How to enjoy tapas like a local in Spain

You have to appreciate that an evening of tapas bar hopping is akin to audience participation in a theatrical performance. Dress nicely, spritz yourself with perfume, wait for the sunlight to vanish and illuminations to spotlight a backdrop of statue-studded church and palace facades.

Then prepare to make an appearance. Sashay down the street and find a bar stool under hanging hams and hanks of garlic. Pose like an artist's model about to take part in a Velasquez tableau. In this hipster age, the cast of fellow tapas eaters has just the right beards, if not the ruffs and doublets.

The tapas ritual has been around for centuries. Some say tapas started as a royal decree against drunkenness, with the little plates of oily food designed to soak up alcohol. You don't bar hop in Spain to get drunk, though, and the evening tapeo requires you to stay on the move. Long after midnight the Spanish are just getting into their stride and besides, they enjoy conversation too much to get wasted. Pace yourself.

The most theatrical tapas bars offer grandstand terrace seats over boulevards or old-town squares, where you can watch locals perambulate past. Some are cupboard-sized joints in back streets with slap-your-back male customers, others suave designer gastro-bars in posh neighbourhoods. Some specialise in certain dishes. A little eggplant and some parsley cockles here, some roast capsicums and deep-fried squid there, accompanied by a glass of wine or sherry. Enjoy for a while, and then exit stage left, because this is a moment, not a meal.

You'll be tempted to overeat, mind you. Anchovy-stuffed olives, deep-fried whitebait, meatballs in tomato sauce, fried potato cubes, char-grilled baby octopus and Spanish ham so thinly sliced so it dissolves on your tongue are among the lip-smacking traditional offerings. Andalusia is the best destination for traditional tapas, but Madrid has the most variety, and has recently been experimenting with fusion tapas dishes such as samosas, ravioli and mini wagyu burgers.

Tapas will cost you less if partaken inside, and especially standing at the counter, rather than at terrace tables. Help yourself to cold dishes on the counter top, where bartenders count empty plates, or rely on honesty. The adventurous should slip the bartenders a banknote and let them choose what comes for the budget. After all, the Spanish know more about tapas than you ever will. It's performance art honed through years of rehearsal.

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