Culinary Musings: Spanish Tapas

The food of Spain is like the country from which it evolved -- a combination of Old World ambiance and European culture and sophistication with an underlying exotic influence of neighboring North Africa. Dividing the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, it seems Spain is ideally located, gastronomically speaking.One could not begin to speak of the cuisine of Spain though, with its diversity and the influence it has had on other cuisines, without first making reference to the importance of the fateful journey Columbus made in 1492 and the impact it has made on world cuisine. The exchange of foods that was made during that maiden voyage has, literally, forever changed the way the world eats. Simply consider some of the many foods that are indigenous to the Americas and were introduced to Europe by way of Spain during Columbus's explorations: potatoes, tomatoes, chocolate (cocoa), corn, peppers (sweet and hot), and various squashes, just to name a few. It may be hard to believe that these ingredients weren't available the world around prior to then, but it's true. Try to imagine the food of Italy, and that of the rest of the Mediterranean for that matter, without the tomato. What would the cuisine of Ireland be like without potatoes, or the spicy cuisines of the Far East without chili peppers? Even the famous Spanish chilled vegetable soup, gazpacho, was not always tomato-based as it is today.So what was the food of those countries like before the arrival of such a monumental ingredient as the tomato? Well, Italy did have pasta but not with tomato sauce. It was generally tossed with spices, nuts, herbs and sometimes chicken -- methods and seasonings borrowed from the Greeks and Arabs.Gazpacho is said to have existed in Spain for more than a millennium, but prior to the 15th century it didn't contain tomatoes and it wasn't red, it was originally green with fresh herbs, or white with garlic and breadcrumbs. A version of this ancient white gazpacho still exists today and is referred to as "ajo blanco" (white garlic).This, of course, does not imply that it was a one-way migration of foods. There were also many foods brought to America which were new to this continent. Beef, cucumbers, lettuces, parsley and chickpeas are all examples of foods that were brought to the Americas. Bananas, for instance, are indigenous to Spain's Canary Islands and now flourish in the tropical forests of South America.A cuisine as old as Spain's has been molded over the centuries by the influences of conquering and bordering nations, and the seasonal availability of ingredients. Vegetables and fruits are cooked according to the season; garlic and peppers are ubiquitous throughout the nation. And Spain has Europe's largest coastline, which encompasses both the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. This, in turn, offers the country a large variety of seafood. The Moors brought such exotic Arab ingredients to Spanish cuisine as almonds, raisins, saffron and honey. Along the French border lies Basque country -- the Basque population and also the neighboring French have influenced the cuisine of this region. The fiercely proud Basque are a unique culture; their language is not linked to any other language in the world.The Mediterranean diet is said to be one of the healthiest. It encompasses not only a variety of fruits, vegetables, seafood and small amounts of meats, but also a daily consumption of wine and olive oil. Within this diet, in Spain, there is a style of eating known as "tapas." Like the hors d'oeuvre of France, mezze in the Middle East and North Africa and to a certain extent antipasti of Italy, tapas consist of an array of small plates of food which are generally consumed over the course of an evening. Tapas, which are usually eaten in a tasca (tapas bar), are also accompanied with a glass of wine or sherry; they should be easy enough to eat that they don't interrupt the conversation -- tapas are not simply a manner in which to eat, they are part of a lifestyle.If contemplated, the term "tapas" makes sense; it was born out of practicality. The Spanish word, tapa, translates into English meaning lid or cover. With that information, imagine standing in a local tasca having stimulating conversation with friends while holding a glass of wine in one hand and a small plate of food in the other. Having both hands full, and of course wanting to eat, you place the small plate of food onto your wine glass (like a lid) in order to free a hand to eat with. Voila, tapas!Tapas and many Mediterranean dishes are often thought of as being more complicated than they actually are. This is true, I believe, with most European cuisines. The rich, elaborate dishes which have made many cuisines famous -- such as paella from Spain -- are most often reserved for special occasions or restaurant dining; some of the most traditional tapas are also the easiest to prepare. Tapas, in fact, may consist of something as simple as a few herb-marinated olives and a piece of crusty bread, a sliver of tortilla espanola (potato omelet), a small morsel of chorizo or clams drizzled with olive oil and lemon.One of the biggest misconceptions about Spanish food is that it is spicy. While it is true that the Spanish have a definite affection for peppers and that their food sometimes has a certain degree of heat to it, it is generally not overtly spicy. Also, more often than not Spanish food is lumped into the same category as Mexican, Latin American and Caribbean foods. This, too, is a misconception. While the aforementioned cuisines are impressive in their own right, the cuisine of Spain is distinctly Spanish and, in fact, the parent cuisine to most other Spanish-speaking countries around the globe.The food of the entire Mediterranean region is a celebration of life; it is fresh, flavorful, diverse and invigorating. While speaking with a Lebanese chef who had once operated a restaurant in the South of France, I questioned him on the food of the sun-drenched Mediterranean. He said that the genius of it was its simplicity, and that the food was a product of both the earth and the sea. He also told me of the natural bond that all of the Mediterranean cuisines share, from the tip of Spain to his homeland in the Levant. He compared the food of the Eastern Mediterranean to that of the West, and cited their similarities. He also stated that "the same waters equally splash all of the countries around the Mediterranean." With that said, I walked away a content and happy diner.Choricitos (Little Chorizo Sausages)Yield: 10-15 sausages1 pound ground pork butt1 tablespoon paprika1 tablespoon chili powder1 tablespoon white wine vinegar1 teaspoon salt1 teaspoon oregano1 teaspoon minced garlic1/2 teaspoon ground cumin1/2 teaspoon crushed hot pepper1/4 teaspoon ground black pepperCombine all of the ingredients in a bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for one hour. At this point the sausage can be either stuffed into natural casings or shaped into small patties and sautŽed or grilled.Gambas al Ajillo (Garlic Shrimp)Yield: 2 servings4 ounces shrimp, shelled and veined2 tablespoons olive oil1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice1 tablespoon minced parsley1 teaspoon minced garlic1/4 teaspoon salt1/4 teaspoon crushed hot pepperCombine all of the ingredients in a small bowl and let stand 20 minutes. Heat a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat and add the shrimp and all of the marinade ingredients to the skillet. SautŽ the shrimp for a minute or two, until they are just done. Using a slotted spoon transfer the shrimp to a plate. Continue to cook any remaining juices until they are almost evaporated and the garlic begins to caramelize. Add the shrimp back to the pan with the garlic and reduced liquids; toss to evenly coat the shrimp. Serve warm.

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