If I’m being honest, I don’t really go to Spain for its beautiful sandy beaches, the pretty whitewashed villages or for the culture and spectacular architecture. For me it’s all about the food! Well, almost.
After many years of travelling to Spain, we have enjoyed many delightful tapas in the bars of Granada, Barcelona or Málaga. If it’s your first time in Spain, you might be a little overwhelmed by the choice of dishes on offer. But have no fear, we are here to give you a small introduction, with our favourite tapas classics, which will be available at almost every bar you visit.
Tapas are small portions of food served at almost every bar in Spain. With the exception of parts of Andalusia, especially in the region around Granada, you will be presented with a menu of tapas to choose from. In Granada the concept is slightly different: you order a drink and get a free tapas with it. But: you don’t have any choice in the matter, you simply get (and enjoy!) what you’re given. If you want a more detailed explanation of the history, I recommend you read this article first.
The menus vary from being fairly small to overwhelmingly big. So here are some of our favourite classic dishes that are a must-try to get you started!
Boquerones en Vinagre
This is my absolute favourite dish when I go to a bar in Spain, and you will probably find me eating it every day during my stay!
Boquerones are small, fresh anchovies that have been marinated in vinegar and sometimes garlic, herbs and spices. This marinade gives the fish a delicious, tangy flavour. Their distinct taste and meaty consistency makes them a popular choice among seafood lovers.
Rather confusingly, you might also see “anchoas” on the menu. This also refers to anchovies, but have been prepared using a different method: these will have been cured in salt for a longer period. Tasting them you might think that they are a completely different fish: they taste more briny and have a much softer texture that makes them melt in your mouth.
If the menu mentions “boquerones fritos” or “anchoas fritos” you will get yet another dish: this time it will be fresh anchovies that have been deep-fried in a light, delicate batter. Served with aioli or simply a slice of lemon, these are also definitely worth trying.
Pimientos de Padrón
These small, green peppers are fried until their skin starts to blister, and then typically served with a sprinkling of sea salt. They are a mild, sweet pepper, and a great accompaniment for all the fish and meat you will be eating!
When I say they are mild, this only refers to the majority of them. There is a chance that you might end up biting into a much more spicy one: it’s impossible to tell from the appearance which ones might be spicy, but you might be in for a pleasant surprise!A spicy one will blow your head off, but according to many bar owners I’ve spoken to over the years, the chances of getting one are about 40 to 1. Personally, I have never actually bitten into a hot one yet, so I’m taking their word for it. The rare hot pepper is rated on the Scoville scale as similar to a strong tabasco sauce. By the way, when you order a portion, you can ask the waiter “Pican?” (do they have a bite) and he’ll give you the latest news on whether this batch of peppers have a bite in their tail.
You would think that Italy and Greece have a monopoly on good olives, but Spanish olives are equally good, if not better than their Mediterranean cousins! I often get back from a trip to Spain and decide to buy some olives at the supermarket to rekindle some of that holiday magic, only to be disappointed every time. You simply cannot beat the olives served at any tapas bar in Spain: the size, the rich flavour and meaty texture is something I can never find back home.
When ordering olives (or getting a small dish free when you order drinks) you normally get a small dish of marinated olives. Often you get a mix of different types of olive, or even mixed with pickles and pickled onions.
Some bars also offer stuffed olives, “olivas rellenas”: these can be stuffed with peppers, anchovies, almonds or even garlic.
Albóndigas are meatballs made typically from beef, pork, or a combination of the two. It is most commonly served in a rich tomato sauce that often contains onions, peppers and herbs. It is a hearty dish compared to other tapas, but no less enjoyable.
An Andalusian variety of albóndigas replaces the tomato sauce with “salsa de almendras” - almond sauce. Ground almonds are mixed with garlic, olive oil and sometimes milk to create a delicious, creamy sauce. The albóndigas are often cooked in this sauce, so that they can absorb the flavours as they simmer.
While you might already know croquettes to be a nice, potato-based side dish, in Spain it is so much more than this! Mashed potato is mixed with bechamel sauce to give the croquetas a lovely, creamy consistency. Then finely chopped jamón, chicken, cod or cheese is added to create delicious flavours that go really well with a cold beer or refreshing glass of cooled wine.
When you order croquetas, you might be asked how many you want, as the price is normally per croqueta. Most bars also have more than one type available, so it’s always worth getting a selection to be sure there’s something for everyone, or try them out if it’s your first time.
A small bite-sized sandwich might seem a bit out of place on this list - who goes to a tapas bar for a simple sandwich?! But the montadito is a versatile little snack that is very popular, and can be found in many delicious variations. Legend goes that tapas originated from bartenders covering beer glasses with bread to protect them from flies, and that developed into more elaborate constructions with cheese or cured meat. Perhaps the montadito is proof of this myth?
A montadito is normally a slice of baguette with a topping. This could be cheese, serrano ham, or something more elaborate like a small cut of steak. The bread can be toasted, and sometimes pan con tomate is used as a base. This combination of flavours is what makes montaditos so popular - and chefs do like to experiment with new and unique combinations.
Gambas al ajillo
Gambas al ajillo, or garlic prawns, are another simple yet delicious combination. The shelled prawns are fried in a generous amount of olive oil and minced garlic. Sometimes chilli peppers or paprika is also added. The prawns soak up the garlic for a wonderful flavour.
They are usually served still sizzling in a small skillet. And if you’re lucky it might come with some fresh, crusty bread to soak up that flavoursome olive oil!
You might notice that I have left two very famous dishes off my list. The first being patatas bravas. These are fried potatoes served with a hot tomato sauce which has been seasoned with paprika, cayenne pepper or chilli to give it a spicy kick. Done right, these are a delicious addition to any tapas evening. However, in my experience this dish can be hit or miss: the sauce often lacks the spiciness that gives this dish its name (“brave” or “fierce” potatoes). Some servings also look more like a plate of french fries.
The second dish is tortilla española - Spanish omelette. I love a good tortilla, made from egg, potatoes and onions. It’s another very simple dish, too: thinly sliced potatoes cooked slowly in olive oil until the potatoes are tender, then beaten egg is poured over the mixture in a frying pan and cooked through, flipping the omelette once. Variations exist with cheese, peppers or chorizo, but tapas bars typically serve the traditional version. I do, however, feel that there are better options available in most bars. Also, Spanish omelette is very filling - you want to keep some space free for the next round!
Ok, one more. Gambas rebozadas are prawns dipped in batter and then quickly deep-fried to create a crispy coating around the juicy, delicious prawn inside. Often served with an aioli dip. Best ones I ever had were at one of the tapas bars in Malaga's market.
Once you’ve ticked off the ‘clasicos’, you can move on to other more intricate and unusual tapas. We’ll cover some of those in a blog post in the very near future.
If you would like to learn Spanish in Spain AND experience the delights of tapas, Estudia-España offers represents over 40 schools in Spain and South America - all offering a huge range of Spanish courses for everyone. From beginners to advanced, from intensive courses to exam courses to Spanish and sport courses. There’s also very attractively priced accommodation available at all school too. Check out the Estudia-España website here!