A tapas bar in Murcia, southern Spain


by Rose Maramba

Spain’s acting Minister of Education and Culture, Iñigo Méndez de Vigo, had proposed to the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, that tapas be granted World Heritage – more accurately Intangible Cultural Heritage –  status,  to the delight of everyone in Spain who are justifiably proud of their bite-sized savories. The minister broached the proposal at a recent Nueva Economia meeting at the Hotel Ritz in Madrid where Bokova was key speaker.

The initiative for the UNESCO status actually originated with the Royal Academy of Spanish Gastronomy whose president, Rafael Anson, says UNESCO’s evaluation of the application is in “advanced stages.”


What’s tapas?

Chopitos . A slice of lemon will give it the right kind of tang as to make it irresistible

Chopitos : a slice of lemon will give it the kind of tang it needs to be irresistible

By now anybody who hasn’t heard about tapas must surely be living on another planet. But what exactly is it? Or, better still, what is not tapas? In Spanish cuisine tapas are not appetizers though they may well be, on a different plane. These versatile  bocados are commonly tiny portions of cured ham, omelet, cheese, anchovies, fried squid and many others, usually stuck to small hard-crust Spanish bread and may indeed be eaten as appetizers.

Even paella in sparing amount could serve as tapas. You’d hardly order it for appetizer, though, if you plan on having a full meal.

It seems obvious that in the Spanish mindset, tapas cease being tapas when they’re taken as appetizers. You take tapas on their own, meaning that when you go tapeando you start with tapas and end with tapas. So it’s really how you take them that tapas turn into tapas. Tapas are no prelude to meals.

Tapas are the closest equivalent of snacks, though the Spanish have a specific word for snacks: merienda.

TAPAS UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE Pulpo Gallego Polbo_a_feira CC BY SA 3.0

Galician-style octopus, cooked in boiling cauldron. Served with hot olive oil, paprika (which gives the tapas its signature red color) and a generous sprinkling of coarse sea salt to give it a titillating rough texture, this octopus is a perennial favorite on the tapas circuit. (Note the tabla)

You could order so many tapas in their near-infinite varieties, which, typically,  are then served on tablas (wooden boards). Feasting on all those morsels you could be as full as when dining properly.

What distinguishes tapas from other Spanish food is how you take them. As Rafael Anson said, tapas is “a way of eating.” And this, precisely, is the “intangible” part of the tapas and what may well qualify them as “intangible cultural heritage.”

TAPAS UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE wooden barrel by George Hodan, PDTapas are served in bars or bars of restaurants and are eaten standing up – unless you’re able to grab a stool to perch on – which makes for easy socializing and suits the gregarious character of the Spaniards well. When not at the counter, tapas are eaten at small tables that could fit in the usually crowded bars, or just out the door.

Sometimes upturned barrels take the place of the tables, all the more underscoring the informality of tapas bars.

Expect tapas bars to be convivial and noisy. But what else can you expect when they’re teeming with natives who know no other kind of conversation but the spirited!

Tapas aren’t eaten alone. They come with drinks (usually beer or wine) and are sometimes on the house. If not, which is often the case, you pay. Salud!

What does “intangible cultural heritage” mean?

According to the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, ‘intangible cultural heritage’ means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage.  . . . [It] is constantly recreated by [the actors] in response to their environment . . . and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity. . .

The ‘intangible cultural heritage’ is manifested [in] oral traditions and expressions, including language,  performing arts, social practices, rituals and festive events, [etc].

Pickled olives, baby cucumbers and onions, strips of red papper and other spicy food skewered together to resemble the colorful harpoon-pointed banderillas (literally, little flags) used by the matadors during the corrida de toros

Pickled olives, baby cucumbers and onions, strips of red pepper and other spicy food skewered together to resemble the colorful harpoon-pointed banderillas (literally, little flags) used by the matadors during the corrida de toros

Why would Spain want its tapas to gain an Intangible Cultural Heritage status?

The Convention of the Intangible Cultural Heritage says: The purposes of this Convention are to safeguard the intangible cultural heritage, ensure respect for [it], raise awareness at the local, national and international levels of [its] importance and . . . to provide for international cooperation and assistance.

Spain obviously thinks its tempting tapas deserve to be protected, respected and appreciated around the world which they already are. But there’s nothing like a UNESCO stamp of approval to make them more so.


> Featured image/Grey World (, CC BY 2.0

> Chopitos/Lu  (, CC BY2.0
> Octopus/Freecat (José Antonio Gil Martínez,, CC BY 2.0
> Barrel/Geroge Hodan, PD
> Banderillas/Tamorlan (, CC BY SA 3.0