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The Origin and Rise of Spanish Tapas

Spanish tapas were invented by Alfonso XIII, or at least that’s how the legend goes. According to the story, the king stopped at an inn (Ventorrillo de Chato) in Cadiz to rest on one of his trips. While there he asked for a glass of wine, but the window of the restaurant was open and sand and dust were blowing in.

When the owner of the inn brought the king his bottle of wine, he put a piece of Spanish ham (jamón Iberico) on top of the glass. The king was confused by this and asked why he had put the ham there, to which the owner of the inn replied it was a “tapa” or a “cover” for the drink so that the dust and sand blowing in wouldn’t fall into the glass. The rest of the court members, surprised and pleased by the invention, asked for a “tapa” for their glasses as well.

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There are many variations of this legend and of the origin of Spanish tapas. They include other Spanish kings like Alfonso X the Wise and other rational for the food, for example, food as a way for us to drink more!

No matter what the case may be, everyone agrees that tapas began with the famous jamón and later, slices of chorizo, other cured meats and cheese were added to the mix. The most traditional tapas are those using some or all of these ingredients and which are served as a snack or to go with a drink.

However, Spanish tapas have grown in diversity and have become increasingly popular. There is a lot of variety to be found both in the form of the tapa and the ingredients used. The most abundant plates of tapas can be found in inland and northern Spanish towns, where an entire plate of food is sometimes served; a bit contradictory to the original concept and use of the “tapa,” but who’s complaining!

In other areas bars may be a little more tightfisted and you may only get a small plate of nuts or olives even at the best of times. But, of course, it’s always possible to order tapas that don’t come free with a drink, and usually at a very reasonable price. In these cases, the potato is a very popular choice, whether it is in the form of French fries with different kinds of sauces, a slice of tortilla de patata (Spanish omelet) with a bit of bread, or cured meats, like those served as traditional tapas.

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In coastal areas it’s common to find tapas with sardines, octopus, calamari and other seafood. Small portions of seafood are usually served with bread to be able to eat the whole thing in one big bite.

The taste for tapas has grown internationally, and tapas have been successful everywhere they’ve been exported, to the point of being considered a perfect example of typical Spanish food. But we shouldn’t forget the true origin of the tapa, just a small portion of food to go with your drink. And, if the waiter happens to bring out the plate of food on top of your drink, true homage is really paid to the legend and the origins of the tapa.

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