What Are Tapas?

John Maher:  Hi, I’m John Maher. I’m here today with Chef Ned Grieg, Executive Chef at Woodman’s and The Essex Room in Essex, Massachusetts. Today, we are discussing the topic “What Are Tapas?” Welcome, Ned.

Chef Ned Grieg:  Hi. Good afternoon.

What are tapas?

John:  Ned, what are tapas?

Chef Ned:  Tapas are small plates, usually consumed from one person and/or two. They originated in Spain.

Difference Between Tapas and Appetizers

John:  Tell us a little bit about what the differences between tapas and appetizers.

Chef Ned:  Technically speaking, an appetizer is something that one person will eat by themselves. If they offer to share it with you, they can. Say you got a plate of escargot. It isn’t something you’re going to pass to your partner or the person across the table to try one.

On tapas, it’s usually meant for people to eat together. It’s usually more than one bite. It’s usually four or five forkfuls. For example, I had this one tapas, I did different types of homemade potato chips out of all these different colored potato chips with different dips that my wife and I had. And you shared that together while they came up with something else. Tapas are meant to be shared, as a rule that can be consumed with your fingers, a folk, or a toothpick.

John:  When I think of appetizers, I think that obviously it’s something that you would have before a larger meal. Are tapas like that, or are tapas’ generally the meal?

Chef Ned:  Tapas are the meal. They will go on, but they can be all different types of meals. When you go to one of these new modern American tapas restaurants, you will see that it’s broken down in different food categories.

It’s usually vegetables and legumes. There will be another one that will be fin fish and shell fish. Another one will be poultry, and they run it in that gauntlet. This one place that I go to called Black Birch, every single night they come up with a different trilogy of deviled eggs. Who doesn’t like a deviled egg? You can find different things like that all the time.

Technically speaking, if you look at hors d’oeuvres are one bite‑size pieces. Appetizers are usually something that you eat for yourself as a first course at a sit‑down meal. Then tapas are something in between those two things.

John:  You mentioned that they can be eaten as finger foods, with a toothpick, with a fork, or a lot of different ways depending on what the type of tapas it is.

Chef Ned:  Yup, it depends on what it is. Say that you were at one place and they did a little Asian noodle bowl, there, you obviously going to need a spoon and a fork. Then there might be something else you may be eating, a Caesar salad where they grill the romaine lettuce with hot croutons, and some blue corn meal and crusted oysters.

Then you’re going to need a knife and a fork to do that. Another one may be just all pickled vegetables. There, you’ll probably be using a little toothpick to pick on things of that nature.

Making Tapas at Home

John:  Can I make tapas at home? Are they hard to make? It sounds to me like it will be a lot of work to come up with 10 different dishes. Is it like cooking 10 different meals? What’s an easy way to maybe make that a little bit simpler?

Chef Ned:  That would be hard if you were choosing to do just all hot tapas. If you were going to be doing some that were chilled, you may be able to have those ready even before your guests come through the door. Then you can concentrate on the hot ones yourself.

Yes, you probably could do four or five different kinds, but you would want to plan in out. The first one that you put out there, you call it an amuse‑bouche. That’s a French word, it’s something that’s already sitting on the table that they could eat all by themselves, while you are getting the first couple ready to go. If you are going to take on an endeavor of this sort for 12 or 14 people, you probably want to hire the babysitter to be the wait staff!

John:  That’s good advice. When should I have tapas? Are they generally just a dinner time type of meal, or can they be eaten at any point throughout the day? How did they originate in Spain?

Chef Ned:  Definitely lunch and dinner, and in that in-between hour, between four and eight o’clock. You have to realize in Europe, people take a two‑hour break for lunch and they take a nap, and then they go back to work. Even the banks are open at eight o’clock at night.

It’s a different type of lifestyle. Tapas fit that motif quite easily for everybody to use. I’ve never seen tapas for breakfast before, personally. I lived in France for 18 months and I’ve traveled there for quite a bit, but I would see them for lunch and dinner.

Mixing Different Kind of Foods in Tapas

John:  What do you think about mixing all these different types of foods? You mentioned having a little salad, and then you might have a fish dish and a meat dish, and a legume. Do they all go together? How do you think about it in terms of either ordering or making different tapas? Are you trying to make them so that they all fit together as a meal, or it’s the point they’re all very different?

Chef Ned:  It’s the whole reverse process of less is more: you have more choices, but less of each thing on the plate. It’s really what you want to try. You might be in the mood for a whole bunch of different things, and you never know what you are going to eat. At least, I don’t know what you are going to eat. It’s like when you order Chinese food. Do you really know what you’re going to eat before you order it?

You might be doing 10 different things so you might just be doing three different things. That’s the joy about eating tapas, is that you can go all over the globe. You can go all over the different food groups.

John:  Whereas when you put together meal, those things have all been planned to go together as one thing, but that’s the joy of the tapas. It’s almost like a buffet where you can take a little bit of whatever you want.

Chef Ned:  How many times have you gone to a restaurant with your wife, family, or friends and they say, “Can I have a different sauce? Can I substitute this for that?” When you do tapas, you seem to throw that to the wind and you’re just happy to try whatever is going to be brought to you.

John:  Excellent. For more information, you can visit Woodman’s at woodmans.com or The Essex Room at essexroom.com. Chef Ned Grieg, thanks very much for speaking with me today.

Chef Ned:  Thank you, John.

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