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What is Tapas?

Tapas is taking over the world! Maybe not the world, but the word seems to be popping up everywhere. What exactly is tapas and how do I eat it?

bowl of olives with text "what is tapas?"
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What is Tapas?

What does tapas mean when we are talking about food? Tapas, or tapa if we are talking about 1 dish, is the Spanish term for an appetizer or a snack.

Here in the US, you might have heard the term Hors d’oeuvre from someone older than 50 years of age. They are essentially the same thing but let’s talk about the origin of the word.

Tapa translates in Spanish to “top” and that speaks to how tapas style food originated.

A Spanish legend tells of a King who had an illness that made it where he could only eat a small amount of food with wine at one time. Eating small portions may seem strange as kings eat feasts, but tapas have a purpose.

Another origin story of tapas reveals that when people drink Sherry, which is sweet and fruity fortified wine in Spain, they often cover their wine glasses with a slice of crusty bread or meat to keep the flies from doing a nose-dive into the wine.

Because these “wine coverings and toppings” are usually salty, bartenders serve these tapas with the wine to make the drinkers even more thirsty.

Whichever origin of tapas story you believe, it is here to stay.

overhead of Crispy Garlic Radishes in a white bowl

What kind of food is tapas?

Tapas constitutes a wide variety of snacks and small dishes found in Spain and is a hallmark of Spanish cuisine.

So much so that there are tapas restaurants that specialize in these fun, small plates.

What are the three types of tapas?

Cocas de picar, or “things to nibble” are small finger foods like olives and nuts. Like these smoked paprika almonds.

Pinchos are dishes that require a utensil like a toothpick for a meatball or are served on a skewer. These margarita shrimp are a great example.

Cazuelas are “little dishes” or small portions of dishes that are served in a sauce. My lamb meatballs or these fried mac and cheese bites are just the thing!

Up close picture of Roasted Tomato Gazpacho Shooters

What are some classic Spanish dishes?

It may have started a long time ago, but tapas food has certainly evolved throughout the ages. From a slice of ham covering a wine glass to small plates of food for people to graze on.

Dinner in Spain is typically late so tapas are eaten in the late afternoon to keep hunger at bay until dinner time.

But these tapas dishes are also very regional. Close to the coast, you might find more seafood dishes where other regions may serve more root vegetables.

Classic Spanish Tapas Dishes

  • Gambas al Ajillo are tender garlic shrimp served in a garlic olive oil sauce
  • Chopitos which are deep-fried baby squid
  • Patatas Bravas are roasted potatoes with rojo sauce 
  • Tortilla Espanola, also called tortilla de patatas, is a potato and egg dish

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Pan Con Tomate in a small white bowl and pieces of spanish grilled toast on a wood platter

What is the difference between tapas and appetizers?

Appetizers as we think of here in America are usually a savory first course that is served before the main course of a meal.

Tapas is a collection of small snacks and small portion dishes that is eaten with more of a grazing attitude. Fun right?

Tapas can be as simple as some marinated olives or a few slices of meat and cheese accompanied by roasted red peppers and a few nuts. Sounds much like a cheese tray or charcuterie board.

The word Tapas is used to basically describe a smaller portion or snack-size of any dish.  

In the Middle East, they have a similar description but they call it Mezze or Meze. Meze typically includes pita bread, hummus, and olives!

Whatever you want to call it, tapas are basically appetizers or snacks in my opinion and we don’t have to be in Spain to enjoy it.

overhead of Tortilla Espanola with Pimento Cheese on a wooden cutting board

What does American tapas look like?

Here in America, we do essentially the same thing as Spain by serving appetizers at restaurants in case you are not super hungry or you need something to hold you over until your main entree arrives.

Lately, I have been ordering just appetizers when I go out to eat, mainly because it is cheaper, but I also don’t need to eat the humongous portions that the restaurants are serving.

Going and getting a pasta dish that includes a pound of pasta, but also salad and breadsticks are too much for an entire family to eat.

Or those all-you-can-eat buffets!

I like to try different dishes when I dine out and usually regret my order when I see my husband’s dish. But how can I try a few different dishes without ordering 15 pounds of food? Appetizers and tapas!

The few Spanish restaurants I have had the pleasure of dining in had fabulous offerings that included roasted beets with feta and walnuts, two or three croquettes, or even a few slices of bread with some toppings.

Much like Italian Bruschetta, the bread can be topped with something as simple as hummus. For the record, I don’t consider an entire fried onion a tapas or appetizer unless there are 10 people at the table to help eat it!

Hand dipping these pan blistered shishito peppers in a simple ginger ponzu sauce that is in a white bowl.

What are the benefits of eating tapas?

All of these qualify as tapas and were enough for Brooks and me to have 1 or two bites of each. The perfect portions! Ordering 4-5 plates of smaller dishes and a bottle of wine make for a great dinner in my opinion.

I am not totally stuffing myself, I am eating some hearty food so the wine doesn’t go straight to my head, and I get to try 4 or 5 different dishes! Not a bad way to spend the evening.

The other great part about ordering tapas like this is not all the food comes out at once. You order all 5 dishes at one time but if the salad or cold tapas is already prepared they plate it and bring it out right away.

If the dish contains meat that needs to be seared and sliced, it will come out a little after that. This makes for a casual, grazing atmosphere which allows me to enjoy each dish without feeling stuffed and uncomfortable.

Brooks and I enjoy going out for cocktails and ordering two small plates. If we are still hungry we might order one or two more. But we allow ourselves to take our time!

In a world where everything is express and we have to hurry every second of the day, a leisurely tapas dinner is fine by me.

Dipping the Spicy Margarita Shrimp Skewers in the Spicy Cocktail Sauce

Definition of Tapas

With all the talk of Spain, tapas doesn’t have to be Spanish in nature. This is how Take Two Tapas was born!

I started by reinventing dishes into smaller portions and giving it a second take, but now I want to actually take 2 tapas dishes, at least!  

I make smaller portioned dishes, but really I just make appetizers. Taking appetizers out of being pigeon-holed into parties, tailgating, or just as a snack before dinner, I am showing you that you can eat this style for every meal!

Some afternoons I just eat a mezze platter or a small cheese board. Don’t forget the olives!

Sometimes I want something hot so I make a few other things like my gyoza or sriracha honey chicken wings. These don’t require forks and can satisfy your need for a hot meal.

These Pan-Blistered Shishito Peppers are my new favorite way to eat Spanish appetizers!

collage of tapas

Looking for heartier options?

Try my sweet and spicy pimento cheese bread, my corned beef and swiss sliders, or even my polenta jars. The polenta jars will take you to a more Italian state of mind, but count as tapas all the same!

Appetizers can take salad form if you feel you need more vegetables in your life.

My Bourbon Bacon Brussels Sprouts, my Crispy Garlic Radishes , and these Stuffed Mushrooms, are great side dishes to any meal or you can just eat a small serving of them.

Dessert Bites

Tapas doesn’t just mean savory in my book. Desserts can be small too. Have you seen all those dessert shooters that are popular right now?

I love to end my meal with a bite of something sweet but ordering a piece of cake that is really 1/4 of a 12-layer cake doesn’t interest me.

One of my favorite restaurants serves a variety of dessert shooters that are 3-4 bites and you can order a few of them to share around the table.

A few of my favorite sweet bites are my Salted Cracker Truffles, Star Crunch Bites, and Banana Pudding Truffles.

If you love this recipe as much as I do, please write a five-star review in the comment section below (or on Pinterest with the “tried it” button – you can now add pictures into reviews, too!), and be sure to help me share on facebook!

bowl of olives with text "what is tapas?"

However you have viewed appetizers in the past, try seeing them in a new light. Tapas doesn’t have to mean Spanish food, although their recipes are a great way to introduce yourself to this style of eating, it can just be smaller amounts of whatever you are making.

Looking for a full menu of dishes to try? I have a series of traditional Spanish dishes with an American “Southern” twist to them. 

More Menu Ideas & Tapas Recipes

© Content and photographs are copyright protected. Sharing of this recipe is both encouraged and appreciated. Copying and/or pasting full recipes to any social media is strictly prohibited.

{Originally Posted 07/16/17 – photos and notes updated to improve reader experience 06/24/21}


Wednesday 2nd of November 2022

Finally!! I understand what a gala is!! I love this way of eating.

Endless Brunch - Geppetto Cafe: A Charming French Cafe in Pittsburgh

Sunday 15th of November 2020

[…] you’re quarantine crew includes a few friends, I’d recommend doing this brunch tapas style so you can try a little bit of everything. Geppetto’s has a variety of crepes, French toast, […]

Andrea D.

Saturday 27th of June 2020

Great read very informative never heard of Tapas style before, but after reading I have a very clear understanding and certainly can’t wait to try, I’m a chef in my own right!!


Saturday 25th of April 2020

Seriously my FAVORITE way to eat!! You are my go-to for small bites and AMAZING cocktails!

Amy Nash

Wednesday 22nd of April 2020

I was late on the tapas train, but it's my new favorite thing! We've been doing little "bites" as lunches these days and it was so nice to see this post and get all sorts of new ideas! And I love all the themed tapas menus!