When Carmina Abramson is invited to someone's home, she usually brings some form of tapa she grew up eating in Spain. Now married to an American, Abramson thinks that tapas are a way to introduce friends to her native culture. She does the same when she entertains Spanish friends. ''When we get together, it makes us feel closer, more connected," says the Newton resident, who moved from Madrid seven years ago.
Tapas were first introduced here in the 1980s, but the Spanish word is now used to describe almost any appetizer offered in small portions in a bar or cafe. Authentic tapas are as cultural as they are culinary. They incorporate a style of eating and a way of life that represents the best regional cuisine Spain has to offer -- in bite-size pieces. It's a style that seems to fit nicely into our own culture, where getting to taste lots of morsels on small plates, instead of tucking into a large serving of food, has become more and more appealing.
Julio and Deborah de Haro opened Taberna de Haro tapas restaurant in Brookline seven years ago and wanted to re-create the experience that was such an integral part of their lives when they lived in Spain. For the most part, the tapas at their restaurant are traditional. ''The food we do here is what I grew up with. It's familiar to me," says Madrid native Julio de Haro. The menu includes tortilla, the Spanish omelet often made withpotato; braised chorizo in sparkling cider; and spinach cooked with pine nuts and golden raisins.
The tapas tradition in Spain dates to the 19th century and began in Andalucia, writes Penelope Casas in ''Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain." The first tapas were slices of cured ham or chorizo sausage placed over the mouth of a wine glass -- to keep flies out of drinks. The verb tapar means ''to cover;" hence the word tapa, she writes. ''Since these meats were salty, they produced thirst, and smart tavern owners embraced the tapa as a means to increase their wine sales."
As the custom grew, so did the selection of tapas. In Spain, where lunch and dinner are served much later than they are here, it is common for people to pass the hours before meals traveling from one tapas bar to another, for food, drink, and conversation. Inside, they are drawn to platters piled high with attractive delicacies and fragrances emanating from simmering cauldrons.
The assortment of tapas is enormous and varies, depending on the region. Besides the tortilla with potatoes, typical Castilian dishes from central Spain include patatas bravas, chunks of fried potatoes coated in a hot, spicy sauce. Galicia, on the northern coast, is known for its octopus and shellfish tapas. In Andalucia, to the south, tapas are also from the sea, usually fried or seasoned with vinaigrette.
The de Haros met in Madrid when Deborah, who was raised here, was a college student on a semester abroad. They owned an upscale restaurant in Madrid for five years before settling in the Boston area. They opted for the lower-key tapas restaurant because ''it lends itself to more conversation and is more down to earth," says Julio. ''It's a nice way of spending time."
The couple import all of their pantry items, such as canned white asparagus, bonito tuna, cheese, Serrano ham, chorizo, quince paste, roasted red peppers (piquillos), and saffron.
Because tapas are, by tradition, bar food, Spaniards rarely make them at home. But here, a morsel of spicy chorizo or a wedge of plump tortilla is a treat at your own table. One of Abramson's favorite tapas is a spread of fire-roasted piquillo peppers, fried with garlic and other spices, served with goat cheese on toasted bread. Another, which is also a favorite at Taberna de Haro, is the sauteed spinach. Abramson also makes shrimp in garlic sauce.
For entertaining, Casas, the author, recommends planning a selection of tapas with a variety of tastes and textures: at least one cold or marinated dish, one in a sauce, one with bread or pastry, and one last-minute baked, fried, or grilled tapa. A variety of vegetables, seafood, and meat will create a balanced meal. Supplement these items with cheese, olives, almonds, or something as simple as white asparagus with mayonnaise.
And instead of going from bar to bar in the course of an evening, stay home and go from room to room.