It has always amazed me how eager the Sydney food scene is to absorb reinterpret the so-called ‘traditional’ and ‘peasant’ foods of other nations into overpriced, ‘exotic’ wank. Besides the prohibitive prices of foods like tapas, Brazilian bbq and Cuban food, these reincarnations of cuisines which claim to be ‘inspired’ or ‘influenced’ by various countries almost always miss the point of the cuisine they claim to ‘draw inspiration’ from.

In Spain, where dinner is generally served at around 10pm, bars will offer tapas; small, simple, tasty, cheap morsels of food that you eat standing up to stave off hunger and stop you getting too drunk. This fulfils the dual purpose of soaking up alcohol and stimulating thirst. The point of tapas is not to fill you up. It is not even really to have a ‘meal’. People don’t sit down at a table, order a variety of drinks and food and then have them all brought over, eat, drink and pay at the end. In Australia, this style of serving is rare, and tapas becomes just an item on a menu, not a cultural practice.

What baffles me about this mistranslations is that restaurateurs and I presumably have a similar experience when we go to a foreign country. We’ll be walking the streets of whatever town in Spain as the bars will start to fill up with people socialising, drinking and snacking. The overall impression is of vibrancy. Life. Hospitality. Community. I look around me and think ‘wouldn’t it be great if I could bottle this and take it back home?’

Obviously we all view holidays through rose-tinted glasses. But it seems to me that many restaurateurs are viewing theirs with dollar-sign eyeballs. They want to bottle this experience and take it back to Australia, but they also want to pour half of it out, dilute it with water, mark up the price and sell it. They are translating a cuisine completely literally and without any of the nuance that comes from the culture it’s a part of. They take the food of Spain and plonk it down on an Australian restaurant table.

Now, it’s a fair point that Australian diners may not want tapas-style dining, just tapas-style food. Clearly a restaurant cannot force people to order this way or they won’t have any customers. I have noticed though that more and more pubs are serving tapas, and this seems more in line with tapas’ whole ethos.

The most basic tapas recipe is tortilla de patatas, sometimes known as tortilla española. In Spain you can buy it in supermarkets and chop it into wedges. It can be eaten hot or cold and consists of eggs, potatos and sometimes onions. I add garlic to mine but that’s completely optional. Serve with tomato sauce or aioli. Or plain.

Tortilla de Patatas
(serves 2)
2 medium potatos, peeled
½ a medium onion
2 cloves of garlic, optional
2-3 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive oil
3 eggs
Salt, to taste

Microwave or boil the potatoes, whole until cooked but not mushy. Leave to cool slightly. Whisk the eggs with a pinch of salt.

Finely slice the onion and finely chop the garlic, if using. Once the potatoes are cool enough to touch, cut them into thick slices.

In a very small non-stick pan, heat the oil on a medium high heat. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, then the garlic. Once the onion is golden, take the pan off the heat and turn the heat down low.

Add the potatoes to the pan. Mix them gently with the onion and garlic to combine but try not to break them. Pour over the egg mixture, making sure it gets into all the gaps, and place the pan on the heat.

The tortilla should cook very slowly and begin to firm up. Some people like it quite runny in the middle, some like it well cooked. I like mine firm so I leave it until almost completely set, 5-10 minutes.

When your tortilla is solid enough to flip, use a large flat spatula to do so. It won’t need much time on the other side as it is just to cook the top.

So, dear reader, what tapas dish do you crave?

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10 Responses to Tapas for paupers – Tortilla de patatas

  1. Gaby says:

    I agree with you, you can’t import just a part of a cultural expression. Your post reminded me of Alejandro Saravia (Peruvian chef who lives in Sydney) talking about how everybody is using the word tapas incorrectly these days, because in fact there’s no such thing as Japanese tapas, for example.
    Gaby recently posted…Review- Carlisle Castle Hotel

    • Lau says:

      Well, we could call it ‘Japas’?! I agree that fusion cooking is majorly risky. It takes a lot of talent to pull it off…

  2. mella says:

    There is a place here in Melbourne, infact I might have been there with you, Bebida on Smith Street? Their menu hasnt changed in years, so initially when I first started going there, I was in heaven! Now though the quality of the food has gone down, so its much less enjoyable.

    My favourite Tapas type dishes are those that are more rustic. I find modern tapas unfulfilling and over priced. Perhaps I need to visit Spain!

    • mella says:

      Also Im trying not to eat potato, and yes I know this is essentially going against the logic in your post, but what vegetable do you think I could replace this with? Just temporarily while Im not eating potato?

      • Lau says:

        No perhaps about it, you need to visit Spain!

        Um, you could replace them with tinned chickpeas, you wouldn’t need to cook them first. Or mushrooms, which you would need to cook first. That would be pretty traditional.

  3. It seems everwhere you turn in this city now has ‘tapas’. Overpriced little mouthfuls of (sometimes) Spanish bar food to nibble while sipping on $20 cocktails. I’ve been to Spain a few times and absolutely adore the food/bar culture there. The tapas there are sensational, washed down with a cold beer or local vino. In the Basque country, up in the north, it’s more about the pincho (or pintxo) where the morsel of food is on a skewer or toothpick (hence the name) or simply served on slices of baguette. Absolute heaven!
    When’s my next trip to Spain?
    john@heneedsfood recently posted…Greenhouse by Joost – The Rocks

    • Lau says:

      I am 100% with you, Sydney tapas is ridiculous. maybe all us Sydnay food bloggers could band together and open up a ‘real’ tapas bar?

      I didn’t spend much time up North but I did love the custom in Granada of a free tapa with every drink. They got progressively tastier the more drinks you bought and so that would encourage you to stay at one bar for longer. They are fiercely proud of this custom as they say it shows that they are the more hospitable part of Spain.

  4. Natalie says:

    I think the reason Tapas doesn’t translate well, into the UK at least is their concept of time and the weather. Brits are obsessed with eating their dinner at about 6pm whereas Spanish pepole don’t finish work until 9pm. They have a siesta during the day and stay up later because of the heat. You can’t sleep at 10pm it’s too hot in the summer. So you stay out late chatting in the street. Its like the whole: starter, main course, dessert thing we have going on if we go out for dinner. The Spanish just graze, which is annoying by the way if you are trying to serve their table, you never know when to clear!!
    Natalie recently posted…Brilliant Green Broccoli Soup

    • Lau says:

      I think the time thing is a very good point, here in Aus as well. Tapas generally works in bars here as people graze intermittently, but in restaurants people are used to ordering everything at the beginning and then stuffing themselves…

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