Apparently it had something to do with my shock of gray hair and the shape of my nose. “You look just like Felipe González,” blurted Alicia Ríos, a Spanish culinary writer and food performance artist, in a non sequitur so unexpected that we both burst out laughing as we stood in a crowded, century-old Madrid bar called La Casa del Abuelo. To be compared, however tenuously, to the pivotal prime minister from Spain’s early post-Franco years was flattering. But this was no piropo (flirtatious compliment), because Ríos immediately refocused on the matter at hand: the plump shrimps we’d been spearing from the earthenware cazuelita in which they’d been sautéed with garlic, guindilla peppers, and olive oil. “Gambas al ajillo might be a little like Spain itself,” she said. “Yes, it is very familiar, perhaps not so exotic. But peppers came originally from the New World, brought by conquistadores. And cooking in a ceramic dish directly over a flame is part of our Moorish tradition. With tapas, as with Spain, things are not always as simple as they appear.”
To find out just what Ríos meant, I would eat my way through Spain. Four cities. Twenty-nine bars, taverns, and restaurants. Fifty-seven small dishes shared with, among others, a geneticist, two bankers, and a nun. Ordinary Spaniards eating tapas, as most Spaniards do. Tapas, you often hear, are the quintessence of la vida española, a custom uniting the country and shielding it from the homogenizing effect of globalization. But as I sat at the table or, more often, leaned against the bar, and immersed myself in the culture of tapas bite by delicious bite, I came to a different realization. For all that knits together modern Spain—from a network of high-speed trains to the shared grief of terrorist attack—the country’s regions continue to robustly assert their own identities. Especially in their little dishes.
On a cold night when rain had turned the cobblestones of central Madrid’s Las Letras quarter slick and black as an otter’s coat, I joined Rios for a tapeo, the Spanish custom of hitting a few bars for tapas and drinks. For centuries Madrid has been a cultural crossroads, and nowhere is the tapeo more cosmopolitan and convivial. Basque bars, Asturian cider houses, sherry bodegas that feel straight out of Andalucia—they’re all here, the country in microcosm, offering the city’s migratory late night throngs what they crave: another bite, another drink, another conversation.
When Rios and I set out around 9 o’clock, crowds were already surging through narrow streets once frequented by the men of letters, Cervantes and Lope de Vega among them, who inspired the district’s name. Each time a bar’s door opened, a roar of conversation filtered to the street. Sometimes in couples, more often in small groups, madrileños—and we with them—squeezed into bars where the aromas of food and wine wrapped you in a lover’s embrace as soon as you stepped inside. “Salir en pandilla, going out in a group, is part of the tapeo,” Rios told me as we peeled cigar-size prawns and sipped a fruity house red served in a chato, a stubby glass once so common in Madrid that bar-hopping here is still sometimes called a chateo. “For the tapeador (someone on a tapeo), friends and conversation are as important as tapas and drink,” she said.
Rios, 65, quit teaching psychology at the Complutense University of Madrid in 1981 to open Los Siete Jardines restaurant during la Movida Madrilena, the explosion of countercultural creativity that drove a stake through Falangism’s black heart and gave rise to the likes of filmmaker Pedro Almodovar. Serving dinners on themes such as the seven deadly sins—each course inspired by a different sin—the restaurant lasted six years. It foreshadowed her current work concocting surreal happenings such as “The Edible Library,” where book covers enclose not paper pages but containers of foods from throughout Spanish culinary history: a cheese dish first recorded during Roman times, for instance, or chef Ferran Adria’s deconstructed tortilla española, an omelet witheach component—potato, egg, and onion—served separately.
A sprite of a woman with inquisitive brown eyes and shiny red boots, Rios proved an engaging tapeadora. “Well, there’s certainly no economic crisis here,” she quipped after we’d threaded our way through a boisterous crowd at our next stop, El Lacon. We ordered drinks and tripe—a Madrid specialty, she told me, but served here with chickpeas more typical of the northern province Galicia. The elbow of a man to my left threatened at any moment to send my glass of Ribera del Duero flying as Rios and I passed tapas to people behind us. One customer, waving a 50-euro note in the barman’s direction, looked startled and then laughed as Rios made to snatch it from his hand.
For the rest of the evening we strolled from bar to bar like our fellow tapeadores, sipping wine and taking bites of olive, morcilla blood sausage, and other small dishes. Our conversation tacked across wide waters. We spoke of 11-M, shorthand in Spain for the al Qaeda–inspired bombings that wracked Madrid on 11 marzo (March 11), 2004. “It pulled Spaniards together, native and immigrant,” Rios said, “and changed us for the better.” After a young man on the street asked for directions to KFC, we discussed fast food as we savored aromatic palo cortado sherry in an old bodega. The barman’s thumbs-up when we ordered a ración—a larger portion—of fall-off-the-bone braised oxtails at La Trucha led to talk of bullfights and then flamenco, one of Rios’s passions. And more than once Rios tried, without success, to convince those around us that I was the spitting image of Felipe Gonzalez.
It would be only the mildest of exaggerations to claim I bar-hopped in Sevilla with an octogenerian nun. We visited just two tabernas and she drank nonalcoholic beer and Coke Light, but Sister Angela Garcia de Paredes is, in fact, an 84-year-old member of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, a veteran tapeadora, and the sister-in-law of Alicia Rios. “Just call me Angela,” she said. With her woolen overcoat, simple pearl earrings, and short steel-gray hair, the Sevilla native looked like one of the countless abuelas (grandmothers) I saw padding through that city’s labyrinthine backstreets past orange trees heavy with winter fruit.
Sevilla is the Mother Church of tapa traditions, the capital of Andalucia, a hot southern region that likely bequeathed to the rest of Spain not only its predilection for tidbits of bar food but also the notion of grazing on them in lieu of a big meal. Tapas translates as “lids” or “covers,” and theories about their origin abound: Publicans doled out surplus fish on a piece of waxed paper covering the drinker’s glass; imbibers needed something to “cover” their stomachs and absorb the alcohol; in Moorish times, serving alcohol was forbidden except with food; doctors of the 13th-century king Alfonso the Wise ordered him to eat tiny frequent meals with wine. The most common guess is that tapas were born in 19th-century Andalucia as tidbits added to the saucers placed atop drinking glasses to keep out dust and flies. The custom must have been appreciated in a sun-baked region where heavier meals are reserved for the short winter. Today you usually pay for tapas, though at times olives, a slice of cheese, or something more substantial may still be on the house.
“Tapas have changed a lot over the years,” Angela said as she, her niece Elena Garcia de Paredes, and I walked to El Rinconcillo, which dates from 1670 and claims to be the oldest bar in Sevilla. “When I was a girl, going to a taberna to drink sherry and eat very simple tapas was something that men did. Back in the late 1950s, when I went to Italy to study and profess my vows, Spain still seemed like a poor country. But when I returned in 1968, it seemed there were cars everywhere and a whole middle class. And the difference between then and today I cannot even begin to describe. Now that people have money and go out more often, the tapeo is much more important than it used to be, and the selection of tapas is much greater.”
El Rinconcillo, in the city’s historic center, is a well-preserved tavern with azulejo-tiled walls, a long menu, and two dozen hams dangling by their trotters from the rafters. Tabs are recorded in the traditional way, with white chalk marks on the massive wooden bar. Elena, a 47-year-old high school English teacher and frequent patron of the establishment, suggested the pavía de bacalao—pieces of salt cod in batter, fried perfectly crisp—and velvety spinach cooked with olive oil, garlic, paprika, garbanzos, fried bread crumbs, and a generous dose of cumin, a spice introduced to Spain by the Moors and passed to the New World by Spanish colonists. “My husband and I do tapeos almost every weekend,” she said. “Our son, who just turned 14, used to come with us when he was little, but now he wants to have parties with his friends, like other young people do. Later, after they’re older, they’ll start with tapeos.”
The following day I met University of Sevilla anthropologist Isabel Gonzalez Turmo, 55, an expert on the city’s culinary history, for lunchtime tapas in the teeming Macarena district. The white canted pylon of a nearby suspension bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava peeked over huddles of old buildings undergoing renovation. “To the outside world, this barrio is known mostly because of a song and dance,” she said, referring to the Macarena craze spawned in the mid 1990s by local music duo Los Del Rio. “But it is the heart of working class and socialist Sevilla, and many of its bars have not changed in years.” We stood in Casa Vizcaino, an old-time cervecería (beer joint) drinking cañas (glasses of draft beer) and nibbling complimentary olives and altramuces (lupin beans), the bar’s sole tapas. Pressing around us was a loud, mostly male crowd of workers from the neighborhood’s covered food market and a Thursday flea market, both of which had wrapped up for the day. The bar’s floor was quickly filling with cigarette butts and the beans’ tough outer coats, which Gonzalez Turmo showed me how to slip off by first nicking them with my teeth.
We moved to another neighborhood spot, Bodega Mateo, which is owned by a deaf man who took our order—cañas and garlicky salt cod—by reading our lips. “There is a strong connection between Andalucia and tapas,” Gonzalez Turmo said. “But who can say when or where a bit of complimentary food was first offered to drinkers? The Sevilla records show that before the 1920s, there were only cervecerias and tabernas here, and by law they could serve no hot food, only dried sausage or olives or cold meats.” The first “bar” was registered in 1922, and with the bars came tapas as we know them: more substantial appetizers whose forms and flavors are limited only by the chef’s imagination.
Before we left , Gonzalez Turmo pointed out an undated vintage black-and-white photo on the wall showing groups of men in the bodega, most of them bare-headed and a few wearing bowler hats. “The men with the hats were from the middle class,” she said, “and those without hats were working-class men.” It reminded me of something Alicia Rios had told me in Madrid when I asked what the tapeo had to say about Spain. “We have less class structure than other countries,” she’d said, “and that shows up in how we eat and drink. Here, during the tapeo, rich people rub shoulders with poor, young with old, educated with uneducated.”
For me, being a Catalan, there is something almost ‘ethnic’ about tapas,” said Francesc Calafell, 42, a human-population geneticist at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University. We were eating a tapas lunch of fried calamari, grilled asparagus, and esqueixada, a Catalan shredded salt cod salad, in La Ribera, an ancient neighborhood near the city’s port. “It’s similar to the way an English person would know about curry. Serious tapas, in the sense that you can make a whole meal of them, are something that came to Cataluna with the wave of Andaluz immigration in the 1950s and ’60s. Before that, during my parents’ generation, a tapa was nothing more than a snack of potato chips or olives or anchovies you got with Sunday noon’s vermut, when people would go out for a vermouth after their morning stroll and before they went home for a proper meal. It was only about 20 years ago that young, middle-class Catalanes discovered that you could have a cheap dinner at Andaluz bars by sharing raciones of ham or patatas bravas.”
I had first heard of Calafell in a December 2008 New York Times article about a study he coauthored showing significant Jewish and Moorish markers in the genetic makeup of modern-day Iberians. Suggesting that there must have been mass conversions to Catholicism in the 15th and 16th centuries, the study further undermined the old-school, Francoist view that Spanish civilization is inherently Catholic and that the influences of Judaism and Islam are foreign to it. The findings also seemed especially timely in an increasingly secular Spain, where fast-track divorce and gay marriage are now legal and a judge recently barred crucifixes from the walls of a public school.
“Most Spaniards today understand that our country was formed by many different peoples,” said Calafell, as he took a bite of typically Catalan tomato-smeared bread. “But with the exception of Gypsies and recent immigrants, and taking into account some geographical variations, we Spanish aren’t so different genetically. What might distinguish us from one another are regional cultural differences.”
After my lunch with Calafell, I spent the rest of a drizzly weekend in Barcelona with friends Manuel Galindo, 46, and Javier Vallhonrat, 47, who showed me how Catalanes have made tapas their own. “It’s not the same as the tapeo in Madrid, where you move from one place to another and have a bite at each, and where you stand at the bar,” said Manuel, gesturing at the half-dozen small plates filling our table at Tapas 24, a trendy, informal restaurant where a line of hungry customers waited to score a seat. “Here, you sit and are served, and often you stay long enough to have dessert and coffee.”
At Tapas 24 and again at Mundial Bar, an old-time spot decorated with photos of prizefighters and specializing in seafood, we sat down to trenchermen’s meals—steamed mussels and the small clams known as berberechos; chunks of fried eggplant drizzled with honey; addictive bombas, meat-filled mashed potato balls first created in a Barcelona portside bar; calçots, a winter Catalan dish of smoky grilled onions napped in romesco sauce; tender Galician-style octopus sprinkled with smoked paprika. After the bar meal, there was a single mussel left , which we each declined. “Es el de la vergüenza—it’s the ‘shame’ portion that everyone is too embarrassed to take,” said Javier, sliding it onto my plate.
“Since the late 1970s, tapas—or pintxos, we say in Basque—have become tiny creations of haute cuisine in many places here,” I was told by Xabier Larrañaga, a soft-spoken 56-year-old banker and gourmand. With his wife, Amaya Inchaurregui, 47, he was showing me the highlights of the Basque city of San Sebastián’s proud and rich pintxo culture. I stood with them in Aloña Berri, a pioneering pintxos bar, and stared at the complicated dish in front of me. The owner and chef, José Ramón Elizondo, came to my rescue.
“First you eat the little rice square and then the candy with peppercorns,” he said. “After that, it’s the grilled squid filled with onion confit, and then you drink the little cocktail, which is Martini Rosso with squid and octopus broth.” I did as I was told and found the juxtaposition of textures more interesting than the flavors. “The customers always want something new,” Elizondo said. “It takes me two months to develop and test a new pintxo on customers before I’m ready to put it on the menu.” Outside, I could hear roaming choirs of schoolkids singing traditional songs for that night, St. Agatha’s Eve.
“People here take eating very seriously,” said Inchaurregui, a petite, dark-haired woman who works at the same bank as her husband. “Sometimes I think it’s a religion.” Larrañaga and Inchaurregui are very particular about their tapeos, and I’d arrived on Tuesday, their favorite night. “It becomes so crowded on weekends that we often stay home,” Larrañaga told me as we each nibbled a salty-sweet-sour montadito (canapé) of papaya and pickled anchovy at tiny Bar Txepetxa, in the city’s Old Quarter. “We like to go out during the week, usually to have one or two pintxos at each of three places, and then maybe some cheese at a last stop. It’s enough for our dinner. We don’t understand how madrileños can go out for tapas, then eat dinner at midnight and still get up in the morning for work.”
I spotted a patron nibbling at a skewer of pointy green peppers, olives, and pickled anchovy. “It’s called a gilda,” Larrañaga said, smiling. “They say it was the first pintxo in San Sebastián and was created about 60 years ago after a bar owner saw the Rita Hayworth film of that name. He found her so sexy he made a pintxo that was spicy, had little peppers shaped like you-know-what, and was green. The green refers to pensamientos verdes, or ‘green thoughts,’ which means erotic thoughts.”
My guides took quiet pleasure in watching me encounter the unexpected. At A Fuego Negro I bit into a cherry meringue “toast” topped with raw horse mackerel, oveja (sheep) cheese, and mint, while Inchaurregui nibbled a Kobe beef hamburger sized for a Barbie doll. At Bergara Bar, Larrañaga and I both indulged in montaditos of velvety foie gras daubed with mango marmalade.
At the sleek Bodega El Lagar, I contemplated my final tapa of the night, and of my four-city tapeo: two cubes of breaded, fried morcilla sausage fronting a tiny green sea of stewed cabbage. An homage to the nearby twin Kursaal buildings, architect Rafael Moneo’s angular concert-exhibition complex facing the Bay of Biscay, it was my first tapa inspired by an architectural work. I duly noted the spare beauty of the tapa’s composition and colors on its rimless white plate, then the buildings and the sea disappeared between sips of rioja. There was no shame, no vergüenza. Not a speck was left.
How To Eat Tapas Like a Spaniard
1. If there’s no written menu, ask a bartender what’s available (“¿Tiene algo para tapear?”) or survey the tapas displayed on the bar. Many places specialize in particular tapas. Ask whether there’s una especialidad de la casa.
2. At most tapas bars, the drinks of choice are beer (cañas are glasses of draft beer) and wine, usually red (vino tinto). At a stand-up bar you can order just a drink, but Spaniards generally don’t imbibe without a bite to eat.
3. When tapeadores stand two or three deep, it’s fine to yell your order along with a “¡Por favor!” to the bartender. Trust your fellow patrons to pass euros and food.
4. A tapa generally gives one or two people a few bites. Ordering a ración gets you about double the amount.
5. On a prolonged tapeo, vary the tapas—something grilled or marinated here, something bready or stewed there. Connoisseurs consider the overall composition of an evening’s dishes.
6. When sharing tapas, keep your fork or spoon to your own side of the dish.
7. Fingers are fine for things like peeling shrimp or picking up a bone to nibble its meat. Use the ubiquitous tissue-thin napkins to clean up afterward.
8. Watch what others do with their crumpled napkins, shrimp shells, and used toothpicks. In some spots, everything gets tossed to the floor; in others, neatness rules.
9. Bars have different ways of figuring your tab at the end of a visit—chalk marks, empty toothpicks, the bartender’s memory. Take pity on a busy bartender and remind him what you consumed.
10. Talk, whether with friends or strangers. You’re there to converse as much as to eat and drink.