Lessons in culture come at the most unexpected times, and one of our most enjoyable introductions to Spain came during a layover in Madrid. You see, we had one of our favorite layovers: the ones that provide enough time to leave the airport. Within an hour of touching down, we had a chance to experience the tapas culture in Spain.
Let us tell you what we learned.
Tapas: How to eat like the Spaniards do
Spaniards generally eat lunch between 1 and 3 pm, and dinner is usually served between 9 pm and 11 pm. It's a long time between lunch and dinner, so the locals cover their hunger at tapas bars. If you go to a local bar and order a drink, you’ll often get a free tapa.
Tip: Here's a guide to where to find cheap tapas in Madrid and what tapas to try.
Tapas are a sort of appetizer, just a small plate of bite-size morsels that you can savor along with your drink. Their origins were practical; bread or a small plate of ham or olives were used to keep dust or insects out of the drink. (The literal meaning of tapa is lid, cover, or top.)
Some tapas are free with your drink, others are not. Some are actually served as “raciones” (plates to share) and others are served on pieces of sliced bread (which makes them “pintxos”).
Spain's customary wine bar culture is to bring a plate of tapas to the table along with the first order — anything from a bowl of almonds, olives or marinated beans, to a plate of cheese or meat.
I suspect that a lot of the popularly served tapas are intentionally salty. After all, they would make patrons more thirsty and thus they will want to drink more.
On the other hand, you only get a free tapa with the first glass. Also, it's only one per table, which means that you'll have to share with your table mates. If your appetite is screaming for attention or the waiter brought you a tapa that was so delicious that you want a second order, plan to spend about 2-3€ each.
Alternatively, you can order a racion (large plate) or two to share with your friends.
But there's also another option.
Bar hopping is big in tapas culture
Spanish culture includes a lot of bar hopping in the early evening. They even have a verb for it: tapear. After all, they'll get a free tapa with the first drink, so they've got it figured out. Locals generally only order one glass of wine per bar, then settle their tabs and head to the next.
Even though liquor and mixed drinks are readily available, the cervezas and local wines are so inexpensive (and delicious) that I don't recall ever seeing anything else on the table.
Tip: Go to bars on side streets. Yes, the ones that look like local hangouts. Besides the fact that some bars in tourist areas have quit serving tapas, rumor has it that the tapas that are prepared for locals are better quality.
Also, people commonly eat their tapas standing up at the bar or at small tables, rather than sitting down at a table. It stands to reason, because tapas are informal and the bars are often busy. When you go, expect the atmosphere to be convivial and noisy.
Besides cheese and olives, tapas can be almost anything. Here are a few examples:
- Espinacas con garbanzos: spinach and chick peas with olive oil and garlic
- Patatas bravas: fried potato wedges served with a spicy alioli sauce
- Tortilla: potato omelette
- Revuelto: scrambled eggs with various fillings
- Gazpacho: cold tomato soup with cucumber and garlic
- Salmorejo: a thicker version of gazpacho, often used as a sauce
- Bacalao: salted cod, which can be breaded, fried or stewed in tomato sauce
- Montaditos: small filled buns, often served toasted
Whether for religious or health reasons, many people have dietary limitations. Some people have issues with gluten, nuts, or seafood. We follow a Biblical diet, meaning we don't eat scavengers like pigs and shellfish. One of us is also sensitive to grains.
These days, it's always something.
You might think Ensaladilla would be a safe vegetarian option, but sometimes this simple potato salad with mayonnaise also contains tuna or prawns. And even gazpacho contains bread.
But don't let food sensitivities stop you from traveling. We enjoyed Spain even though ham is ubiquitous all over, and they like their prawns as well.
If your server is clueless about what's in a dish, ask him to check with the chef.
I've not figured out an easy way to avoid wheat or gluten, but the least complicated way to avoid the meats is to tell the waiter that you're a vegetarian. “Soy vegetariano/a. Que tapas no tienen carne ni pescado?” (I’m vegetarian, which tapas don’t have any meat or seafood?) I don't know if that always does the trick, but I do know that they never brought us anything that even slightly resembled meat or prawns when we said that.
We were thrilled whenever a waiter brought us a bowl of olives or a few pieces of cheese.
Getting by with the language
Avoiding tourist areas pays off: Prices and food are better on the side streets. But if because you don't speak Spanish, don't worry about that. English tourists have paved the way for you, as have the movies and public schools, so you'll find English is widely spoken in larger cities.
Feel free to use whatever Spanish you know; it enhances the travel experience. Keep in mind that most people don't mind when visitors mangle their language. They just appreciate the effort.
Tip: Also read How to Overcome Language Barriers When Traveling
In Barcelona and the surrounding area, you may overhear some people talking in something other than Spanish. They are speaking Catalan, the regional language (and the reason why there's an independence movement in that region). If you only speak Spanish, don't worry; they'll understand.
In Madrid, we had to adjust to the Castillian accent—they use th instead of s — but otherwise it's not too hard to understand.
That is, when they speak slowly enough.