•  Travel Diaries

    Spanish Tapas

  • –  Chef Michael Swamy 

    Chef Swamy walks us through the culture of Spanish Tapas and his interesting take on this culinary tradition. Well, who doesn’t love legends, and the origin of Tapas is linked with many legends according to various popular beliefs.

    One such story says that the King Alfonso X of Castile of Spain was told to eat small meals with his wine. The royal chefs loved this, the big regal meals got toned down and creativity became the story of the day. Another legend says that when the Romans were conquering the western world many inns known as Posadas, Albergues or Bodegas started growing up along the highways.

    The original tapas were thin slices     of meat served on different breads and to be had with Spanish sherry. The thin slices of bread were also used as a cover to protect the wine and beer from flies; this tradition started in the Andalusian cafes and so the word Tapa primarily means a cover or lid.

    Tapas are a style of presenting food and enjoying it with friends. I remember my time spent with a Spanish Chef Sylvia learning the nuances of Tapas when we created Vinotecca Mumbai’s first wine bar. Though it was in the heart of the city and away from all the big restaurants, this place made a mark.

    In Spain, Tapas have their origins in soul food where you cook using your instinct, churning out dishes which are primarily starters. You visit any bar in Spain and you can see a table laden with food. The tradition goes that you help yourself with the food and you are charged accordingly. Every dish tastes the best with your choice of wine and beer. Some of my favourites range from the cold platters of meats to the sausages and cheese. From smoked cured lamb that’s sliced fine before you, every movement of the blade is held to perfection.

    It is these recollections that bring to the fore a nature and concept of food and wine, clinging to tell a tale of love and peace. Stories within a plate and journeys often incomplete create mysteries. We all can get a glimpse of the cuisine of the world and partake of it bit by bit. All Latin American cuisines, be it Peruvian, Colombian, Cuban, Chilean or even the Asian influences, are deeply rooted in old traditions and customs. You can taste the mountains, the seas and the plains in the dishes belonging to these parts. Despite the amalgamation of myriad cultures, cooking styles and techniques, Latin American cuisines have retained their connection to their origins and to nature to make for a heart-warming experience.The Tapas selection in most bars serving up Tapas is an eclectic mix of Spanish and Mediterranean but the moment you get a glimpse of the tapas with South American flavors from Peru, Chile, Brazil, and Colombia, you are mesmerized.

    With the Italian Portuguese, and Asian influences on South American cuisines you are more than captivated by the unique ceviches and empanadas to the anticuchos and grilled meats.

    Most seasoned Chefs take their inspiration from the cuisine and culture of the land that stretches from the blazing heat of the Equator to the icy waters of the Antarctica. Highlighting the concept of Spanish tapas and a concentration on tapas-style food, Chefs follow the routes of the old conquistadors, the Spanish, Portuguese and the French, whose culinary techniques have structured much of the global cuisine with their influences.

    These dishes have travelled the world and have changed slightly in variation due to ingredients and adaptability. So adaptability is the key and innovation the name of the game when it comes to Tapas.

    The fundamental rules and techniques of cooking still apply, yet at the end of the day it’s what classifies as Tapas and it’s amazingly simple. You have the Pinchos which is easy to remember, derived from the Spanish word ‘Pincho’ meaning “spike”, often line the bars of Spain and South America, where the little toothpicks or tiny skewers holding the food together make for a dainty picture on the bar table. Easy to eat and full of flavor, pinchos are the perfect companion to a good hearty drink and some great company. One of my favourites is the smoked Salmon rolled in cream cheese that’s been mixed with dill and served on top of a tiny slice of crusty bread. Tasty yet simple is the art of making bruschetta with mozzarella and tomato and a drizzle of oil over bread. Rustic bread topped with smoked lamb is a dish to crave for and to be had with some Spanish wine making for a perfect culinary delight.

    Another form of tapas is one of my favourites, where simple ingredients are tossed together and cooked in a Cazuela (cooking pot). As the Spanish call it, Cazuelas are elegant, gravy-based tapas that are served with bread. Enjoy the flavorful, juicy meats and vegetables, and soak the bread in the delicious leftover juices to truly enjoy the dish to its last lingering drop. Lemony prawns or spice sausage meat cooked in tomatoes or just fresh herbs like coriander and olive oil are one of the mouth watering delicacies worth mentioning.

    Another form of tapas is one of my favourites, where simple ingredients are tossed together and cooked in a Cazuela (cooking pot). As the Spanish call it, Cazuelas are elegant, gravy-based tapas that are served with bread. Enjoy the flavorful, juicy meats and vegetables, and soak the bread in the delicious leftover juices to truly enjoy the dish to its last lingering drop. Lemony prawns or spice sausage meat cooked in tomatoes or just fresh herbs like coriander and olive oil are one of the mouth watering delicacies worth mentioning.

    The third classification for Tapas is the Cosas de Picars, where the food is literally eaten with hands. A concept so simple in principle and so diverse in variety is something all cultures are used to. From a cheese or meat platter garnished with fresh or flavoured olives and fresh fruits, pickled vegetables or gherkins to vegetable crudités and a salsa or a dip, the imagination goes wild and the variety is based on the Chef’s creative skills. Cod or bacalhau is another staple, be it dried or pickled or just batter fried, it’s the staple for all the joyful Spaniards.

    Through this journey of tapas comes another favourite pastime, that of bar hopping and drinking wine. Most meals in Spain are late and so one needs some sustenance along the way. Some of the Spanish wines and Chilean wines are so fantastic that you will pass off the French wines. There is something about drinking local wines with the local food and most bars in Spain have 8-12 different tapas laid out along the bar. Some of the favourite tapas are anchovies, sardines or mackerel in oil to squid cooked in tomato. Batter fried calamari or just chorizos cooked in red wine gambas, prawns cooked with garlic, chilli peppers in olive oil patatasbravas or the papas con mojo are some of the popular dishes served at the bars. You have to take your pick as it doesn’t matter which wine goes with what food most of the time as there is a plethora of food in front that makes hard to pair it. The jingle goes – ‘Just drink your favourite wine and be happy.’

    Brother Pardo was a fine gentleman who taught me the art of icons as a youngster. He would often have this tiny horn Spanish wine in his room, that would go perfectly with the paella and we were left joyous.

    Maybe that was the start of my long-lasting relationship with Spanish Tapas and wine. You can visit the Michelin restaurants but the best of Spanish food and culture lies is the small cafes and the music. When in Spain and bar hopping, try out the Spanish Semi Seco Cava by Marcabeu or Paralada, it is similar to the Italian prosecco, fresh and delicious that comes from the famous Catalonia region of Spain.

    Having been exposed to the myriad arts of cooking, photography and writing from a very young age, Michael Swamy goes beyond being just a chef. A graduate of the prestigious Cordon Bleu Culinary School, London, Michael has done his specialization in Bakery and Patisserie. He has trained under and worked with several Michelin Chefs in the UK who observed his work closely and encouraged him to enter the world of Food Media.