A Taste for Tapas
From Erin Lawrence
The opportunity to try new and unique regional delicacies is why so many of us love to travel. But gazing down at a plate of fresh, raw, multi-hued and somewhat mysterious shellfish, I was trying to work up the courage to slurp one up. “Pruebalo! Try it! Muy delicioso—very very good!” encouraged the bartender with a nod and a big grin. It probably didn’t help that while psyching myself up for the mollusk known as concha fina, I was watching another bundle of knife-shaped invertebrates wriggle around in the display case. Following my gaze, the bartender repeated his limited English; “Muy delicioso—very very good! Navajas! Very typical here.” “How do you cook them?” I asked in Spanish. “No cooking!” exclaimed the bartender, tapping on the shells so the navajas squirmed frantically. “Fresca!”
The prospect of eating something still alive and slithering made the Concha Fina seem tame by comparison and since it was was just one bite, I decided to go for it.
The beauty of eating tapas in Spain is that you’re never laden with a plate of food if you just want a taste. You’ve definitely heard of tapas, but trust me — if you’re eating them anywhere but in Spain, you’re almost certainly doing it wrong.
Tapas are a staple of Spanish life, but the right way to have tapas is pretty far from what we get in North America, which tends to be a full-sized appetizer. Historically, tapas are small or single bites of food served in Spain when a customer orders a drink. The origin of this tradition seems to be lost to the shifting sands of time.
Depending on who you ask, tapas originated when barkeepers used small pieces of sausage to cover the mouth of a bottle to keep bugs out. A ‘tapa’ in Spanish quite literally means lid, so this is plausible. Still other versions of the tapas tale have bar and restaurant owners serving small wedges of pungent cheeses or cured meats to mask the taste of sub-par wines.
If you want the regal version of tapas history, you can thank King Alphonso X of Spain’s Castille region for getting so sick he could only eat and drink in small amounts, thus creating a sympathetic trend for his subjects. Whichever version of history you like, tapas is no trend in Spain — it’s a lifestyle. Depending on where you go in the country, you’ll have very different tapas experiences.
Malaga, along Spain’s southern coast, is a uniquely hybrid tapas experience; there’s the very traditional old world tapas experience the locals have, and then there’s a more expensive and generic version for the tens of thousands of tourists who flock to this bustling port city aboard hulking cruise ships.
A handful of tapas bars are still doing it the old way, serving you a small dish of something fresh (often anchovy-laced olives) when you order your drink, and enticing you to nibble at more by laying out tempting trays in glass showcases along the bar.
While the tourist-type places hug the port and seaside, if you venture further into Malaga’s old city, you’ll find some extraordinary and uniquely regional delicacies. Be warned, getting authentic tapas in those tourist areas is getting harder, with many establishments that cater to travellers dishing out what some might call “fake tapas” like potato chips, mixed nuts or other international bar snacks like rice cracker mix.
Take your cues from the locals and order what they do, or ask the barkeeper what her favourite tapa is. Expect to pay about 2 to 5 Euros per tapa, and don’t forget to specify you want a tapa size plate, since some bartenders will hopefully offer you a racion, significantly more food at a much higher price. In some cities in Spain, such as Madrid, tapas are often free with your drink, but elsewhere, expect a bill.
Antigua Casa de Guardia
Begin your tapa tour early in the day at this historic vermouth house. There’s no sign out front, and it’s only by chance we walked past it and saw dozens of wooden casks piled floor to ceiling.
Sidle up to the bar and the gentleman will pour you small glasses of various kinds of vino dulce de Malaga, or sweet wine. The barkeep will write what you’ve sampled on the slate bar in chalk, then add up your bill in front of you when you’ve had enough.
Make your next stop the central city or Atarazanas market. Here, fishmongers line up alongside fresh fruit and vegetable merchants and a huge selection of butchers.
Tucked into the corners and outside the bustling and buzzy market are several bars serving authentic seafood tapas. You can sit outside and have a waiter bring your food, or do like the locals do and lean on the bar inside.
Order a glass of something and olives will certainly appear. Then ask what’s fresh or on special offer that day.
Look for lightly battered and deep fried crispy baby squids (camarones) and in some cases, fragrant paellas. At our favourite stall, Marisqueria El Yerno, we loved the friendly service and great grill skills of the couple manning the tiny stall and we sampled several new things thanks to the kindly service—the concha fina being one.
Concha fina is a type of regional shellfish, recognizable by its white, orange and yellow flesh. Admittedly, they were creepy looking but really delicious, with a little fresh lemon juice and a dash of pepper. They’re light and have the taste of a fresh oyster, but are much firmer.
Large swirly and spiny-shelled busanos were another shellfish we’d never tried before. They’re served cooked and have a meaty texture and a light, salty and non-fishy taste.
Boquerones are the ubiquitous tapa in Malaga. The word boqueron (pronounced bo-care-rhone) is a local nickname for white anchovies, though numerous purveyors told us they’re “similar, not the same.”
The young proprietors at Jamones are doing amazing things with food in a tiny space. We tried numerous delicious bites here including surprisingly creamy and tasty squid ink croquettes, a crispy fried, cork-sized bechamel bite that’s ubiquitous across Spain, as well as squid ink noodles.
Filled with locals or boquerones as Malagans are also nicknamed (yes, just like the anchovy tapa), this place is bustling, vibrant, and serves a variety of local tapas. On the day we visited, tasty roasted red peppers with meat sauce and a tangy tomato topping were on offer.
El Tunel de Pimpi
Another place we went back to again and again, despite its location in the heart of the old city’s tourist zone, is El Tunel de Pimpi. Expect to wait before you can get a bartender’s attention or even before you can get near the bar here, but it’s worth it. The grilled squid is tender and flavourful and served in small bite-sized pieces, but it’s the Malaga-style potato salad (ensalada Malagueña) that’s the must try here. Made with fresh orange segments, olives and salt cod it’s a combination that may sound wrong (fishy potato salad?) but it tastes so right.
Farola de Orellana
An appearance at this small locally run spot on a Sunday earned us a plate of the best paella we’ve had in ages. Thick, sticky, and rich with flavour and loaded with seafood, this dish was inhaled in minutes, and around us, even the locals were ordering a second plate.
Cortijo de Pepe
This spot was filled with locals on a busy Saturday afternoon and the bartenders were also working the grill, cooking up fresh octopus. We asked for a recommendation and got a dish of warm beans and ham. Next up were thin and creamy slices of eggplant covered in a tomato meat sauce.
Get a drink and some of the best views in Malaga Sometimes you just want to sit and contemplate the world. There are a few good places to do that in Malaga.
One of the best places in town for a drink and a gorgeous view, this restaurant is situated along one of the rising ramps that lead up to (or down from) the Castillo de Gibralfaro that presides over the glittery port city, high up Gibralfaro mountain. This newish-looking place has friendly service, a nice wine selection and a
sunny terrace that overlooks the vast parks and pedestrian streets.
Gran Hotel Miramar
You’ll pay North American prices for drinks here but the views from the rooftop terrace at Gran Miramar are worth it. It’s located right on the beach, and the building rises about seven stories so you’ll feel like a bird as you sit on the open air terrace sipping a nice glass of Spanish wine or beer.
Eating authentic tapas is an unforgettable experience. Whether you hunt down some of these places, or explore and discover your own haunts. If you have the opportunity to visit Malaga, you’ll see it has a rich food culture featuring old Spanish classics, and nouveau cuisine.