Isn’t tapas a great way to spend the evening and have a meal with friends or a date? The word invokes memories of long casual dinners, rich tastes, beautiful red wines and good conversation. Although lesser known, it’s Italian sister invokes similar memories to those who have visited Milan or other Italian cities where aperitivo is part of every day life.
A History of Tiny Dishes
Most people tend to know the popular version of tapas history. People in the Mediterranean tend to have dinner very late. Tapas was a small dish to go with a drink when people got hungry waiting for dinner, and maybe whet the appetite for the full meal.
There are however other theories on how these small amounts of Spanish food came about. The word tapas comes from “tapar”, to cover. Restaurants would provide a bruschetta (a small slice of toasted bread with a topping such as tomato with garlic and olive oil) with sherry. People would use the bruschetta to cover their sherry, preventing flies from going into the glass.
Another story says that in the olden days when roads were bad and people travelled by foot or horse, inns would offer travelers food and rooms along the way. Because a lot of the inn keepers and travelers at the time could not read or write, they would offer travelers a small portion of the dishes on the menu to help them choose.
It is also believed that these small plates, which are typically quite salty, was popular among restaurants because it made people thirsty. Thus increasing sales of (alcoholic) drinks.
What makes a dish tapas?
Typically, a traditional tapas menu contains at least a few types of olives and bruschetta. Some staple dishes include albondigas (meatballs in tomato sauce), patatas bravas (fried diced potato with spicy tomato sauce or aioli) and tortilla (a thick omelet with potatoes). What makes tapas even more fun and interesting is to try some of the regional specialities:
Cojonuda from Burgos: a slice of bread with a slice of traditional Spanish blood sausage and a fried quail egg.
Papas arrugadas from the Canary Islands: salty boiled new potatoes with a sauce of paprika and red peppers.
Pimientos de Padron from Padron and the area surrounding it: fried or raq small green peppers grown locally.
Pulpo a la Gallega from the Galicia region: boiled octopus dusted with paprika and served in oil.
Punttillitas from Andalusia: battered and fried squid.
The other thing to look out for on a tapas menu is the cheese board. Not as well known as France for its cheese, Spain offers a huge variety of cheeses. They are produced from cow, sheep and goat milk, aged and matured in different ways.
In the UAE there are ample places to sample some tapas. In Abu Dhabi, the Westin Abu Dhabi Golf Resorts & Spa has Lemon and Lime. There is also Pearls and Caviar at the Shangri La and El Sombrero at the Sheraton Abu Dhabi Hotel & Resort. Basilico at the Cove Rotana in Ras al Khaimah hosts a weekly tapas night. In Dubai you can head to Casa de Tapas at the Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club, El Sur at the Westin, BOCA in DIFC, and a personal favourite, Al Hambra at Jumeirah’s Al Qasr Hotel.
What about Aperitivo?
Aperitivo traditionally refers to drinks before dinner starts. Sometimes small tidbits were served with these drinks: nuts, cheese or chips. In specific parts of Italy such as Milan, aperitivo is like a happy hour with food. Having a drink with friends, which for some bars and restaurants has grown to a dinner-like scale. Some bars will offer tapas when you order a drink. Some have an extensive buffet which is included in the price of the drinks. Typically, you will get some nuts, olives, small sandwiches and/or some cured regional meats and cheeses. If it’s a buffet you can find salads, pasta and more types of sandwiches.
Traditionally, aperitivo should not replace dinner, so stocking up at the buffet is not “how it’s done”. At the same time, people sometimes get carried away with their conversations and drinks often never make it to dinner. The unwritten rule though is that 1 drink means 1 plate of food.
There are also customary aperitivo drinks, Campari is the base liquor for a lot of the aperitivo cocktails. An example is the Negroni, which is Campari mixed with gin and vermouth and served with orange peel. An Americano has soda instead of gin and Spritz is Campari or Aperol with prosecco or other sparkling white wine and some soda.
Although aperitivo has not come to the UAE as much as tapas have, a few restaurants have caught on to the concept. Examples are Circo at the Intercontinental in Abu Dhabi. In Dubai aperitivo is done at Bussola at the Westin Mina Seyahi, the Sass Café in DIFC and Solo at the Raffles.
Buon Appetito and Buen Provecho!