Etymologically, the name “tapas” is derived from the Spanish word “Tapar” (meaning “to cover”) although there is no clear historical evidence how the link between a “snack” and “cover” (or “lid”) was established. On Internet (especially Spanish websites) you will easily find numerous myths trying to “beautify” the story, but as we know, the truth is usually “less colorful” and does not necessarily involves Royal courts. To keep it short – there are two convincing stories behind the name “tapas”.
Another story claims that thin slices of bread or “jamon” were frequently used to “cover” the glass of alcoholic beverages as a protection from flies, dirt etc… (as a matter of fact – cleverly selected salty/hot “covers” were amplifying the thirst and so the consumption of alcohol). As we can realize, today’s practices and “tricks” to increase consumption of goods are nothing new!
Possibly as an attempt to follow this “smart” tradition, even nowadays in some areas of Spain (for example region of Almeria (Andalusia)), small tapas are usually served for free with any ordered drink!
Fast forward to our times – these days “tapas” are rarely (if at all) associated with “covers”, they clearly represent the style and form of food but also, more and more often – the lifestyle. Our days “going for coffee” mostly symbolizes the act of socializing with friends and a cup of coffee is only the pretext for it. Similarly, in Spain the call to “ir tapas” (“go tapas”, where “tapas” became a verb meaning “eat tapas”), represents an invitation for spending time together, for having fun. As with the coffee, the tapas are just an excuse (but the good one as a matter of fact 😊). BTW – for this reason, tapas are often served on larger plate to share with friends.
Needless to mention, that for best experience, tapas should be accompanied with a glass of wine, pint of beer and for sure, good chats with friends.
Not surprisingly, across Spain (and certainly in the provinces of Andalusia, Murcia, León, Extremadura and the region of Madrid), you will find a large variety of tapas representing regional flavors, styles and tastes. Valencia is not an exception – why the province is mostly associated with Paella and Agua de Valencia, it is also not foreign to tapas.
So, here are some of the most popular tapas you will find in Valencian bars:
1. Patatas Bravas (Spicy Spanish Potatoes)
Patatas Bravas are one of the most popular tapas in Spain, so no wonder, they also found their way into Valencian bars. The recipe (at least its first part) is quite simple – potatoes (often unskinned) are cut in small pieces and fried to golden in an oil. These days, the frying step is often replaced by baking oil-drizzled and salt-sprinkled potatoes in an oven till crispy, what reflects our inclinations towards healthier food.
The real secret is a sauce, usually spicy, based on tomatoes and hot pepper and/or a garlic-mayonnaise-based alioli. Let’s face it – without the sauce, patatas bravas will be nothing else than some sort of popular French-fries. Obviously, the original recipe for the sauce is a jealously guarded secret (as we know- “the devil is in the details”), but the general concept is obvious (here explained in short words just to give an idea). The finely chopped then golden-fried garlic and red onion are mixed with a spoon of flour, powder of smoked paprika (it adds a unique taste of “smokiness”), dried chili flakes, (canned) chopped tomatoes, black pepper & salt, red-wine(sherry-type) vinegar and small amount of water (if needed). The continuously stirred mixture is then kept simmering on a low heat, until the sauce reaches the desired consistency.
The “Alioli” sauce is a combination of chopped garlic, lemon juice, a bit of salt and an olive oil blended till it takes a thick, creamy consistency, then chilled in the fridge.
In the final step, one of the sauces is poured on the fried (baked) potatoes, sometimes also with extra sprinkles of sea-salt and freshly chopped parsley on the top. The alioli sauce is usually drizzled atop of the salsa sauce adding nice contrast to the overall flavor and cutting its spiciness, but it can be also served on the side (or not at all).
Even though potatoes were introduced to Europe after the conquest of the Americas (so already about 500 years ago), Patatas Bravas are relatively new on the culinary map. Experts on the subject tend to agree that the recipe was created in the 1950’s by owners of the little tavern “Las Bravas” operating since 1933 at El Callejon del Gato (Madrid). At that time, they introduced a proprietary, spicy salsa sauce served over fried potatoes. It was probably not an instant success because the sauce was so spicy that it was taking some sort of courage (bravery) to consume this dish. In fact, the name “Patatas Bravas” seems to perfectly reflect this fact, the bravery of consumers and/or bar’s owners (you have to be brave to offer such a dish), so not surprisingly, the original tavern proudly keeps its name – Las Bravas.
To keep it short – the brand name “Las Bravas” became an officially registered trademark and the rest is history, these days so easy to witness and experience across the whole Spain in tapas bars.
2. Esgarraet (Roasted Peppers and Salt Cod)
Esgarraet (also known as Esgarrat, Escalivada or Aspencat) is a salad made from roasted red pepper, chunks of cured cod, garlic, black olives and olive oil. The recipe is quite simple – the peppers and cod are grilled (roasted). Once cooled down, the peppers are peeled and subsequently cut in strips. Regarding the cod – the bones are removed, and then the fish is “crushed”. At the final stage, the salad (mixture of pepper and cod seasoned with garlic and salt) is decorated with black olives. And like almost everything in Mediterranean cuisine, the salad is then generously sprinkled with virgin olive oil.
The final product – esgarraet, has a very unique flavor determined by contrasting contribution of salted cod and sweet paprika, “broken” by pungent taste of raw garlic.
Esgarraet is very popular in the region of Valencia, so not surprisingly, it also has its local “flavors”. For example, in Castellón, traditionally the baked eggplant is added to the salad. There is also esgarraet version called “Aspencat” where the codfish is replaced by mojama (filleted, salt-cured tuna). In another regional version popular in Catalonia and called “Esqueixada” the red paprika is replaced by tomatoes.
Given salads’ composition, it is easy to conclude that “esgarraet-like” salads have deep roots in traditional Mediterranean cuisine. Another common part – they are all eaten cold.
Note: In Catalan, “esgarraet” means “scratch” (in this case “cut” in pieces) reflecting the fact that salad’s main components – paprika and fish are cut in fine narrow pieces (similarly, the name “Esqueixada” can also be translated as “torn” or “ripped”).
3. Clóchinas (Catalonian Clòtxinas) al vapor – Steamed Mussels
Mussels in any form are perfect candidates for appetizers. For sure, the Mediterranean cuisine offers plenty of mouth-watering recipes for these delicacies. For food lovers, it may be worth mentioning that the region of Valencia is famous for its quite unique variety of mussels, they are a bit smaller than typical ones and are distinguished by their more intense but delicate and slightly sweeter flavor.
Most recipes start with making a sort of “broth”, subsequently used for cooking/frying mussels. Not surprisingly, in Spain it will be based on olive oil, but this time just a little bit sprinkled over chopped garlic, sweet red paprika, cayenne pepper, bay leaf, finely chopped parsley leaves and freshly squeezed lemon juice. Once ready, previously cleaned mussels are dropped into this mixture and kept under the cover over the source of heat for a few more minutes. The “broth” released by mussels with characteristic sea-flavor combined with previously added lemon juice will create “steamy” environment necessary to transform raw mussels into much appreciated delicacy.
Needless to say, that this is one of the most popular (and delicious) tapas in Valencia, but hey, it should not be surprising given Valencia’s coastal location and its long tradition with fresh seafood!
“Coquinas” belong to the species of bivalve mollusk, or in more understandable language – small shallow water clams (shellfish). They can be found along the western Mediterranean coastlines and these harvested along Valencian coast have their local name – “Tellinas”. They are easy to make, however the first step – cleaning and getting rid of sand is a bit time consuming process as it may take even few hours. Note that Tellinas are living buried in the sand so most of them inevitably will catch a few grains of sand inside of their shells what in turn, when served will “kill” expected culinary pleasures.
Traditionally, they are cooked in a clay pot in a mixture of white wine mixed with tellinas’ own “juices” and previously fried in oil chopped garlic and onion. Some may also add grated tomato and bay leaf, although adding more ingredients will certainly mask their natural seawater taste. Seasoned with pieces of lemon and chopped parsley as well as salt and black pepper tellinas are simmered for a few minutes on low heat in the covered pot till they open what marks their readiness for being served (actually, ready for moving to fridge as they are served cold). Note, that the “timing” is crucial – for best culinary experience shellfish should not be overcooked.
Tellinas make a delicious appetizer, recently on demand not only as a much-sought delicacy but also the rarity. In fact, due to huge demand and subsequent overharvesting, Valencian Government was forced to introduce periodic fishing bans (in the last 10 years yearly catches of tellinas dropped from 300 tons to just 2 tons).
5. Calamares (Squids)
Calamares are one of the most typical tapas in Valencia. They are either served alone as fried, battered rings or in a sandwich (bocadillo). They are made mostly from the cuttlefish (the order of Sepiida, and similarly as squids – belonging to the family of mollusks). In fact, in Spain the cuttlefish is known as “Sepia”, that’s why when you order the cuttlefish sandwich, you ask for bocadillo de sepia. Note that such sandwich is usually enhanced by squid’s ink and “ajillo” (mixture of finely chopped garlic, parsley and olive oil).
Regardless of the form, calamares are usually accompanied by a pint of beer or a glass of wine.
6. Michirones (Fava Beans Stew)
Michirones is a spicy stew made from fava beans with addition of few taste enhancing ingredients. Although Michirones has deep roots in traditional Murcia’s cuisine (southern neighbor of Valencia), due to its unquestionable gourmand values, it also gained recognition and popularity in Valencia. The best way to characterize the dish, is to say: the recipe is simple, it takes time to make it and the final result is unique. It’s simple because it takes only fava beans (also known as “Broad Beans”) and a broth based on cured ham, bacon, chorizo, spicy paprika as well as garlic and ‘herbs” to make it (at the end also a splash of what is the essence of the Mediterranean cuisine – virgin olive oil). It takes time to make it (but not an excessive labor) because first you must soak dried beans for at least 24 to 48 hours prior to starting the final step.
And it is unique due to its rich and deeply rustic flavor, reminiscent of its origins – a dish prepared for hard-working people in the fields from readily available, not perishable ingredients. That’s also why traditionally michirones are made and served in clay pots.
7. Boquerones en Vinagre (Anchovies)
Boquerones (for as better known as Anchovies) are quite popular across the world, so no wonder, they are also popular tapas in Valencian bars.
The recipe is quite straightforward – small, “silver”-type fish (usually sardines) are cleaned, cut in half and filleted then soaked in the water with salt. Following this step, boquerones are marinated in a mixture of vinegar and olive oil seasoned with garlic and parsley. They are served cold, sprinkled with virgin olive oil and sometimes garnished with brown olives or capers.
Especially, they go very well with the pint of cold beer (note that wine is not suggested because the vinegar and wine do not go well together).
8. Russian Salad (Ensaladilla Rusa)
It is one of the most popular salads (and tapas) in Valencia. The typical recipe calls for cooked potatoes, carrots and eggs (only whites) as well as the premium Spanish tuna known as Bonito del Norte (usually canned). Because the latter is one of the crucial factors setting the flavor of the salad, few words of explanation for foodies. Bonito del Norte is not exactly the regular tuna fish (it shares the wider family including tuna but also mackerel …). Due to its smooth texture and rich taste it is considered as a delicacy. The name Bonito del Norte (what can be translated as “Beauty of the North”) comes from the fact that this fish is traditionally harvested in Northern Spain (Bay of Biscay).
After this short “clarification” back to the salad – it also includes pickles adding their characteristic tangy, sour taste. Some recipes also call for canned peas or asparagus. Once all these ingredients (all cut in small cubes) are mixed, usually few spoons of “water” from the pickles and oil from bonito tuna are added. In the final stage (just before serving), the salad is mixed with mayonnaise and sprinkled with virgin olive oil for an extra “Mediterranean” touch. Traditionally, the Russian Salad is served with bread sticks.
One may ask why this delicacy is called “Russian”? Well, the name reflects the origin of this heavenly “invention”. For the first time it was introduced in 1860 by L. Olivier in Moscow’s restaurant “Hermitage”. Obviously, due to widespread popularity across the world, the original salad gained countless local versions and one of them is the Valencian Ensaladilla Rusa.
Probably, among all tapas offered these days in Valencian bars, the Titaina is one of the most native ones. It appears that it has roots in small maritime villages Cabañal (now, Valencian neighborhood lining sandy beaches near the famous Malvarrosa beach). No wonder that Titaina’s recipe reflects the past of fishermen settlement surrounded by agricultural fields. Traditionally the tapa is a mix of vegetables (ripe tomatoes, grilled red and green peppers, garlic), pine nuts, olive oil and “tonyina de sorra”. For unaware readers, the latter needs clarification, as it is an essential component of Titaina. Tonyina de sorra (where “sorra” comes from Arabic meaning “belly”) can be translated as “Tuna’s belly”. Food lovers will certainly appreciate this fact, because tuna’s belly due to its high fat content is very juicy and has very fine flavor what makes it a rare delicacy. To no surprise, it is often nicknamed as “Ham of the sea”. For its juicy consistency, the tuna’s belly is also known as “Tune de Ljada” (Wet Tuna).
As everything reaching “heavenly” levels of taste, titaina needs quite time-consuming preparation. This is because almost every ingredient must be prepared separately. However, the final result justifies the “sacrifice”. The titaina is usually served in clay pots with bread but often is also offered as a pie (“Titaina coca) or used as a filling for empanadas. In any form, it is a delightful experience combining the flavors of Mediterranean gardens and the sea.
As it could be expected, the traditional cuisine of fishermen villages was based on seafood rather than meat. As a result, till these days the titaina is a favorite dish served during Holy Week.
Some bars and restaurants, will serve titania-like dishes under different names, often associated with “ratatouille” or “asadillo”. Well, keep in mind that while titaina’s composition may vary depending on the “innovative spirit of the chef”, the traditional one must always be made from fresh products (so no canned tomatoes) and Tonyina de Sorra!
10. Iberian Jamón (Iberian Ham)
When writing about tapas (and visiting tapas bars), it will be hard not to mention “Jamón” (we can translate is here as “ham”). Let’s make it clear: there is jamón and Jamón and usually they are not equal. Visitors to Valencia will quickly realize that jamón is much more than just “ham”. It is a bread and butter of Valencian (and in general Spanish) gastronomy. No wonder that this fatty delicacy (especially its highly valued, almost “iconic” version known as “Jamón ibérico de Bellota”) is also served as a tapa.
The recipe for Iberian jamón tapa is pretty straightforward: toasted slices of bread (usually ciabatta) with a touch of garlic and ripe tomatoes (freshy cut garlic and tomato rubbed against the slice of bread) is topped with finely cut slices of jamón iberico. Obviously jamon can be accompanied by many other ingredients like for example yellow cheese, fruit etc…. However, these are not preferred options when you really want to experience the heavenly nature of the jamón iberico de ballota. The nice touch to this tapa will be a fresh mint leaf as it will add contrast of colors and freshness of its unique aroma.