Downtown sizzles with heat, cranking up the vibe, hotter than a match head. Wandering down Main Street, you locate a seat at a sidewalk cafe, angle the umbrella – just so – that the sun hits your face, and sit to peruse the menu. Basking in warmth while ordering a glass of something cold, your stress melts into a sigh – manana, manana.
Closing your eyes, you imagine you’re in a Latin country, a place pulsing with energy, someplace warm, perhaps Spain. Peeling away the layers of primary colors, lace, flamenco and bull-fighting, you think of the food and are suddenly hungry; a couple of appetizers from the menu are tempting.
Similar small plates of food known as “tapas” are ubiquitous in Spain, and have been turned into an art form. These Picassos on a plate are one aspect of Spanish culture Ann Arborite Guillermo Flores misses most, referring to them as “…a catalyst for social interaction”.
“I love tapas!” he enthuses. “What’s so much fun about eating tapas is that you get to indulge your senses in a variety of flavors, colors and textures – all beautifully displayed for you to chose. What’s even better is that tapas are meant to be shared.”
Guillermo, who was raised in Madrid, tells me this progressive gastronomic indulgence can go on for hours, as one visits many tapas bars each with its own specialties. “Usually when people go “a tapear,” or “de tapeo”, which is the process of going to eat tapas-style, they go to one place and share a few tapas. A small glass of draught beer, a “caña”, is typically the accompaniment. Then it’s time to move on and go to the next tapas bar and repeat the process.”
After exhaustive Google searching, there seems to be no definitive answer as to the origin of tapas. According to one travel article exploring the culture of tapas, their are many appealing legends surrounding the genesis of these savory nibbles. None, however, are documented. According to the blog, “…What is true is that inns could only legally offer lodging, not food, till well into the modern period, so cities like Madrid, full of hungry visitors doing business, were full of tavernas. Later these and bars provided fertile soil for tapas to take root.”
Further insight to the popularity of tapas is, according to the web site La Espanola Meats, “… because home entertaining is uncommon in Spain, tapas bars serve as de facto living rooms: places to eat, relax, meet friends, watch a soccer game, have a quiet drink, chat with the owner.”
Tapas served in Spain vary according to region and typical ingredients may be as simple as the day’s fresh catch deep fried in hot oil, or as complex as sauced Iberian pig with a potato foam. “My favorite places for tapas are near the Plaza Mayor – the main, old square in Madrid – where some of the oldest bars and restaurants are located,” says Guillermo. “
I also love sitting outside in the main square in Murcia overlooking the beautiful cathedral. Murcia is a small city near the southeastern coast – it’s where my mom and sister live. My favorites tapas are gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp), tortilla de patata (Spanish potato and onion omelette) , sepia (grilled cuttlefish), croquettes and, of course, jamon serrano and queso Manchego.”
Tapas reflects the Spanish enjoyment of life and love of sensorial pleasures. But you don’t have to be Spanish, or sitting at a cafe on Plaza Mayor, to appreciate life’s pleasures – or tapas for that matter. Richard and I recently had dinner at a friends, who – inspired by his and his wife’s travels in Spain – served the following recipe for shrimp tapas.
Land meets the sea as briny shrimp marry nutty, cured ham in his recipe. Creamy avocado and minty basil are the perfect foil for enjoying these towering cathedrals of texture and flavor; the perfect nosh for turning down the volume and enjoying friends on a warm summer’s eve.
“One could say,” says Guillermo, “That the whole tapas experience is woven into the tapestry of Spanish culinary and social history. Sorry,” he says with a sheepish smile. “I couldn’t resist the pun. Ahhh, I’m homesick already!”