How tapas came out on top.
The highly debated origin stories of Spain’s signature dining style
By now, most people have had the opportunity to enjoy tapas. Though invented in Spain, the popularity of small, shareable plates paired with wine or sherry has gone global. Some countries have their own twist on tapas, like botanas in Mexico or Pica-Pica in the Philippines.
Famed chef, restauranter, and philanthropist José Andrés is credited with bringing small plates to the US — a concept so new to American diners in 2013 that his eatery, The Bazaar, was deemed the “restaurant of the future.” But tapas have been around for centuries.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Literally translated, tapas means “top” or “cover.” But there is much debate over its real origin.
Some believe that tapas have a medicinal background, stemming from an illness that befell King Alfonso X of Castile in the 13th Century. According to tapas legend, the king was prescribed large quantities of wine and required small quantities of food to be served with it to regain his strength. He allegedly enjoyed the treatment so much that he decreed that all drinks must be served with snacks.
Others attribute tapas to a visit that King Alfonso XIII of Spain took to Cardiz — a region that is notorious for its wind — in the 19th Century. To keep sand out of the king’s drink, a bartender served it with a slice of ham on top. Delighted by the presentation, the King is said to have continued to order rounds of drinks in this style until he had started a trend.
Others contend that sherry drinkers in Andalusian taverns used to cover their glasses with salty meats, normally ham or chorizo, to keep fruit flies away from their glasses. Over time, restaurant owners introduced a variety of snacks that would help keep the bugs at bay, while encouraging customers to buy more drinks.
Or perhaps tapas were born of Spanish culture itself: bars in Spain traditionally lack seating to accommodate patrons’ preference to drink while standing up at the bar. So, in order to eat, diners place a small plate on top of their drink — thus making a top.
And while there may never be a consensus on where tapas come from, or the best place to get them, there’s no denying how good they are, especially in the land where they originated. Whenever and however that was.
Danilo Diazgranados is an investor, collector, and lover of fine wines and a member of the prestigious Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, a fraternity of Burgundy wine enthusiasts.