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Travel Director, Javier, on how to eat tapas like a local

Recently updated on July 27th, 2023 at 09:48 am

Warm conversation and nose-tingling aromas fill the room. A glass feels another splash of sangria. And delicious Spanish small plates are shared between friends and family. Sound familiar? We’re describing the wonders of tapas – the heart of Spanish food culture.

To dive into what makes Spanish tapas so special, we caught up with Madrid local and Trafalgar Travel Director (Javier Galvez), who reveals how to eat tapas like a Spanish local.

Over to Javier…

Meet Trafalgar Travel Director: Javier Galvez

Javier (Trafalgar Travel Director)

“I have been running Spain tours with Trafalgar for 26 years. I show guests around vibrant cities like Barcelona, Bilbao, Madrid, Seville, San Sebastián, Pamplona, Zaragoza, Valencia, Granada, Cordoba, Toledo and many more! Immediately, you’ll spot mouth-watering tapas (sharing small plates) pop up on street corners and in restaurants. And tasting tapas is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in Spanish culture right away.”

GET INSPIRED BY: Best of Spain tour

What is the origin of tapas?

“Legends swirl around the origin of tapas. It’s believed King Alfonso X made sure all drinks were served with food in the 13th century to prevent people becoming too drunk. And this definitely makes sense.

But the most famous story is that drinkers put food (like bread and ham) over their beers in hot Spanish taverns during summer to stop flies and bugs going in. The Spanish verb “tapar” means “to cover” – and so ‘tapas’ or ‘tapa’ (singular: meaning lid or cover) was born.

This story is dated to the 19th century under King Alfonso XIII; and since then tapas has grown more popular by the minute.”

What exactly is Spanish tapas?

Trafalgar guests in San Sebastian (Best of Spain tour)

“Tapas is a style of eating, a culture – and of course it refers to our delicious dishes. Put simply: these are small sharing plates. We believe sharing food is the best and easiest way to make conversation because you aren’t so focused on a big meal for one in front of you. It’s a sort of mini-cuisine: You can either eat it as snacks (using your hand, a cocktail stick, fork or spoon to eat, while holding a drink in the other – which is complimentary in some restaurants (like in Granada). Or as a meal in itself made up of lots of lovely dishes. This is most common nowadays.

Spanish tapas comes in different types. ‘Pincho’ (stabbed with a stick to eat; ‘montaditos’ (filled bread rolls), ‘tostas’ (open sandwiches), stews and other small dishes. And remember: ask for ‘pintxos’ (meaning tapas) when you’re in the Basque country in northern Spain – like Bilbao and San Sebastian.”

What are the most delicious tapas to try?

Spanish tapas
Patatas bravas, calamari and Spanish chorizo

“Wow. There is a huge variety of different flavours and aromas to choose from. Hot and cold. So here are a handful you must try in Spain:

  • Gambas al Ajillo (sauté prawns: garlic, chili, pepper)
  • Chorizo al vino (chorizo in wine)
  • Tortilla Española (Spanish tortilla)
  • Piementos de padron (green peppers)
  • Patatas bravas (crispy + soft potato)
  • Croquetas de Jamón Serrano (Spanish ham potato croquettes)
  • Manchego cheese (a buttery and sweet sheep’s cheese from the Castilla region), best served with red wine
  • Empanada gallaga (sofrito + olives)
  • Almejas a la Marinara (clams in spicy sauce)
  • Pimientos piquillos relleno de bacalao (roasted spicy peppers, filled with cod)
  • Torreznos (pork rind)
  • Gildas (anchovy, chili, olive)
  • Revueltos (scrambled eggs with various fillings)
  • Gazpacho (cold tomato soup with cucumber and garlic)
  • Jamón (Spanish ham)
  • Calamares (fried squid) or Bocadillo de calamares (fried calamari sandwhich)

Hungry yet?”

GET INSPIRED BY: Spanish wonder (end Madrid) tour

Where should I go to eat tapas like a local?

Trafalgar guests in Spain
Trafalgar guests above

“Tapas are usually eaten standing in bars or purchased from the street through a window of the bar. That is the case in Mercado San Miguel in Madrid or Mercado de La Boqueria in Barcelona. But they are also enjoyed in restaurants where you can order several dishes. Traditionally, people eat some tapa in one place and move to another to try their speciality: bar-hopping different bars to try different dishes.”

RELATED CONTENT: Beyond the tourist traps: How Trafalgar helps you feel connected to local culture

What is the role of tapas in Spanish culture?

It’s integral to our social life – which is largely through food. We share and eat from the same plate, bringing people together to tell stories and share happiness. When eating tapas, we all agree on what dishes to order and share, which is is paid in one single bill (then divided among the table). It’s good to be open to the wishes of others and to try more delicious dishes. It’s no surprise Spanish tapas is considered a UNESCO ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’.

RELATED CONTENT: How food can help you create travel memories that last forever

Please share stories from guests on the road eating tapas? What are the best spots you visit?

Trafalgar guests in Toledo, Spain
Trafalgar guests in Toledo, Spain

When our guests attend a tapas dinners, they are told the origin of tapas and presented with an array of dishes to try. These naturally become the subject of conversation as people are interested by certain dishes.

My favourite places are: The old Town in San Sebastián, the Barrio de Santa Cruz in Seville and Madrid old Town, but anywhere in Spain there is a chance for wonderful tapas.

What tapas make your mouth water? Let us know in the comments below.

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