Discovering the mystique behind Tapas

Zubin Dsouza

There was once a time when the known world was actually a collection of colonies controlled by a handful of superpowers.

It was around the same time when Spain was the most formidable and impressive empire in the world.

It was an empire so massive and magnificent that it straddled both sides of the International Date Line. This ensured that no matter the time of the day, there was always daylight in some part of the empire allowing it to earn a title that was often wistfully said. A title that when paraphrased ran something like ‘the sun never sets on the Spanish Empire’.

In the process of spreading their wings and finding new lands to conquer, the Spanish crown came across a number of interesting ingredients that they started bringing back home.

Potatoes, tomatoes, corn, avocadoes, peppers and cocoa were some of the ingredients that were brought in from the New World.

These products were looked on with awe and immediately created ripples of excitement amongst the gentry.

It immediately opened up wonderful new avenues for what was the Spanish dining adventure known as tapas.

Spaniards are notorious amongst the Europeans for their late dining hours. It is not uncommon for them to sit down for dinner post 10 p.m. Since most of them eat lunch around an hour past noon, they tend to get grubby and cranky towards the later part of the evening.

They stumbled across the most extraordinary solution. They would serve alcohol accompanied by small plates of appetisers or snacks from about 5 p.m. The snacks would be just small enough to stave off hunger and large enough to stop people from biting other people’s heads off in a hunger induced frenzy.

There were basically only two rules – the plates and offering sizes were meant to be small so that diners could try out a wide variety of products and they almost always had to be savoury products.

The latter part was more of an invention by bartenders who realised that salty foods tended to make their customers go thirsty and order more drinks.

Although the food did not necessarily have to be fancy because even a few chunks of cheese, a smattering of marinated olives or slices of cured ham could qualify, the country of Spain embraced this concept with gusto.

There was first a couple, then a hundred and finally a couple of hundred different options to be served for tapas.

They even invented a verb ‘tapear’ which when conjugated means ‘to get tapas’ or ‘go out to dine on tapas’ and another verb ‘picar’ which means to ‘pick on your food’!

The word ‘tapa’ which is the original influence for the etymology of tapas means ‘cover or top’ and is part of one of the legends that people claim lead to the evolution of this wonderful social experience.

King Alfonso XIII was travelling through the Andalusian region and he stopped at a rather famous tavern in Cadiz. Since the city lay by the coast and tended to be windy, the bartender placed a slice of cured ham on the king’s order to prevent the dust or insects from getting in. The king savoured his drink and ate the ham as well. The entire court followed suit not wanting to leave their king alone in what was an obvious social faux pas. Matters would have ended there if the king hadn’t ordered a second drink ‘with the cover’ thus sparking a rather interesting culinary fashion.

Cadiz wasn’t the first city however to experiment with using food as lids for drinks. Spain as a seafaring nation was replete with wannabe sailors always on the lookout for cheap drinks the minute their feet hit solid ground. Bartenders always masked the fragrances of their inferior drinks by placing slices of strong smelling ham or cheeses on top of the glasses of the drinks they served.

One of the predecessors to King Alfonso XIII was unsurprisingly King Alfonso X. His physicians suggested that to help him recover from a suspected heart ailment he had to have sips of wine and pieces of cheese. The king recovered soon enough and realising that his drinking did not result in drunkenness or hangovers issued a decree that all taverns had to serve drinks with a small portion of food.

It is his heart ailment that we are so grateful to him till today.


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