In Catalonia, the experience of tapas is a festivity. You go to a bar or restaurant, sit at a table with friends, and order a variety of small plates to be passed around. As the night goes on, everyone shares their favorite foods, orders a few more plates, and excitement builds at the table. It’s no secret that Catalans like to drink. For us, leisure time and work time are equally important. We spend many hours socializing in bars, and tapas are a natural extension of our proclivity for drink. Tapa actually means “lid” and refers to the way Catalans perch small plates of food on top of their drinks. We love small bites of food with our drinks so much that we have several words describing different types of tapas. Pica-pica means “pinch pinch.” These are even smaller snacks usually served as single bites. Pinxos are skewered foods, and they are typically on full display on the countertop of the bar like a buffet from which guests can pick and choose.
A meal of tapas is like having a tasting menu of your own creation without any pretense: It’s greasy fingers holding onto a cold beer; piles of mussel shells and crumpled napkins; and pimentón oil sopped up from a plate of seared octopus with crisp bread smeared with tomato and garlic. It’s a hunger and mess best understood in the aftermath: a jumbled table strewn with empty wineglasses and small plates licked clean.
Outside of Catalonia, you can reproduce the food reasonably well. But the hard part is re-creating the experience. The attitude toward eating is different in other countries and, as a result, less fluid and less exploratory. In Catalonia, a meal of tapas turns dining into a special event to be entered into with abandon and shared with everyone at the table. Nowhere else could be better or more important than where you are—except maybe the next tapas bar down the street!
Reprinted from "Catalan Food: Culture & Flavors from the Mediterranean." Copyright ©2018 by Daniel Olivella and Caroline Wright. Photographs copyright ©2018 by Johnny Autry. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.