Understanding tapas

I’ve been to ‘tapas’ restaurants in England, and on past holidays to Spain. But now having lived in Granada in Andalusia for a few months, I realise that I was wrong about tapas.

I thought I knew the score. I liked manchego cheese. There were these great little non-spicy peppers, grilled and covered in salt, that worked really well with the cheese. Prawns (‘gambas’) were variable. And I used to like the cooked chorizo, which was really oily but tasty and came in small earthenware dishes you could dip the bread into.

Now I know what tapas is really about. It’s none of the above! And if you are visiting Granada — which still has an authentic tapas culture, then read on!

First of all, in Granada you get a free tapas (a small plate of something to eat) with every drink you order. That’s right — entirely free. It comes whether or not you ask for it. Usually you don’t have a choice about what it is — the choice is “eat it or don’t”. Some places do let you choose from a special tapas menu, but this is not the norm. That’s called ‘tapas a elegir’ — elegir meaning ‘to choose’.

The tapas menu at our local bar gets the thumbs up

Just imagine if we had this brilliant system in England. Food that comes automatically with every drink. How civilised! How much less likely to see people stumbling around bleary-eyed because they rushed down the pub and didn’t eat first and have forgotten what five beers on an empty stomach does to you.

Anyway I love it! And I love the no-fuss approach — you eat what you are given and don’t have to spend time agonizing about what’s tastier; the ‘albondigas’ (meatballs) or the paella. And best of all you don’t pay any extra. Only the drinks, which are usually 2 euros for a glass of wine or bottled beer. A glass of draft beer is even cheaper — typically 1 euro 50 cents, and either served in a small glass called a caña or a slightly bigger glass (more like a half pint) and called a ‘tubo’. BARGAIN!!

“Ah but what about the vegetarians/gluten-frees/pescatarians?”, I hear you cry. Don’t worry, this is Spain not France. You won’t be stared at like you have the plague if you tell them that you can’t eat something. My mum recently visited and she only eats animals with two legs (obviously not humans, but basically poultry and fish… nothing with four legs). That dietary requirement is enough to make most restaurants scratch their heads, so to keep it simple when we went out for tapas I just said we didn’t eat meat, except for fish — “Comimos pescado, pero no comimos carne.” It was no problem. We had open sandwiches topped with a mix of tomato, tuna and peppers… or with guacamole and anchovy. Or we went to veggie places like ‘Al-laural’ where everything is vegetarian anyway.

Not everywhere does tapas, but most places do. As a rule of thumb, the more relaxed places, and all the bars have tapas. Some posher or more formal restaurants don’t, and of course it’s a Spanish thing — you won’t get tapas in the Moroccan or italian restaurants.

If you can’t see a tapas menu, you can always ask ‘para tapear?’ Yes that’s right it even has it’s own verb — ‘tapear’! Tapear is distinguished from other types of eating (full blown ‘restaurant’ eating) which is referred to as ‘comer’ — the straightforward verb ‘to eat’. So if you’re asked, ‘Para comer?’ and you only want tapas, you should advise them ‘No, para tapear’. Some places have tables for eating tapas and others where they want you to order off the menu. The latter may be distinguished by table cloths and properly laid with glasses and cutlery, whereas the tapas tables are bare, like a bar table. But read on. You don’t have to order a three course meal if you do want more to eat than just the tapas.

A simple but delicious raciones of “Tomate aliñado” to supplement the often meat-heavy tapas

What if these little morsels leave you hungry? What if you only want one or two drinks and need to fill that tum? Well in that case, you can order supplementary tapas. And/or you can order ‘raciones’ from the main menu. Here again the culture is different to England, in that no one expects you to order a full-sized meal (“raciones”) for each person. If you do, you’ll be in trouble, as you’ll still get the free tapas! Lots of meals come in half-sized (“media”) portions, as well as full-sized (“entero”). So typically for lunch with Rob and the kids, if we bank on having two drinks each, and the tapas is small (it varies by place) we will order one or two extra ‘raciones’ for the four of us to share.

A further bit of advice, when you go to a place where you can choose which tapas you want, if you’re a group, don’t go all Californian and ask that each person has a different tapas. Agree on one tapas for all of you (if you are two or three people). Or if you’re four or more, then you can split it into two different choices, so that two of you have one tapas, and the other two have something different. Since they give you a different tapas with each drink you order, it would get ridiculously complicated if everyone was specifying different tapas with each drink. I think that’s fair enough given it’s a hospitable freebie don’t you!?

Having been here six months now I have a few favourite tapas bars to recommend. Bella Kurva which is very popular — you will have to squeeze in alongside people at tables, and has tapas a elegir, including a fabulous ceviche. Tocateja, which has delicious raciones like Rabo de Toro (oxtail) alongside tasty tapas and good quality wines. For tapas bars with a view, try La Tortuga Boba, which is in the beautiful setting of Plaza Romanilla and has a children’s park your kids can play in while you sit on their terrace. Another good tapas bar that’s off the beaten track, but has a great kids’ park and atmospheric square is Meson Tabarka.

View from the terrace of ‘La Tortuga Boba’ in Plaza Romanilla, Granada

So that’s how it works here in Granada. Friends tell me that most places in Spain no longer respect the tradition of offering free tapas, so I recommend you get over here as soon as possible while it’s still going!

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