Mary-Linh Tran

Editorial Assistant at Kitchen Stories

Whether or not you’ve had Spanish tapas before, chances are high you’ve had something in a similar vein. Most places around the world have specific dishes reserved to eat while drinking; think of the anju dishes of Korea (like this sweet and spicy fried chicken) to the endless bowls of maiz chulpe sprawled across the bars of Peru. What sets the Spanish tapa apart from its finger food friends, however, is more than what’s on the table: It’s the sherry-splattered counter tops of family-run taverns, the cacophony of laughter and clinking glasses, the flurry of fingers flying over plates, the taste of salt blown in from the surrounding seas, and above all else, it’s a social ritual—an everyday aspect of Spanish life that’s dedicated to sharing food.

Now that we’re hot and heavy in the peak of summer, what better way to bring your friends and family together than with a tapas fiesta? Most of these dishes can be made in under 30 minutes and taste best at room temperature, so you can prep ahead and assemble without breaking a sweat.

So… what makes a tapa, a tapa?

Tapas are tiny plates of food served at bars and restaurants, typically eaten before lunch and dinner. Since meals do run a bit later on the Iberian peninsula (dinner can be anywhere between 9PM and midnight), it’s not uncommon for people to bar hop or tapear (to eat tapas) between finishing work and starting dinner. Not to be mistaken with starter dishes like appetizers and hors d’oeuvres, which serve to stimulate your appetite for the main course, tapas are traditionally humble dishes—think potatoes, sardines, cold cuts and cheese plates—that you eat while drinking.

Stemming from the Spanish verb tapar, which means “to cover,” there are many theories on the birth of the tapa. Some believe tapas used to be slices of bread or meat placed atop glasses to prevent flies from diving into the drinks. Others believe they were invented by King Alfonso X of Castile, who ate small portions of food with wine while recovering from illness. He loved it so much he ordered the practice to be mandatory for all of Spain. Whichever theory strikes you as most accurate, one thing is certain: Tapas have evolved over the years into an elaborate web of regional specialties.

From fried eggplant slices drenched in honey to a bowl of pulpy green olives, tapas can be cold or hot, and the plentiful choices reflect the culinary identity of its region. In Galicia (northwest Spain), pulpo a feira (boiled octopus seasoned with olive oil and paprika) and pimientos de padrón are local favorites, whereas in Andalusia (southern Spain), pescaito frito (fried fish) and espetos (grilled sardines) are more common. Since tapas are said to have originated from Andalusia, some bars in this locality still serve tapas the old school way, meaning they’re complimentary when you buy a drink.

Although there are no real rules restricting what constitutes as a tapa, the flavor profile of Spanish tapas is somewhat more defined, relying heavily on garlic, chili, paprika, parsley, and olive oil.

Bringing home the flavors of Spain

Now that you’ve gotten a quick glimpse of the joy of tapear, bring the flavors of Spain home with any one (if not all) of these 12 recipes!

Tortilla

Think of the Spanish tortilla—which bears no resemblance to the Mexican tortilla, save for its name and round shape—as something closer to an omelette or frittata. The base for this dish is made up of olive oil-lacquered potato discs and caramelized onions, bound together by eggs. While the tortilla is fantastic on its own, this dish definitely lends itself to varying flavors and textures. Throw in leftover veggies, herbs that are starting to wilt, bacon bits, chorizo slices—here’s your chance to be creative!

Easy potato and onion tortilla

Easy potato and onion tortilla

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Pan con tomate

Pan con tomate (or pa amb tomàquet in Catalan) is a Catalonian no-cook tapa that requires only five ingredients: bread, tomato, garlic, olive oil, and flaky sea salt. It’s an especially humbling dish that requires just a knife and your two hands, but if you’re short on time, blend the tomato and slather the pulp over the bread. Wholesome, delicate, and a wonderful pick-me-up for summer afternoons or lazy breakfasts, this tapa will disappear from the table before you know it.

Catalan tomato and garlic bread

Catalan tomato and garlic bread

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Ensaladilla rusa

This tapa gets its namesake from the Belgian chef Lucien Olivier, who invented the salad in Moscow in the early 20th century. The modern Spanish rendition of it includes potatoes, tuna, peas, carrots, and of course, mayonnaise. In the south, it’s not uncommon to find tender bits of olives, boiled shrimp, and eggs tucked in, too. The most important thing to remember here is the mayonnaise, which, in all its creamy glory, is what makes this tapa so memorable. In this recipe, we added pickled herring and meat to the bowl, along with a splash of mustard to the homemade mayo to give the dressing a slightly savory and tangy bite.

Russian salad

Russian salad

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Gambas al Ajillo

Gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp) is a real crowd-pleaser in Spanish bars and on dinner tables alike. Imagine succulent shrimp doused in a fiery, garlicky sauce, sweetened with hints of white wine. This is a recipe you definitely want to have in your back pocket, especially for emergency hosting. It’s so darn easy and can be made in under 20 min. Don’t forget that shrimp cooks very quickly, so be sure to keep an eye on them when pan-frying.

Spanish-style garlic shrimp

Spanish-style garlic shrimp

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Croqueta

Spain isn’t the only place in the world that has a thing for breaded rolls stuffed with ham, fish, chicken, or veggies. It is, however, a place where crispy croquetas get smothered in a creamy béchamel sauce. Spaniards love their croquetas, and for good reason. Take a stab at this paprika-curry lentil croqueta, served on a citrusy salad made with heaps and heaps of cilantro and lime.

Lentil croquettes with cilantro-lime salad

Lentil croquettes with cilantro-lime salad

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Gazpacho

If you’ve ever been to Andalusia, you know that summers only mean one thing: lots and lots of gazpacho, aka cold soup. Made by blending raw vegetables, this bell pepper gazpacho bursts with summery veggies and is the ultimate cooling remedy for sweltering afternoons when your appetite is the last thing on your mind.

As with most tapas, gazpacho recipes in Spain vary depending on what’s locally available. Add an egg or a slice of ham atop the bowl as they do in Córdoba, or reserve some vegetable chunks to garnish as they do in Ávila.

Roasted bell pepper gazpacho

Roasted bell pepper gazpacho

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Pimientos de Padrón

Padrón peppers first reached Spain by way of Franciscan monks who brought them from South America. These days, Padrón peppers can be found in most tapa-serving establishments all throughout Spain. This is another simple recipe that comes together in under 15 min. Just fry these peppers until the green skin blisters and generously sprinkle flaky sea salt all over them. While most of these peppers have a mild, peppery taste with a slight bitterness to them, 1 in 10 pimientos will have a spicy kick to it, so eat with caution (or, like me, just gobble and gamble).

Blistered padrón peppers with garlic dip

Blistered padrón peppers with garlic dip

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Calamares

A Mediterranean dish at its truest, calamari in Spain is almost always served battered, deep-fried, and with a squeeze of lemon. For our calamari recipe, we opted for calamari skewers, sans frying, and the result is a plate full of tender calamari pieces set snugly between smoky Padrón peppers.

Calamari skewers

Calamari skewers

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Aioli

Aioli (alioli in Catalan) is a thick garlic sauce from Catalonia that’s become Spain’s quintessential condiment. If you’re a fan of mayo or any other emulsified sauce, you’ll love aioli too. This velvety, butter yellow dip is rich with finger-lickin’ garlic and earthy olive notes. It’s dippable, spreadable, and pourable, and goes great with just about anything: poached fish, grilled meat, roasted veggies, or plain old bread.

The traditional method of making aioli requires crushing garlic with salt and olive oil in a mortar with a pestle. This can be an onerous task, so we’ve created a shortcut aioli recipe that relies on egg as the emulsifier and cuts the prep time tenfold.

Homemade aioli

Homemade aioli

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Patatas Bravas

Patatas Bravas is perhaps Madrid’s most famous tapa. Akin to North American french fries and British chips, patatas bravas are crispy potato chunks fried in olive oil and garlic. Depending on where you are in Spain, you may see these patatas served with a tomato-paprika sauce or aioli. Remember: In Spain no two dishes are ever the same, so feel free to toss in sliced chorizo or shredded chicken to give this dish a bit more spunk.

Spanish roasted potatoes with salsa brava

Spanish roasted potatoes with salsa brava

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Pinchos

In the Basque country and other parts of northern Spain, pinchos or pintxos, are more common than tapas. Deriving from the Spanish verb pinchar, meaning to pierce, pinchos are a combination of various ingredients traditionally bound together by toothpicks, aka skewers. Unlike tapas, which can be upgraded to larger portions for sharing (then known as media ración or ración instead of tapas), pinchos are meant to be eaten individually. Since the only condition is that they must be attached to a stick, pinchos are great dishes for experimenting with various flavor and texture combinations. Our recipe calls for a surf n’ turf combo that feeds all our summer steak and crustacean cravings, but you can swap these out for the protein of your choice. Loosen up and see where your tastebuds and fingers take you!

Surf ‘n’ turf skewers

Surf ‘n’ turf skewers

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Empanada

Most of us will recognize these sometimes-baked, sometimes-fried crescent-shaped pastries as Latin American snacks, though empanadas actually trace back to the Spanish region of Galicia, where they take the form of double-crust pies loaded with onions, green peppers, garlic, and chicken or cod. When Spain reached the Americas, the whole world of empanadas widened to include new cooking methods, as well as new types of fillings, like cheese, vegetables, and even fruit.

This recipe draws its inspiration from the empanadas of Latin America, and on top of being delicious and portable, these savory pockets are also incredibly fun to make.

Empanadas

Empanadas

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