Mouth-watering tapas
Mouth-watering tapas

Origin and history of tapas food

Tapas has taken the world by storm. These eclectic hot and cold appetisers offer endless variety, are perfect for sharing and taste great too, especially when paired with the right wines.

But how did this icon of Spanish cuisine get started? Why is it called 'tapas?' Surprisingly, even the Spanish aren't completely sure. The myths and legends surrounding tapas are as varied as the snacks themselves.

By royal decree
Several origin stories credit the invention of tapas to Spanish kings. In one popular account, King Alfonso X made it through a bout of sickness by taking wine and small snacks between meals. Following his recovery, the king decreed that all inns throughout Castile must serve wine accompanied by bites.

Another story involves another King Alfonso – XIII this time – stopping at a tavern in Cádiz and being served a glass of wine topped by a slice of cured ham. Although this was intended to prevent sand in the air from getting into the wine, the king was so taken with the effect that he ordered another wine with the 'cover' (in Spanish, 'tapa.')

A less fanciful origin story postulate that an unnamed king ordered snacks to be partnered with wine because he disliked the idea of peasants drinking on an empty stomach and not getting enough nutrition.

Alternative theories
Those who don't buy into the royal theories generally believe tapas originated either as an aid to stave off hunger between meals or to keep drinks free from pests.

Whether either of these is the true account, there's no doubt that light snacks helped farmers and other labourers to maintain their energy levels throughout the hot mornings prior to lunch and siesta, and it's also known that many Andalusian inns used ham or chorizo slices to keep fruit flies away from glasses of sweet sherry. It can't have hurt that these salty side dishes increased customers' thirst and drink sales too.

An alternative etymology for the name 'tapas' is that inn staff would showcase their range of snacks to passing travellers on a pot lid ('tapa' again), in lieu of written menus.

Tapas through time
However it began, tapas has been an important part of Spanish culture throughout the centuries, and has been heavily influenced by colonisation and changing tastes. The conquering Romans were the first to introduce olives into the mix, and trade from the New World brought chili peppers, corn, potatoes, tomatoes and more ingredients that are now fundamental to Spanish cuisine.

Tapas around the world
This gastronomic influence didn't only travel one way, and many countries in Latin America developed their own variations on the Spanish custom. Central America knows tapas as 'bocas,' Mexico's vegetarian varieties are called 'botanas,' Argentina's 'picada' favours cold meats, cheeses and olives, and Brazil's 'tira-gostos' generally accompany beer.

The popularity of tapas isn't restricted to the Spanish world either. Dedicated tapas restaurants have sprung up all over the world, especially over the past couple of decades, as people of diverse cultures discover the pleasures of healthy, social snacking.

Mouth-watering tapas in Coolangatta
Try the tapas-style lunch menus at Bin 72 to sample cosmopolitan food and drink from all parts of the world. The third signature restaurant by Gold Coast chef Daniel Ridgeway, Bin 72 is open for lunch and dinner every day at The Strand Coolangatta.

Back