It goes without saying that Europe is home to some of the best food hubs in the world. We’re all familiar with the mouthwatering noms of countries such as France and Italy, but I’m here to tell you about the biggest hidden gem of the food world – Granada, Spain. There is an incredible tradition held by Granada that sets this charming city apart from the rest of Spain, and even the rest of Europe. That tradition? Free tapas.
Yep, that’s right. In Granada, free food is embedded right in the city’s culture. Most Americans (as I did) think they are familiar with tapas – ordering a bunch of small appetizers so that everyone can try everything, right? Well, not exactly…
Although many mistake tapas for appetizers, they are actually small portions of food eaten with an alcoholic beverage to help enhance the taste of the drink. The small plate is traditionally served as a token of gratitude to the customer for ordering the drink, and while one can find tapas throughout Spain, Granada is the last city to hold on to the tradition of serving them for free.
Here’s how the magic happens:
First you grab a seat at any tapas bar or restaurant (with the exception of the few fine-dining restaurants that require a reservation) and order a cerveza (beer), vino (wine), or wine-based drink such as sangria or “tinto de verano” (wine + sprite/7-up/fanta). Relax, chat with friends, and be patient as your waiter brings your drinks.
**Warning: Do not make the rookie mistake (as I first did) of ordering a cocktail and expecting a free tapa. This will not happen. Tapas are specifically meant to accompany beer or wine.**
Shortly after the drinks are served, the waiter will then bring over your first plate of tapas. If you are dining solo, the small plate will include a single serving, and if eating with a group, say five people, the waiter will typically bring a larger plate of five small portions. A typical first tapa will be bread with jamón (Spain’s most beloved meat), queso, and olives, or often potato or tuna salad with crackers.
Once you’ve devoured that first tapa, feel free to go ahead and order another round of drinks because with each round, the waiter will bring a new tapa – typically one that is heavier than the last. While some tapas bars will provide a menu of tapas to choose from, most will surprise you with whatever the kitchen is preparing that day. The surprise element makes the tapas experience even more exciting.
You will be amazed at how much a few small plates of food will fill you up, and before you know it, you will have made an entire meal out of tapas (for free!). Now, don’t let the idea of free tapas hold you back from ordering actual meals (referred to as raciones), but just make sure to order after receiving your free tapas, to ensure that you get your fix of free grub.
Some other classic tapas are croquettas (fried bite-sized rolls stuffed with mashed potatoes and often ham and cheese), tortilla (a thick egg and potato omelette), patatas bravas (fried potato chunks topped with a spicy tomato sauce and/or garlic aioli), and gambas (shrimp), although the list is endless.
Never did I imagine that food would play such a significant role in my study abroad experience, but I quickly learned that in Spain, food is their culture – their happiness. Food gives Spaniards a sense of pride that is unparalleled and brings people together like nothing else. It’s incredible to walk outside during any time of day (apart from siesta of course) and to see every restaurant patio filled with friends and family enjoying conversation, fresh air, and familiar food.
The food culture in Granada is truly something that everyone should experience. I mean, when else in your life will you be rewarded with food for ordering a drink? If you have an appetite for simple, fresh dishes that will keep your wallet and stomach full, get yourself over to Granada, Spain, for the food adventure of a lifetime.