Tapas is a cuisine that is marked by regionalism. From Mundaka to Madrid, from Andalusia to Asturias, the tapas tradition is also emblematic of the many pleasures of life in Spain, a food-obsessed country committed to preserving such convivial culinary rituals.
Tapas takes its name from the word ''tapa'', which translates to ''cover'' or ''lid'' and refers to the days when a slice of ham or cheese was laid across the tops of sherry glasses. As well as helping to keep insects out of beverages between sips, the salty snacks served to increase the thirst of customers.
In The Food of Spain, Claudia Roden says tapas originated in Andalusia, and Seville is the capital where the custom is said to have begun. Roden, a famed food writer who delves into the history and background of different cuisines, describes the world of tapas as ''complex''. ''Some bars specialise in certain kinds of tapas and every region has its specialties: in the north, it is seafood; on the Mediterranean coast, it's vegetables, and in the south, it's deep-fried fish,'' she writes.
Cristina Teijelo, the senior trade commissioner of the Embassy of Spain in Sydney, agrees tapas ''reflects the true essence of Spanish food''. ''Tapas is food that is shared among friends and it's that convivial component that makes it so seductive,'' says Teijelo, who has lived on and off in Sydney for eight years.
''There's no such thing as 'authentic' tapas any more - even in Spain. 'Authentic' might refer to the old-style approach of serving bite-sized snacks, but there has been a culinary movement towards innovation in Spain and that is reflected in tabernas, tascas, bars and beerhouses around the country.''
While Sydney's original Spanish Quarter, in Liverpool Street, was swallowed up by Chinatown about four years ago, the spirit of the cuisine has been revived in tapas bars that have sprouted around the city since.
Teijelo says she is proud to see Australian chefs transplanting the small-plates formula while also offering their own take on tapas.
Following are some of the best bars peddling Spanish-inspired tapas in Sydney.
This smart space is big on the ''boho in Barcelona'' vibe - all bare wood, brothel-red walls, vintage art, handsome staff and a hip after-work crowd collaborating with bearded chef Colin Bond (ex-Le Kiosk and Dish) about what to eat. ''There's something really special about sitting down and eating food that has been created in front of you,'' Bond says. ''It's rustic and authentic and perfectly applicable to the Australian way of life.'' The chef suggests starting with sticky cider-glazed chorizo ($12) or the more substantial signature dish, scallops served with sweet-corn salsa, shaved paparta (hot, spicy salami) crackle and braised pork cheeks ($24). On a warm summer's night, after a day of sand and sun, sit and slurp a glass of sangria in the atmospheric courtyard.
9/15 Central Avenue, Manly, 9977 4449, jahbar.com.au.
The fact that this elegant, ambient space was named best food bar for 2014 in The Good Food Guide is even more impressive when you consider the pocket-size kitchen chef Renee Anderson uses to produce exceptional dishes. Owner Frank Dilernia says while Tapavino nods to his Spanish mum's cooking, it also ''reflects the sophistication of the modern-day culinary movement in Spain''. Nibble on delectable dishes from the sea, such as the tuna cruda with spiced almonds and sherry dressing ($19), or from the land - beef ribs with salsa verde ($24) slow-cooked to the point of impeccable. When you're done being tempted by tapas, migrate past the city boys and ask the perky French sommelier for a drop at Australia's first dedicated sherry bar.
6 Bulletin Place, city, 9247 3221, tapavino.com.au.
Ash St Cellar
Chilean-born Claudio Morales (ex-Uccello and Pier) is also helping to raise the tapas bar in Sydney with Ash St Cellar, which is perennially packed with everyone from office workers to food tourists. The room is carefully co-ordinated in tones of toffee and black and brown, and the place is loud in a relaxed, convivial kind of way. Dare to share the snapper and ham-hock croquettes ($4 each), which are all crisp and crunch, or the chicken and chorizo empanadas ($5 each), beautifully buttery packages of pastry. Morales says that rather than trying to be avant-garde or edgy, he wants his food to be ''authentic and honest''. Go-to dishes include the hot pot with grilled asparagus, figs, goat's feta and almond ($19), or the marinated, grilled quail with aji crostano, a tomato salsa with a kick of chilli ($29).
1 Ash Street, city, 9212 7766, merivale.com.au/ashstcellar.
The spirit of tapas is alive and well in Glebe in this cheery establishment, which serves a sensational aged sangria. Kurdish owner Kesra Ceyhan, who is passionate about all things Spanish, describes the essence of Despana as informal and fun. After a sip of the sangria, enjoy bite-size eats that have oomph. Nab a corner in the intimate alcove above the bar as chef Carl Hanson (ex-East Village) sends out a parade of dishes: chorizo and manchego croquettes ($4 each), which are crisp and ample, or lamb meatballs ($13), made delightful when dredged through a punchy, piquant tomato sauce.
101 Glebe Point Road, 9660 2299, despana.com.au.
Frank Camorra has brought a little bit of Spain to Surry Hills in this beautifully realised restaurant that has helped cement Sydneysiders' passion for little plates of food paired with beverages that befit the tradition of tapas. If you are prepared to be intimate with thy neighbour and bartender then perch at the bar and order octopus pincho served with potato and showered with paprika ($7.80 each), or a decadent plate of jamon Iberico, prized ham made from the native Iberian black pig (50 grams for $50). Spanish-born Camorra says his lifelong aim has been to put Spanish food front-of-mind for Australians. ''My food is modern Mediterranean tapas and it's a very civilised way of eating,'' says Camorra, who urges all to try his anchovy, layered on a square of toast with smoked tomato sorbet ($4.80 each).
50 Holt Street, Surry Hills, 8964 7642, movida.com.au.