A few weeks ago, Spain announced that its Ministry of Culture will seek protective status for tapas, its prized culinary ritual. This protection would come by way of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List, which aims to safeguard “traditions or living expressions” of cultural knowledge, practices and skills. Flamenco, for instance, is already listed. So is the violin making of Cremona, Italy; Chinese shadow puppetry; Estonian smoke saunas; Slovakian bagpipe culture; and the Mongolian coaxing ritual for camels.
Traditional foodways, to date, have made up only a small part of the UNESCO list: Croatian gingerbread, Armenian lavash bread, cuisine from the Mexican state of Michoacán and the vaguely worded “gastronomic meal of the French” are all recognized. But more and more regions have pushed to list and protect their traditional foods. Naples, for instance, has been aggressively trying to add Neapolitan pizzamaking to the list.
“Tapas are the very model of food,” Rafael Ansón, Royal Academy of Gastronomy president, told the Local, Spain’s largest English-language news network. Ansón insisted that tapas are not a specific type of dish but a “way of eating” and a living cultural practice that deserves preservation.
Now, I’m all for safeguarding fragile practices and traditions, but this move by Spain sounded like a bad idea. Of all the world’s foods, tapas don’t seem as if they’d need protection. What makes tapas great and strong is that they are so open-source and open-ended, ready to be adapted by any culture.
Reading about tapas as a protected species led me to think about one of the strangest trips of my life, which took place several years ago when I was invited to be a judge at Spain’s national tapas competition — the Concurso Nacional de Pinchos y Tapas — in the city of Valladolid.
The invitation came as a surprise. Sure, in my time I’d enthusiastically sampled quite a lot of tapas and their toothpicked cousins, pinchos, at bars all over Spain. Usually the tapas were a means of soaking up whatever I happened to be sampling: tortillitas de camarones (mini shrimp omelets) in Sanlúcar de Barrameda to soak up the manzanilla, embuchados (lamb intestine) in Logroño to soak up the Rioja, classic patatas bravas in Madrid to soak up the vermouth, croquetas de cecina (cured-beef croquettes) in Léon to soak up the rosé. Tapas, it seemed, were often more of an accompaniment to the wine or beer or spirit, and not the other way around — the opposite of how food and drink are usually paired.
Still, I was no expert. I didn’t even speak Spanish very well (or, like, at all). Regardless, I arrived in Valladolid and was whisked onstage in the city’s odd, fluorescent Millennium Dome, was fed more than a dozen tapas in front of television cameras, announced to the host that the plates in front of me were “¡muy bueno!” and scribbled my opinions on very official score sheets. My panel was specifically judging the dishes of culinary students from around the world, from as close as neighboring Portugal to as far away as South Korea. Student chefs from Israel, Turkey, Sweden, Italy, Canada, Mexico and the United States sent out their best interpretations of tapas. As the plates arrived one by one, the bubbly television host boasted about how wonderful it was that tapas had become so “international” and that they were “Spain’s great culinary gift to the world.”
Among the judges there was much solemn discussion (some of it in English, luckily for me) of what defined tapas. There was general agreement that they should be small enough to eat in one or two bites and should not require a utensil beyond toothpicks or fingers. “Would I eat this standing up?” someone asked. When one young chef served us a delicious poached fish in a soupy broth, served in a bowl, to be eaten with a spoon, the judge next to me pushed it aside and declared, “This is not a tapa.”
One of the key judging categories was “Productos,” with an asterisked explanation that this meant we were to judge the use of “products and ingredients typical of Spanish gastronomy.” Apparently there had a been vigorous debate at the prior year’s Concurso in which a member of the Royal Academy of Gastronomy had vehemently insisted that “tapas must be prepared using Spanish products.”
The winner was a young woman from Seattle whose tapa, “Delicias del Pacífico,” was both Spanish and not. It was a trio of cured fish, skewered with potato spheres, that included traditional ingredients such as bacalao, saffron and anise. But it also invoked the flavors of the Pacific Northwest by using wild salmon, raising a few Spanish eyebrows.
After I returned from my experience as a tapas judge, I became hyper-aware of how the word “tapas” is used at home. Here, it has simply become a synonym for small plates, which years ago became a ubiquitous form of popular dining, even at decidedly non-Spanish restaurants. But real tapas are more than just small plates, and perhaps the Spanish have just finally had enough of the term’s misuse.
Even in Spain, however, there’s disagreement about the origin of the term. Tapa literally means “cover” or “lid.” Some say “tapas” was derived from the practice of covering a glass of wine with a bread slice or small plate to keep out fruit flies. Others say it dates to a 17th-century king who ordered tavern owners to cover wine servings with a snack meant to ward off drunkenness. Still others say unscrupulous innkeepers used to offer strong-smelling cheese bites to cover the smell of bad wine.
I decided to consult with someone who was a true tapas expert: the premier tapas expert in the United States, José Andrés, who once wrote, “I won’t be happy until there is a paella pan on every backyard grill in America.”
At our lunchtime meeting at Jaleo, Andrés told me that “UNESCO can try to protect everything, but at the end of the day, what tapas has become doesn’t necessarily reflect what tapas is in Spain. But, you know, Spain as a whole is also still in need of defining itself, too.”
It’s strange to think about how recent a phenomenon tapas are for Americans. In 1993, when Andrés opened his first Jaleo, the word was still relatively unknown, though interest in all things Spanish was growing after the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. “Tapas has been a Trojan horse, bringing Spanish cooking into the mainstream,” he said.
As he and I talked, Andrés really tried to get at the heart of the philosophical question “what are tapas?” He clearly had not been asked the question for a while, and he took a few stabs at a suitable answer. “What is the box where tapas lives? How do you define it? If you ask 50 million Spaniards, they will give you 50 million definitions,” he said. “Is tapas a whole bunch of dishes, or a way of enjoying life? I would say both.”
While we talked, we were served plates of Iberico ham, anchovies, croquetas de pollo, razor clams, garlic shrimp, and ensaladilla rusa (Russian salad) with potatoes, tuna, aioli and trout roe. At one point, Andrés proposed what called the 20-inch Rule. “If you put it here” — pushing the ensaladilla rusa to the middle of the table — “it’s tapas. If you put it here” — pulling it in front of himself — “I’m now not sharing. So that’s not tapas.”
So perhaps in a restaurant or bar it’s straightforward enough, but what about at home? For a home cook, what makes a dish a tapa? That seems even more difficult to say. Outside of the basic rules of being one or two bites that can be eaten standing up with toothpicks or fingers, I guess it should always be served with drinks. I might venture that daring flavor combinations are part of it. And at least according to the Royal Academy of Gastronomy, tapas need Spanish ingredients. Aioli and anchovies seem to be good rules of thumb.
That lack of specificity is why the recipes included here are purposefully vague. They call for some Spanish ingredients — Mahón cheese, chistorra sausage, membrillo — but is a stuffed mushroom or a fancy pig-in-a-blanket specifically “Spanish”? A nectarine is decidedly American produce, but if you put a Spanish anchovy on it, does it become a tapa?
As I was pondering all of that, Andrés suddenly said: “Let’s not sit down. Come with me.” And he took the plates to the bar. He cleared out all the chairs at one end of the bar and then we stood facing one another. “Okay, my friend,” he said. “This is tapas. This is the spirit of tapas, anyway. The informality of the moment, sharing the same plate.”
He talked about tapas being “a commitment of people, being together, going from place to place, sharing experience.” And that, in the end, may be the part of tapas that’s hardest to capture at home. In Spain, you rarely stop at one spot for an entire evening of tapas. Spanish cities boast a mass of bars with lots of different house specialties, and the tradition of the tapeo (or tapas crawl) is about crowds, movement, eating standing up, and being so casual that you often just toss your toothpicks and napkins on the ground when you’re finished.
Andrés took a toothpick in his hand. “To make people eat with a toothpick. Now, that’s cultural,” he said. “In the U.S., in the end, they all want to sit. It’s cultural. Sometimes you try not to fight certain cultural things.”
Wilson is author of the Kindle Single “Spaghetti on the Wall.”