famous of which is cold tomato soup (gazpacho) Their cold soups don’t stop there though. You might get an icy cold shot of white asparagus, and potato soup. You are likely to encounter sweeter versions. Enjoy a lovely pale orange melon soup sprinkled with chili flakes and topped with a piece of crispy ham. If the weather is colder, your little shot of soup might be a bit of creamy, briny, clam chowder. These little shots of soup pack a lot of intense flavor into a small package.
Racion: A small plated item
Raciones are never
These might contain meat like lamb, pork, beef or even fish! They include breadcrumbs and egg and are usually floured and then fried. They might come sprinkled with parsley and covered with a gravy or a mustard sauce. If you are in southern Spain, you might see these listed as
Conservas: Preserved Things
Unlike canned foods here in the U.S., Spanish conservas are high gourmet fare. You will find tuna, razor clams, sardines, mussels, octopus, and more. Preserved and canned in various ways including salt, oil, vinegar and even sea water. Conservas are not mass canned for the sake of economy. Instead, the preservation process is a careful craft. The people that can these foods consider, each element of the process to achieve the best flavor. Conservas
As you can see Spanish small plates are as varied and diverse as Spain itself. No matter what you call them they represent one of the most beloved of Spanish traditions good times with friends and family!
If you are interested in finding out more about Spanish small plates, I highly recommend Gerald Hirigoyen’s “Pintxos: Small plates in the Basque Tradition” and Simone and Ines Ortega’s “The Book of Tapas.”
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