5 Things to Know About Spanish Cuisine & Tapas

Spain has some absolutely amazing food that has earned an international reputation. Most notably, the tapas, pintxos, and paellas are known as...

Written by Travel Collective · 3 min read >

Spain has some absolutely amazing food that has earned an international reputation. Most notably, the tapas, pintxos, and paellas are known as the foods that you must try. While traveling through Spain with my family, going from region to region and experiencing many of the different types of cuisine that Spain has to offer, we discovered some valuable lessons about the culture, the customs, and the tastes that are specific to Spain. Here are 5 things you need to know about Spanish Cuisine & Tapas Bars you musn’t miss.

The Real Way to Eat Tapas and Pintxos

First of all, for those that do not know, tapas and pintxos are small plates. Usually, one person can eat 3-5 small plates but it’s part of the culture to go out for tapas with friends and family and share. In the United States, it is nearly impossible to experience the true nature of tapas because if you are lucky enough to have a tapas restaurant in your town, there is likely only one. Sure you can sit down with a glass of Spanish wine and enjoy a delicious variety of foods, but this is not the intended way to enjoy tapas. In fact, the real way to eat tapas is to hop from tapas bar to tapas bar having only one or two plates at each place. This way, you can discover new restaurants and eat and drink your way around town. In most regions of Spain, there are tapas bars everywhere, so eating in this fashion is not hard at all. If you find yourself traveling through Spain, try this way of dining. It’s fun and a great way to experience the local culture!

The Difference Between Tapas and Pintxos

In some regions in Spain, the people do not differentiate between tapas and pintxos; they are both small plates. However, there is a slight difference. Pintxos are specific to the Basque region of Spain (in the North of the country, which contains cities such as Bilbao and San Sebastian). Pintxos are specifically dishes that are held together with a stick. When you walk into a Pintxos bar, all of the dishes are laid out on the counter and you simply ask the bartender for a plate. You are then allowed to grab as many dishes as you please and pay for them at the end. Some dishes are best served hot and you can then ask the bartender to heat up your dish.

You Never Tip in Spain (Well…Almost Never)

As strange as this may seem to most Americans, you typically don’t tip at all in Spain. The waiters will not be insulted if you leave only some leftover cents from your bill or nothing at all. The only time when it is appropriate to tip is if your waiter shows exceptional attention to your table. For example, while dining in Madrid, we had one waiter who brought us three free dishes and explained in detail the culture behind each one. He was kind and exceptionally attentive in comparison to any other waiter we experienced. For him, we tipped still less than you might tip an American waiter, but we did leave a tip.

The Different Types of Wine

There are many different types of wines from Spain, and not being a wine professional I will not attempt to dive too deeply into the topic. Still, I did learn a few things about the wine culture. When ordering a glass of wine, there are a couple things to know. First the denomination of origin does not refer specifically to the type of grapes, but rather to the place where the grapes were grown and where the wine was made. The type of grapes can then differ within a particular region. For example, you can have a wine from La Ribera del Duero with Temparnillo grapes or Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. When ordering a glass of red wine you ask for “vino tinto” and white wine is “vino blanco”. The wines in Spain are delicious and plenty so be sure to try as many different varieties as you can!

Seafood and Landfood

The food in Spain consists of both seafood and landfood. Dishes like Paella traditionally have seafood, while almost anywhere you go you will likely find some form of ham on the menu. Mussels, clams, shrimp, and squid are also plentiful in most regions of Spain and of course, particularly in regions on the coast. Still, for those seeking some meat, you will be sure to find Jamón Ibérico (cured ham) almost anywhere you go. You will also likely find duck, rabbit, or lamb in most fine dining restaurants. The one thing that I found difficult about the food options of Spain, however, was the lack of fresh vegetables. Tomatoes are in just about everything, but finding a hearty salad was a bit trickier. I look forward to returning home and gorging on fresh produce. Alas, I’m sure as soon as I return, I will find myself craving the Spanish cuisine rather quickly!

If you are a foodie, Spain is a must see destination! There are tons of traditional dishes that are simply mind blowing. Because Spain is broken up into many different regions, the traditional dishes of each vary, providing Spain with a rich and diverse cuisine. While in Spain, I saw some fantastic sites, like sun soaked beaches, epic cathedrals, medieval castles, and so much more. But really, I ate my way through Spain and through the food and wine I truly experienced the decadence and culture of Spain.

Classic Tapas To Try

Here are some of the most popular tapas to try: 

  • Pan con tomate (Pa amb tomàquet): In this dish, tomato is layered over a slice of toasted bread and drizzled with olive oil and a dash of salt. It is common in Barcelona and the Catalan region of Spain.
  • Patatas bravas: Chunky fried potatoes are topped with bravas sauce, made with red pepper, chili and other spices and an aioli. This is a popular dish in Madrid.
  • Jamon Iberico: Cured ham, thinly sliced and often served with cheese and bread.
  • La Bomba: This dish included breaded and fried balls stuffed with potato and meat, and dressed in brava sauce and aioli, similar to a croquette (another popular tapa).
  • Gambas al Ajillo: Spicy, fried garlicky shrimp is another typical Spanish tapa. Sop up the leftover sauce with bread at the end. 🙂

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