Eating local food is a big part of traveling and visiting new countries. There are many delicious Spanish dishes to try when you visit Spain. Rather than seeking out the paella and sangria why not try a much more authentic Spanish food experience. Eating pinchos and tapas is something that every local person will do and it’s easy for tourists to get involved too.
Don’t be mislead by the idea that pinchos is paid for and tapas is free because that’s not always true. While some Spaniards will argue that tapa should always free, it really depends on what part of Spain you are in. Ordering and eating both pinchos and tapas can be very confusing for a first-timer. So, let me give you a little info that will help you next time.
This article will cover what the differences are, how to order and my tips for eating both pinchos and tapas in Spain.
A guide to pinchos and tapas
What is pinchos?
Pinchos, pintxos or pinchu, depending on the region of Spain you visit, is a small snack. Typically, it’s a slice of bread topped with meat, cheese or fish plus garnish that is served at the bar counter. The name comes from the Spanish word “pinchar”. Which means to pierce because the pinchos will usually have a small wooden stick pierced through the food to keep it all together.
It’s a finger food designed to be eaten with drinks in a social environment. It’s very popular in the Basque Region, where people tend to eat pintxos as an early evening snack. In Barcelona pinchos are served all day and in Madrid it’s usually a late night food served until midnight.
However, in the Bilbao you might find a cup of gazpacho or a small bowl of paella referred to as pintxos, so it’s not always confined to having a stick.
*RELATED article: To find out my 12 favourite Spanish dishes read – What to eat in Madrid
How to order pinchos in Spain
Ordering pinchos can differ across Spain but generally it’s a casual way of eating and you pick whatever you like the look of from the bar. A good pinchos selection will be freshly prepared that day. To help keep it fresh, pinchos might be set behind glass or under plastic covers. Often displayed in large platters, so that you can easily see what’s available. And with little labels, so you know what it is. If in doubt ask the staff, or just try things that look interesting (like I do) and see how it tastes.
Some bars prefer you to serve yourself. You can tell if it’s self-service because there will be small plates and napkins out. In that case, grab a plate and take a few pinchos back to your table or prop up the bar. Just make sure you keep the little wooden sticks to pay after. The staff will most likely count the sticks to work out your bill.
If you cannot see any plates, get the attention of someone behind the counter. Point to the pinchos you want to try and they will load the plate and hand it to you. They might offer to heat up the pinchos for you. Normally, with this kind of service, the staff will keep track of what you ordered but it’s always a good idea to just keep the sticks to one side just in case.
Pinchos are usually cheap unless there is a premium topping like duck, jamon iberico or foie gras. Also, you might find a pinchos menu in some bars, which means freshly cooked pinchos can be made to order.
My pinchos eating tips
- Don’t be afraid to squeeze in amongst the people eating at the bar to grab a tasty looking pinchos
- Ask if you’re not sure what the pinchos is made of or you have allergies
- Only throw napkins on the floor if you see other people doing so, some regions of Spain see this as a sign you enjoy the food whereas others provide little buckets as bins for napkins
- Keep those little sticks on your plate until you pay the bill
- You’re not likely to be served cutlery so just use your fingers
- People get quite creative with pinchos (especially in Bilbao and San Sebastian) so don’t be scared of unusual flavour combinations
- When you eat pinchos it’s normal to bar hop from one place to the next as there will usually be a few bars/cafes near each other selling pinchos
- I tend to order 2 pinchos with every drink, when I get another drink I order 2 more pinchos
What is tapas?
Tapas are small portions of food served either hot or cold. A single dish is called tapa and a selection of dishes is tapas. The word tapas is more of a way of eating then the name of an actual dish. Pretty much any food can be served tapas style.
Supposedly the origin of tapas goes back to the early days of Spain when a barkeep would give patrons a slice of ham to cover their cup of wine. This ham would act as a lid which in Spanish is called “tapa” to keep flies, dirt or sand out of the wine. Others believe that tapas came about as way to encourage people to eat snacks when drinking alcohol and stop everyone getting too drunk.
Either way “tapear” or to have some tapas has become a very integral part of Spanish day to day life.
*RELATED article: For more Spanish food recommendations read – The most delicious seafood in Spain
How to order tapas in Spain
Some parts of Spain still give free tapas when a drink is ordered. Cities such as Granada, Salamanca and Leon will give free tapas in certain bars. But across the country you are most likely to only receive a small bowl or crisps, nuts or olives for free. As a general rule of thumb, if you didn’t ask for the dish and it’s brought to your table it’s complimentary from the owner or bar tender.
Similar to pinchos the idea of tapas is to enjoy a few different foods at a leisurely pace, over drinks with friends and family. But it’s not uncommon to visit a bar in Spain alone, sit at the bar counter and have a tapa or two.
If a bar or restaurant serves tapas you will find a tapas menu. Just tell the waiter or bartender what tapas you would like to try and it will be served to you when its ready. The standard tapa portion is about a quarter size of a full dish but this can vary depending on how traditional the restaurant or bar is. Traditional places will likely serve much bigger tapas portions compared to more modern or upmarket places.
One or two tapas is a snack before a main meal or with a drink. Or you can order a selection of tapas to enjoy as a main meal. It’s easy to over order tapas, so try not to get carried away. A good waiter will always warn you if a portion is served bigger than you might expect. Also look out for the menu saying “raciones” this is a bigger portion of food.
RELATED article: For tips on ordering drinks read – What to drink in Madrid and how to order like a local
My tapas eating tips
- Order just a few tapas at first then order more if needed
- Be prepared for the dishes to come out whenever they are ready so hot tapas or foods that are freshly cooked will take longer
- Tapas is usually eaten in the late afternoon or evening in Spain and some tapas bars don’t open until late
- Don’t be shy in a tapas sharing situation, dig in and enjoy
- There are regional specialities of tapas all over Spain so try whatever the local dish is where you are
- It’s quite common to eat tapas standing up so there may not be many seating options
- Mini forks and spoons are the typical cutlery served with tapas
- The waiter will clear away any near empty serving plates to make room for the next dish, so pop that slice of jamon on your small plate if you don’t want it taken away
I hope this guide to eating pinchos and tapas in Spain has made things a little clearer. If you have visited Spain before and tried some dishes, tell me what is your favourite pinchos or tapas??
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