By Leia Sharma
A Spanish tapa is an appetiser or snack, typically served with a drink. Tapas (plural) can be hot or cold and include a wide variety of foods. Their popularity has sparked a trend in restaurants beyond Spanish borders but, interestingly, the exact historical origin of tapas is unknown. However, there are some stories that have gained popularity as to where tapas came from, so let’s delve into those.
Most stories start with a king, although there is some confusion as to whether the king was King Alfonso XIII, King Fernando XVII or King Fernando VII. In any case, the king arrived at a restaurant in the dusty town of Cadiz during a long voyage, and he was served a glass of wine with a slice of cheese or ham or a piece of bread (the exact type of food is unknown) covering the glass. The food on top of the glass was placed there to protect the wine from bugs and dust, but the king ate it anyway. Since he enjoyed the idea of having a small snack with his glass of wine, the king began to ask for “tapas” with his wine wherever he went.
Another story centres around King Alfonso X, known as El Sabio, or the Wise, who lived in the 13th century. He was unwell and was known to have needed small snacks and wine in between his meals in order to aid his recovery. Once he regained his health, he proclaimed that inns and bars in Castile must serve a snack with their wine. While today you will have to pay for tapas in most restaurants, tapas used to be served free with a drink. Since peasants could not afford to order a meal with their drink, some say that the law was decreed so that they would not suffer the ill effects of drinking on an empty stomach.
Other legends as to the origins of tapas do not begin with a king at all; rather, they are focused on workers in the countryside. Since farmers and workers had long working hours and needed to eat something to sustain their stamina, they would have a glass of wine and small snacks while working.
A similar story dates tapas’ origin to a farmers’ bar in Seville. Bartenders would serve wine with a saucer on top to keep the flies out. Some bartenders realised that if they placed some olives, ham, or cheese on the saucer and served it to customers, the customers would return again and again.
Since “tapa” literally means “a lid” or “a cover,” stories that centre around a cover for the drink are the ones that hold the most merit. Savory tapas are almost always served with alcohol, or sometimes gazpacho, and usually include olives, nuts, cheese, and meat.