At the simplest level, tapas are titbits eaten with drinks at a bar and before proceeding to have a full meal. They thus fill a role similar to that of, say, hors d’œuvres or zakuski. If they were served in the home, as a prelude to a meal in the same premises, the resemblance would be close. However, their essential role is to be eaten in a bar, or rather a succession of bars. A remarkable essay by Alicia Rios (1987) on what might be termed, in Spanish fashion, the philosophy of tapas provides a uniquely illuminating description, short extracts from which follow. She begins by explaining the meaning of tapeo:
Tapeo is a term used to describe the Spanish tradition of going out before lunch or dinner to mingle with friends while drinking an apéritif, and sharpening the appetite for the main meal ahead by choosing from the myriad of tempting appetizers on offer in the bars throughout Spain.
The art of tapeo represents the perfect marriage between food and drink, because, unlike the more well known concept of food supplemented by good wine, in the case of the art of tapeo, it is not the wine which lubricates the ingestion of good food, but quite the contrary; it is the food which really acts as an accompaniment to the series of sips of good wine.
The art of tapeo is like a baroque, sybaritic game, as it pleases the five senses by means of the multifarious smells, the friendly pats on the back, the sight of beauty on the streets. It induces states of inspiration and delight, it gives rise to witty banter on trivial topics and the interchange of snippets of juicy gossip. The tapeo is a peripatetic art which takes the form of a route; a path paved with chance meetings and random conversations.
The drink stimulates the appetite and aids digestions, and the food palliates the ethylic effects of the drink. The combination of these factors results in a perfect balance which is supported by the concept of physical space, as the tapeo, by its very nature, inherently involves a plurality of settings.
Tapas can be divided into sections according to their different places of origin, and likewise the many kinds of bars can be classified according to their specialities.
Some of the most representative tapas come from the area of Castile which offers montados de lomo which are small pieces of bread with a slice of meat on top such as marinated loin of pork fillets, chorizo a la plancha—slices of spicy pork sausage cooked on the griddle, morcilla—a kind of black pudding sausage made with blood and rice or onion and served fried, cazuela de callos a la madrileña—the Madrid speciality of tripe casserole, and patatas bravas—medium sized chunks of fried potatoes coated in a hot, spicy sauce made from tomatoes and chilli peppers.
In Galicia, on the northern coast of Spain, we find a great variety of dishes related to the cephalopod family such as octopus prepared in the typical Galician way and many kinds of shellfish, also the Galician omelette made with potatoes, vegetables and chorizo.
As a prototype of the tapas available in Andalusia we could perhaps take the seafood group, which in this region is usually served fried or seasoned with a vinaigrette dressing.
Indeed there is an enormous range of diverse regional specialities, far too many to list here. Furthermore, many tapas are to be found nationwide, like for example the inevitable unpeeled prawns and boquerones (fresh whitebait) served in vinegar, which are to be found in display on the counters of bars everywhere, not to mention tortilla española, Spanish potato omelette.
It does not matter if the ideal tapa is somewhat large, but this volume must be distributed in terms of height, and not of surface area. For example the montado—a piece of fried morcilla on a small slice of bread, speared with a cocktail stick, or perhaps assorted pickles on sticks, can be piled very high because they do not conflict with the requirement for occupying a minimal surface area. This phenomenon has various explanations. Let us consider first the ethical reasons, which are always connected with the respect shown with regard to the meal awaiting in the home. Food with a large surface area is reserved for the more intimate atmosphere of meals enjoyed with the family or friends. There are also various other fundamental reasons. The individualization of the portions is an important factor as it renders cutlery virtually unnecessary. The fork, for example, is only needed to spear the bite-sized morsel, and the use of the knife is not considered correct form, even if only to cut a sausage up into pieces. Cutlery has no place in the art of tapeo, belonging to the environment of sit-down meals.