“Is this tapas?”

This is one of the most-asked questions by foreigners whenever they eat something in Spain. And I won’t blame them — tapas are surrounded by legends and guides that only serve to make the experience unnecessarily complicated. This article won’t be an ultimate guide but will try to at least solve some of the most common doubts and kill a few myths. As with everything in Spain, remember things will be different depending on the region. Play it safe by sticking to the always useful when-in-Rome strategy. Or, as we say in Spain: donde fueres, haz lo que vieres.

What are tapas?

What are tapas exactly? A tapa is a bit of food usually served when you order a drink. While their size can vary, they’re usually smaller than what you would have for a complete meal (there are some glorious exceptions to this, however). There are no rules for their shape and content either; they are sometimes meant to be shared and eaten with toothpicks, but they can also be small individual dishes with their own little cutlery or something you can eat with your hands.

They will also take different forms depending on where you are in Spain. Basque Country’s pintxos are one of the most popular variants: they usually come on top of a piece of bread and use a toothpick to keep all the components together.

Are they free?

It depends. We can divide tapas into two groups: the free tapa and the tapas you order and pay for. You’ll get the first one just by ordering a drink and it can be anything, from a small bowl of olives to a fully-cooked dish of callos. In those regions where the free tapa is decently sized (Andalusia, Galicia, and León will keep you satiated, for example) it is possible, if you choose the bar wisely, to have lunch or dinner paying only for drinks. But you might end up a bit tipsy.

Then we have the tapas you need to pay for; these are ordered the same way you would order your drink or something from the menu. Tapas bars usually have a list of the available options somewhere visible or directly on the menu. Note that these tapas you order and pay for are usually meant to be shared among several people.

What’s not acceptable is to be served something without you having asked for it and then charged for it if you eat it. If they do this to you, don’t ever go back to that bar or restaurant and leave an angry review on TripAdvisor.

How should I order and pay for the tapas?

The bar itself will make its own preferred modality clear. If there’s a list or a menu, you can choose from there; if you see the tapas disposed at the bar, you can just point at the ones you want. Nothing too complicated, as you can see. In Spain’s official tourism website they say there are places where you can directly grab the things you want from the bar, but I’ve never seen that happening and none of my friends from different regions of Spain has seen it either. Play it safe and talk to a waiter before acting as if the bar was some kind of buffet.

When it comes to paying, usually the waiter kept track to what you have eaten and will tell you how much you owe. If you’ve eaten pintxos, however, you might encounter a different method — they count the sticks left on your plate and make the calculation. No, it’s not a good idea to make some of these sticks disappear to try and pay less. Waiters are not stupid.

Is it compulsory to eat them at the bar?

You might encounter some tapas place with this rule, but it’s not the usual. You’ll have the same tapas rights if you sit on a table.

Can I choose which tapa I want?

Obviously, if you pay for it, you can. The free tapa is usually chosen by the bar you find yourself in, but there are some regions — Almería, for example — or particular bars where they will offer you several options to choose your free tapa from. If you don’t like what you’ve been served for free and won’t eat it, tell the waiter right away. If you’re lucky, you might get something different in exchange.

What foods can be tapas?

Anything. The content is not essential, the concept is that a tapa is a rather small portion of food. Tapas can range from something as simple as a bowl of chips to something more complicated like a fully cooked meal of meatballs, ensaladilla, or the callos we mentioned earlier. But anything is susceptible to becoming a tapa. These are some of the most popular options:

Tortilla española (also called tortilla de patatas, Spanish omelette)

Photo: bonchan/Shutterstock

Not to be confused with a tortilla from Mexico, tortilla española is made with potatoes, onions, and eggs. It’s all cooked in oil and served either hot or room temperature. “This is one of the most famous tapas,” says Nico Lopez, research and development chef at Mercado Little Spain. “It is an iconic dish in Spanish gastronomy, one that people recognize and seek out.”

Croquetas

Commonly made with ham (croquetas de jamón), these little fritters are a common accompaniment to a light drink. A Spanish croqueta skips the potatoes and instead uses a thick bechamel sauce and another main ingredient. Other than ham, other options include, but aren’t limited to, cheese and spinach (croquetas de espinacas y queso), cheese (croquetas de queso), and seafood (croquetas de marisco).

Patatas bravas

A simple small plate that shouldn’t be underrated. Patatas bravas are fried potatoes with a spicey salsa brava sauce. If served with an aioli, it’s patatas aioli.

Calamari

Thin slices of squid fried with a light batter and served with garlic aioli.

Gambas al ajillo

Photo: THANAN KONGDOUNG/Shutterstock

Literally translating to garlic shrimp, this typical tapas dish is made with shrimp, garlic, and spices. “In this tapa you will find amazing umami from the combination of the sweetness of the shrimp, spiciness of the guindilla (a chili pepper from Spain), the bittersweet flavor from the caramelized garlic, and the aromas of the brandy and bay leaf,” Lopez says.

Pa amb tomàquet

Best when fresh tomatoes are available, pa amb tomàquet is simply toasted bread with tomato, olive oil, garlic, and salt. Cured meat and cheese sometimes come on the side or on top. It’s often incorrectly written by people who aren’t Catalan as pan tumaca.

Pulpo á feira

Pulpo á feira is grilled octopus chopped up into bite-size pieces and seasoned simply with olive oil, paprika, and salt. It’s also sometimes called Pulpo a la gallega.

When did Spaniards start eating tapas?

Which came first, Spain or tapas? It appears it was Spain — tapas, as we know them now, are kind of recent, as they started after the Spanish civil war.

But this doesn’t mean that’s the origin of tapas. It seems that tapas come from an old tradition of eating small bites of food to keep hunger at bay. The funniest theory says everything started when the king Alfonso X of Castile was prescribed to drink several glasses of wine during the day but didn’t want to end up drunk already at noon. His solution? Eating a bit of food with every glass. There are other theories and legends: those bites of food served to hide (tapar in Spanish means ‘to cover, to hide’) the effects of alcohol; the tapa was used to cover the glass and prevent flies from jumping into the drink; etc. Just pick your favorite one!

Do I have to throw the napkins to the floor?

Please, don’t. Especially if the floor is clean and no one else is doing it. But, even if you are in one of those bars where locals throw everything to the floor (it’s becoming less and less common, but they still exist), it’s an ugly thing to do and many places are trying to end it. So just leave the napkin on the table.

Is this how Spaniards eat all their meals?

No. At home, we prefer to eat full-size dishes instead of having to cook five different things. We do sometimes say we will have lunch or dinner “de tapas” at home, but it usually means “let’s see what leftovers we have in the fridge.”

What’s ir de tapas, de tapeo or tapear?

Different ways of saying the same thing, really. The free tapa is something nice that comes as a gift when you order any beverage at a bar. But if you’re with more people and you intend to have lunch or dinner by eating tapas, you can talk about those three things. Ideally, tapeo will take you from one bar to the other, and from free tapa to free tapa, but this isn’t always possible nor practical. You can tapear by staying all the time in the same place just by ordering different tapas to share with your friends. You won’t end up as tipsy as with the free tapas strategy, but you can still say you’ve been tapeando or de tapas.

Can I tapear any time of the day?

The free tapa doesn’t really depend on the time of day, but if you want to have lunch or dinner de tapas is probably best to try and do it at lunchtime or dinnertime. In Spain, this means from 1-1:30 PM to 3:30 PM and between 8:30 PM and midnight.

Is it a good idea to go to a tapas bar outside of Spain?

Not really. Actually, even the concept of a tapas bar is strange because in Spain most bars will have tapas. There are some places specialized in tapas called taperías, but ‘tapas bar’, as an expression, is redundant. I’m not saying the food won’t be tasty, but it will probably be far from the real experience and you’ll likely pay too much.

A version of this article was previously published on June 15, 2018 by Ana Bulnes, and was updated on October 16, 2019 by Nickolaus Hines.