The essential guide to tapas: know your pinxos from your bocadillos

Close-up of gourmet tapas
Navigate your way through the delicious world of tapas

Every cuisine seems to have its own secret language that at first seems hard to navigate. Tapas is no exception. So here’s a quick guide to some of the more common terms


A cooked rice dish. Unlike paella, where everything is cooked together, in an arroz, elements are sometimes cooked separately. For example, the squid in arroz negro con calamare will be cooked apart from the rice, which is cooked in stock and squid ink, and then combined to serve.


The Spanish love their fresh fish. And they also love this: salted cod. It’s an ingredient revered all over the world but not, strangely, in the UK. Bacalao a la vizcaína is especially popular in the Basque country and, in Seville, I recently found a fantastic bacalao al ajo confitado – cooked in tomato sauce and a confit garlic mayonnaise.


A type of cold tapas made up of pickled ingredients skewered together. One of the most famous is the Gilda, made up of green olives, guindilla chillies and anchovies, and named after Rita Hayworth’s character in the famous movie. It’s a mouthful as fiery as Gilda herself. These can also be called pintxos.


A tapas sandwich with a generous filling made from quality Spanish ingredients.


A typical cooking and serving dish, often but not exclusively made in earthenware.


It is impossible to disassociate tapas from hams, sausages, in fact pretty much any manner of cured pork. And the Spanish know an awful lot about how to make the best of the pig. From the mighty Jamón Ibérico de Bellota to the humble morcilla sausage (the Spanish equivalent of black pudding), the world of tapas is packed with porcine pleasures.


Food from the deep fryer. There is a lot of deep-frying in tapas, from the many varieties of croquetas through to all manner of seafood, including my favourite chipirones – baby deep-fried squid – or tortillitas de camarones – glorious, deep-fried chick-pea flour pancakes studded with tiny prawns.


…or montaditos are “mounted” tapas – little morsels served on bread or toast. Think of Spanish crostini.

Para picar

Literally “something for the table”, para picar are small snacks – almonds, olives, pan con tomate, bread with olive oil or aioli – that are among the easiest tapas to serve.


Particular to the Basque region of northern Spain, a pintxos can be almost anything… on a stick. In a lot of pintxos bars, your bill will be calculated from the number of empty sticks you’ve amassed that evening. These can also be called banderillas.


Something cooked “a la plancha” has, in effect, been pan-fried or seared, but a little differently. While Spanish cooking in general requires a lot of olive oil, the plancha allows you to cook on flat, hot metal with very little fat. It is ideal for quick-cooked dishes like solomillo (a sirloin fillet of beef, pork or veal) and seafood. I especially love to use it for clams.


As well as “a cover”, this also means “an appetizer”, and nowadays a lot of restaurants in Spain will list menu items priced as a “tapa”, a starter portion or as a main course. This brings tapas out of the bars and into restaurants and which means that, at dinner, everyone has the chance to try a little bit of everything. Beyond its sheer conviviality, I sometimes wonder if tapas’s greatest achievement is the banishment of menu envy – if his dish looks better than yours, he can’t stop you having some…


The classic tapas egg dish is most frequently found made with oil-poached potatoes enveloped in an elegantly seasoned omelette. It is often served cold, but I like it best fresh from the pan, and just under the edge of set in the centre for a delicious silky texture. Tortillas come in all sizes and with a host of different fillings.

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