Many people who have read foodie magazines or checked out a travel show may have heard of tapas, but didn't follow up on finding out exactly what they are. Of Spanish origin, they are "little dishes," that is, snack-size foods meant to be eaten between meals. They are still extremely popular in Spain and there are tapas bars in the U.S., as well.
The history of tapas is an old one. It probably dates from the Middle Ages, when field workers would take a small meal with them into the fields, meant to be eaten as they worked or on a short break. Olives, bread and cheese, perhaps with a small slice of ham or other meat, often comprised this small meal.
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As customs do, eating tapas evolved, becoming a social ritual in small restaurants all around Spain. Some say that the name came from a slice of ham covering a glass of sherry — perhaps to keep out flies. Another advantage of serving cured meats is that they created a greater thirst, making the customers purchase yet more wine.
Nowadays, tapas may be eaten as a snack or as a full meal. They may be thought of as a sort of Spanish version of dim sum. Diners can order dishes individually, or as a group of related dishes. Olives are still popular ingredients, as are cheese, ham and other foods that lend themselves well to small snacks.
Some popular tapas dishes include herbed goat cheese with ham and/or shrimp, chickpeas and spinach, mushrooms and cheese, small servings of Spanish omelet, tuna and olive crostini, and a host of other savory tidbits. Recipes are available online or in cookbooks. A cook wanting to serve a tapas buffet should provide several kinds of cheese, two or three meats and finger-sized vegetables such as mushrooms, olives, carrots and even pickles. Two or three small breads should also be provided. Diners can then make up their own combinations, according to their individual tastes.