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Tapas: How A Spanish Staple Has Been Fused with Cuisines from Around the World
Tapas have a rich tradition as a staple of the Spanish diet, and their popularity has spread around the globe – even into other cuisines – for their convenience and adaptability to almost any occasion.
The true origins of tapas remain unclear, but their popularity seems bedded in the practice of hotels of inkeeps offering food along with lodging to travellers in pre-19th Century Spain. With hosts unable to write and travellers often unable to read, in place of a menu innkeepers would serve a small sample of dishes on a pot lid. ‘Tapa’ is Spanish for pot cover, although the word has now earned its place defining not just a category of restaurant but a style of serving food in small bite-sized pieces.
Other sources record that later, bars would serve drinks with a cover on top to keep the flies away and that trend somehow morphed into serving small pieces of ham or bread on the cover – although it is not altogether clear how bartenders then kept the flies off the food! Soon, a growing spirit of competition saw bartenders try to outperform each other, serving innovative snacks on the covers and so a whole new dining culture was born.
Yet another much less romantic theory is that bar owners created tapas because they thought it a good idea guests had something to eat while drinking…
Regardless of the origins, now it is common to find a selection of tapas on menus of restaurants all around the world specialising in not just Spanish food, but other European styles along with South American or even Asian fusion cuisines. In Chinese-influenced culinary capitals in Asia, like Singapore and Hong Kong, tapas have caught on with the local population in part due to their conceptual similarity to dim sum: light, small dishes bursting with different flavours.
One of the reasons tapas have become so popular in modern times is the variety of tastes and styles offered. The Spanish eat dinner late - traditionally between 9pm and 11pm and often as late as midnight - leaving a long time between the end of the workday and mealtime. It is part of the local culture to roam around different bars buying a drink at each and sampling different tapas on the way. Visitors to Spain are warned not to commit the cultural faux pas of piling one’s plate with many tapas: they are bite-sized treats to be enjoyed one at a time.
In Spain, one can find tapas on sale in larger restaurants, small cafes or trendy bars, served as snacks, appetisers or collectively as a full meal. They are created hot or cold, spicy or mild, and made with meat, fish, cheese or vegetarian ingredients. In some Central American countries, tapas are known as ‘bocas’.
The range of tapas is literally unlimited, but worldwide there are some dishes that have become prolific and thus are permanently associated with the term. Among the most popular and traditional dishes are:
Patatas Bravas – fried potato chunks served with spicy tomato sauce or creamy garlic mayo.
Tortilla Espanola – Spanish potato omelette.
Calamares – fried squid.
Gambas Pil-Pil – prawns served in hot garlic oil.
Chorizo, usually served sliced in oil, but also served cold.
Jamon Serrano – cured ham.
Croquetas – deep-fried balls filled with jamon, fish or sometimes blue cheese.
Albondigas – meatballs.
Boquerones – anchovies.
Manchego Cheese served on toast.
More recently, as other cuisines have borrowed from the concept, tapas have encompassed casseroles, stews and even small servings of the famous Spanish paella, a rice dish that originated in Valencia usually made with seafood, chorizo and other meats.
Tapas in Asia
At 22 Ships, a modern tapas restaurant in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai, the menu includes obviously Asian-inspired offers such as Marinated Heirloom Tomatoes and Rusa and Sea Urchin on toast.
Down in Singapore, Lè Fusion, near Robertson Quay, serves a collection of Tapas spanning multiple food styles, including Deep Fried Golden Bean Curd Filo, Crispy Salmon Skin with XO Dipping Sauce, Grilled Black Pepper Trio Sausage, and Extra Crispy Chicken Mid Wing.
More common fusion dishes served around Asia Pacific include:
Sliders – baby burgers consumed in one or two bites.
Spring rolls – very much a nod to Asian cuisine.
Gazpacho, the chilled soup from Andalusia on Spain’s Iberican peninsula.
In North America, modern tapas restaurants have expanded the concept into desserts, with babycakes, brownies or cookies, but in Spain you’re more likely to be served exquisite cakes or the national indulgence, Churros - deep-fried sticks of dough served with chocolate dipping sauce.
Whether by name or influence, tapas has grown from a traditional Spanish snack or light meal into a global phenomenon which knows no boundaries of ingredients, temperature or flavour.