Over the centuries, Spain has evolved into a melting pot of cultures, each of which has left its own impression on its cuisine. The Phoenicians brought the sauces, Greeks brought the olive oil, and the Romans, Carthaginians and Jews added their own touch to the mix. And then there were the Moors, whose spices and dried fruit really made Spanish cuisine very different from its immediate neighbours in Western Europe.
Spanish food isn’t familiar territory for most Indians including me, the primary purpose of which is the relative dearth of Spanish food here. Raj’s Spanish Café in Sudder Street in the Dharmatala area of central Kolkata serves up classics like gazpacho and tortilla de patatas (more on these soon), and I’ve had an amazing dish called prawns pil pil dish in Monkey Bar in Kolkata which I realise in hindsight is basically a type of Spanish tapas, but other than that, this is brand new territory. So, let’s start our exploration of the Spanish tapas by turning to an expert. This whole article has been illustrated with images from an amazing book by chef Omar Allibhoy.
“So how do you define tapas? There are many theories as to its origins but originally a bar would serve a small, free tapa — usually a slice of cured meat or a piece of cheese — on a small plate with every drink. According to some sources these were used to cover wine glasses to keep flies out (the word “tapa” originates from the word for “to cover”). From these humble beginnings tapas have developed into a cuisine, and nowadays they can be small portions of pretty much any of the dishes that make up Spain’s wonderful culinary legacy”.
Omar Allibhoy, Tapas Revolution.
Let us start with the simplest dishes, the “munchies” of the tapas world before delving into more complex dishes. Tapas is synonymous with sherry, and these small snacks are the perfect accompaniment a wide variety of sherry. And where there’s wine, there’s bar snacks. And the most ubiquitous of these is the almond. They can be simply roasted and salted, fried in oil or even caramelized. You could even flavour it with rosemary, paprika, or anything else you fancy.
Another ubiquitous tapas staple is the olive. Olives are found all around the Mediterranean, and it is no wonder that the briny pop of olives features everywhere from French charcuterie boards to Italian antipasti to Spanish tapas. Spanish olives however, get subjected to its unique flavour palette. Lemon and orange zest, chopped garlic, and red paprika are common additions, along with a generous drizzle of olive oil. Paprika is a smoked spice which is an essential flavour note of Spain and features in a wide array of Spanish dishes. It has several varieties based on degree of heat and is made from smoked peppers which gives it a signature smoky aroma.
Of course, the olives can do better than mere seasoning and flavouring. They can be used in combination with other small bites to produce appetizers in their own right. Pair it with some anchovies, red pepper, cheese or ham. Play around with the combinations to produce different mouthfuls every time. Of course, each of these other components form the basis for their very own tapas too, minus the olive. One of the commonest cheeses found in a tapas bar is the Manchego, a semi-hard sheep milk cheese. Anchovies marinaded in sherry or red wine vinegar, and flavoured with garlic and parsley, called boquerones, are another common tapas item.
As for cold cuts, the Rolls Royce of ham actually hails from Spain. The jamon Iberico de Bellota, a variety of Iberian ham is a cured ham made from black Iberian black pigs whose acorn-fed diet translates into ham of superlative quality, making it the most expensive in the world. The jamon serrano or Serrano Ham comes from a cross-bred white pig and is therefore a tad lighter on the pocket. In any case, Spanish hams are exquisite and are an integral part of tapas. While Iberico ham is almost exclusively enjoyed as it is, cut into thin strips and paired with olives, cheese or sherry, serrano ham can be eaten as it is or used for cooking. A tapas staple is the croquetas de jamon or ham croquettes, which are basically deep-fried balls of ham held together by bechamel sauce.
Another integral part of the Spanish cured meats tradition are the sausages, and the most common is undoubtedly the chorizo. It is made with mince pork and flavoured with paprika along with other spices, which gives it a heat and a signature red colour. Chorizo is great to be consumed as it is, although it works equally well as a cooking ingredient, made into stews with potatoes and beans, or maybe as a filling for an empanada. It can be cooked down with cider or wine, or even flambéed with brandy at the table, which adds a visual spectacle to the dimly-lit tapas bar, the addition of alcohol a clear middle finger to the Moors, whose mezze tradition is believed to have inspired tapas.
This tradition of giving the culinary finger is best exemplified in the next dish, called Pinchos Morunos, which are skewers of pork flavoured with Moorish spices like cumin and oregano. How better to insult the Moors than use their flavours in a dish whose primary protein is taboo in their religion? Of course, all dishes have to be so out there. Another great meat tapa is the albondigas or meatballs, served with a lovely tomato sauce. Chicken is also a popular tapas item, and chicken wings or skewers cooked with sherry or flavoured with garlic or paprika or both, are quite common.
Which brings us to seafood. Spain is known for its amazing seafood, and it forms a crucial component of the its cuisine, from the seafood and rice medley flavoured with paprika and saffron called paella to a wide variety of tapas dishes. The familiar flavours of garlic, chilli, parsley and olive oil predominate but never overpower the seafood. From fried squid rings to clams and mussels cooked and topped with a garlic, parsley and chilli sauce, from grilled octopus stained and flavoured with paprika to prawns cooked with garlic (gambas al ajillo) or on the grill (gambas a la plancha), the Spaniards know how to treat this bounty of the sea with the respect it deserves. The a la plancha style can be used not just for seafood, but also other ingredients like vegetables.
Ah yes, the vegetables. From the simplest dishes of padron peppers quickly blistered with oil in a pan, to sweet roasted bell peppers paired with cheese and ham or stuffed with a goat cheese filling, from mushrooms sautéed with garlic and thyme or stuffed with chorizo or cheese, to artichokes sautéed with garlic, pine nuts and ham or asparagus grilled a la plancha, vegetables make up a large portion of the tapas spread. Some of the more universal vegetarian tapas dishes however, use two of the biggest imports from the New World, things which caught on after Columbus returned from his voyage before it spread literally everywhere.
Tomatoes are to Spain what olive oil is to Italy or butter is to France. You can trust a nation that has an entire festival centered around tomatoes to take the ingredient seriously. From the famous chilled tomato soup called gazpacho to the sofrito, a base of tomatoes, onions and garlic which acts as a flavour base for numerous Spanish dishes, tomatoes are everywhere in Spain, including tapas. Dishes can be as simple as tomatoes cooked with a little olive oil and garlic, or a piece of toast rubbed with garlic and tomatoes. A simple tomato sauce can be slathered on toast, bruschetta-style or used as a component of a tapas classic featuring yet another New World import.
Patatas bravas translates not to “brave potatoes” as many think, but “fierce potatoes”, the so-called ferocity imparted by the chillies in the tomato sauce. It involves cubes of potatoes fried or baked, topped with a tomato sauce spiked with paprika and chillies and sometimes an aioli or a garlic mayonnaise. It is the ultimate bar snack, and showcases both tomatoes and potatoes at their very best. The other great potato dish from Spain, tortilla de patatas, is Spain’s take on the stuffed omelette or frittata. Thin slices of potatoes and onion are cooked till soft, then mixed in with the egg. This entire mixture is then cooked on both sides till the outside is nice and brown while the inside is soft and custardy.
From olives and tomatoes to an abundance of seafood and cured meats, all accented with garlic, paprika, parsley and exotic imports like saffron, orange zest and spices, Spanish cuisine is rich and complex, and the tapas tradition is the perfect gateway to this amazing cuisine. It is a shame that Spanish cuisine isn’t big here in India because it is the result of the amalgamation of a huge variety of cultures blending seamlessly to create a cuisine that is truly unique.