Jude's culinary journey

The spice of life: From tapas to meze

Posted 6/21/22

Unless you’re in Spain, if you mention that you have found a fantastic tapas bar, it’s likely you will be met with this response: “What were you doing in a topless bar?”

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Jude's culinary journey

The spice of life: From tapas to meze


Unless you’re in Spain, if you mention that you have found a fantastic tapas bar, it’s likely you will be met with this response: “What were you doing in a topless bar?”

The two words can sound alike, particularly when tapas bars are still few in Manhattan, a city that offers hundreds of types of edibles from myriad cultures and countries around the globe.

Tapas are wildly popular in Spain. Friends meet to share multiple dishes as a midday snack or a prelude to dinner.

The draw of eating out is, for me, the chance to try a variety of dishes. I have little interest in digging into an entrée, a sole dish, when I find the appetizers of greater interest. And often they are more creative and tastier than anything else offered on the menu.

Around 2017, there began a “small plate” trend in many restaurants. Apparently, savvy diners had come to understand that the appetizer section was where chefs took the most risks, creating wonderful new flavors. People began to order starters en masse. This led to the rise of small plates meant to be shared.

Before the small plate phenomena became common in many restaurants, there was always a variety of restaurants representing cultures that generally serve a mélange of dishes, whether as a prelude to a meal, like “banchan” in Korean cuisine, or as the meal itself, the main course, as in Turkish, Moroccan, Israeli and Greek meze and Spanish tapas.

Similarly, the Dutch-Indonesian rijsttafel, or “rice table” consists of a bowl of rice surrounded by dozens of dishes and condiments meant to provide a harmonious dining experience of sweet, sour, bitter and salty tastes. Some dishes are served cold, some at room temperature, some hot, and the textures are varied as well, from crispy and crunchy to smooth and soft. Skewered meats or fowl, banana fritters, egg rolls, vegetables in peanut sauce, duck breast, pork ribs or fiery, chili-laden beef sambal might round out the offerings.

Dim sum, from the Chinese province of Guangdong, is usually served starting at 10:30 a.m. Pushcarts roll out of the kitchen, filled with stacks of dumpling steamers and plates of fried and steamed food. Carts are pushed in and around the tables, to be flagged down for some tempting morsels. There are rice noodle rolls—large, thin, handmade rice noodles rolled around a tender shrimp or meat center; dozens of types of steamed dumplings, filled with bamboo shoots, black mushroom, water chestnuts and usually pork or shrimp.

The BBQ pork buns are especially popular, and my brother was mad for the chicken feet. Yes, deep-fried chicken feet with the claws removed, and then braised until tender in a rich, slightly sweet fermented black bean sauce. Needless to say, he was the only one in the family who consumed them.

The Japanese are known for sushi and sashimi, but they also have restaurants, known as izakaya, devoted to pub food or offering just one specialty, such as yakitori: skewered chicken, meat and vegetables grilled over a charcoal fire. Chicken is the specialty here, and there are skewers of thigh, skin, wing, gizzards, heart and breast with scallion. Diners can also feast on skewers heaped with prawn, short rib, eel, scallop and such grilled vegetables as eggplant, king oyster mushroom, asparagus and shishito peppers.  

The first course of meze, popular in Israel, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Iran, consists of small plates filled with bite-sized foods: dips like hummus and baba ghanoush,  flatbreads, salads, olives, tiny, cured fish, puffy pita bread rounds, grape leaves stuffed with rice (called dolma), grilled eggplant, mussels and meatballs.

And, finally, we come to Spanish tapas. These are served in tavernas and bars, accompanied by a glass of wine, port or sangria. There are a vast array of tapas, from traditional to more avant-garde. There are regional differences in the types of tapas served in Spain, and the options are endless.

A popular dish is a dense omelet called a tortilla, which is composed of potatoes, onions and eggs, and is served at room temperature. Other plates include shrimp in many guises; meatballs; thinly sliced Serrano ham; crispy patatas bravas served with a creamy, garlicky aioli or a spicy tomato sauce. And there are banderillas: skewers, reminiscent of a bullfighter’s sword, stacked with small bits of anchovies or pickled herring, coins of pickled carrots and cornichon pickles, a tiny wedge of pickled artichoke hearts, a piece of roasted red pepper, and a pickled pearl onion. The banderilla is to be eaten in one fell swoop, with the skewer placed in the mouth and the ingredients pulled off at once with the teeth.

I am planning to serve a meal of tapas for a couple of friends. It’s more work than simply making one entrée, a starch, side and salad, but I find it so much more exciting. There will be hot, cold and room temperature selections, and a large pitcher of sangria spiked with cognac and orange-flavored liqueur, and laden with chunks of oranges, strawberries and blackberries. I will serve mussels vinaigrette (cold mussels on the half-shell, marinated in a mixture of extra-virgin olive oil, Spanish sherry vinegar, minced red onion, minced pimiento, tiny capers and finely chopped flat-leaf parsley); banderillas; olives with orange rind and rosemary; savory spiced lamb meatballs in tomato sauce; pan-fried bell peppers with garlic, capers, and balsamic vinegar; crispy wonton cups filled with Mediterranean eggplant salad, and baked cheese and spinach squares with feta and dill.

As far as I’m concerned, variety is absolutely the spice of life.

Click here for more recipes from Jude Waterston.

Banderillas and banderilla dressing

The trick when eating banderillas is to put everything onto the toothpick or skewer once, so that as you chew, the taste of each ingredient comes forth and merges with the rest.

For the banderillas:

Each skewer should have about five or six ingredients. Gently press each ingredient on the skewer. Here are a variety of ingredients to try:

  • A marinated pickled pearl onion
  • A  small piece of pickled herring
  • A pitted green Spanish olive, with or without a pimiento
  • A small (shelled) boiled shrimp
  • A small cube of mozzarella (or other soft) cheese
  • A rolled anchovy
  • A thin slice of dill or cornichon pickle
  • A strip of roasted bell pepper (pimiento)
  • A small chunk of solid white meat tuna
  • A small chunk of marinated artichoke heart (use the firm uppermost part)
  • A cooked asparagus tip, about 1 inch long
For banderilla dressing:

Makes enough to dress about 20 banderillas

The dressing can be dabbed on any banderilla and gives an interesting added zest.

  • 3 tablespoons finely minced flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 3 tablespoons dill or cornichon pickle, finely minced
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Place the minced parsley, garlic and pickle in the bowl of a small food processor or a blender. With the motor running, gradually add the olive oil. Blend until it is as smooth as possible, and place in a shallow bowl or small plate.

tapas, variety, small plate, banchan, meze, rihsttafel, banderillas


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