In the United States and the United Kingdom, tapas have evolved into an entire cuisine. In these countries, patrons of tapas restaurants can order many different tapas and combine them to make a full meal.
The serving of tapas is thought to encourage conversation because people are not so focused upon eating an entire meal that is set before them. Also, in some countries it is customary for diners to stand and move about while eating tapas.
According to The Joy of Cooking, the original tapas were the slices of bread or meat which sherry drinkers in Andalusian taverns used to cover their glasses between sips. This was a practical measure meant to prevent fruit flies from hovering over the sweet sherry. The meat used to cover the sherry was normally ham or chorizo, which are both very salty and activate thirst. Because of this, bartenders and restaurant owners began creating a variety of snacks to serve with sherry, thus increasing their alcohol sales. Soon the lowly tapa (from tapa derived the verb tapar, "to cover") became as important as the sherry.
Tapas evolved over Spain's history through the incorporation of ingredients and influences from many different cultures and countries. The east coast was invaded by the Romans, who introduced the olive and irrigation methods. The invasion of the North African Moors in the 8th century also brought olives to the south, as well as almonds, citrus fruits and fragrant spices. The influence of their 700-year presence remains today, especially in Andalusia. The discovery of the New World brought the introduction of tomatoes, sweet and chili peppers, maize (corn), beans and potatoes. These were readily accepted and easily grown in Spain's micro-climates.
In Spain, dinner is usually served between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. (sometimes as late as 12 midnight), leaving significant time between work and dinner. Therefore, Spaniards often go "bar hopping" (Ir de tapas) and eat tapas in the time between finishing work and having dinner. Since lunch is usually served between 1 and 3 p.m., another common time for tapas is weekend days around noon as a means of socializing before lunch proper at home.
It is very common for a bar or a small local restaurant to have 8 to 12 different kinds of tapas in warming trays with glass partitions covering the food. They are often very strongly flavored with garlic, chilies or paprika, cumin, salt, pepper, saffron and sometimes in plentiful amounts of olive oil. Often one or more of the choices is seafood (mariscos), often including anchovies, sardines or mackerel in olive oil, squid or others in a tomato based sauce, sometimes with the addition of red or green peppers or other seasoning. It is rare to see a tapas selection not include one or more types of olives, such as manzanilla or arbequina olives. One or more types of bread are usually available to eat with any of the sauce-based tapas.
In Madrid, León, Asturias, Extremadura, and in parts of Andalusia, when you go to a bar and order a drink, you will often get a tapa for free. In León, a city in northwest Spain, an entire zone known as the Barrio Humedo is dedicated to tapas bars each serving their own unique dish served free with a corto (small beer) or glass of wine. Sometimes, especially in Northern Spain, they're also called pinchos (spelled pintxos in Basque) in Navarre , the Basque Country , Cantabria and in some provinces like Salamanca. They're called that because many of them have a pincho, or toothpick, through them. The toothpick is used to keep whatever the snack is made of from falling off the bread it has been attached to and to keep track of the number of tapas the customer has eaten. Differently priced tapas have different shape or size toothpicks. Tapa price ranges from 1.00 to 1.50 euros. Another name for them is banderillas (diminutive of bandera "flag"), in part because some of them resemble the colorful spears used in bullfighting.
In Andalusia, tapas can be "upgraded" to bigger portions, equivalent to half a dish (media ración) or a whole one (ración). This is generally more economical when a tapa is being ordered by more than one person. The portions are usually shared by diners, and a meal made up of raciones resembles a Middle Eastern mezze or Chinese dim sum.
The concept of Spanish tapas — eating little plates of food with alcoholic beverages — has a long tradition in the Philippines. But tapa in the Philippines has little resemblance to the original Spanish meaning of the word. Rather, it is a traditional dish of salt-cured beef that is similar to American-style beef jerky.
Filipino tapa (mostly made with beef, occasionally with venison or wild boar) is fried and eaten as a full meal, usually for breakfast with garlic-fried rice and fried eggs, along with a chili-vinegar dip.
Beef tapa may also be crisp-fried and served as a proper Spanish-style tapas with alcoholic drinks in Filipino bars and restaurants. There is also a sweet variant of tapa, with the sugar added last so as to avoid a burnt taste. Another variant is the sarciado-type (wet), which has strips of beef cooked in water, vinegar, and soy sauce and flavoured with calamansi, garlic, and sugar.