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Spotlight on food: Tapas are Spain’s miniature culinary masterpieces

Story by Bryan King // Photos by Maria Amasanti

SALAMANCA – At the bar Don Mauro, on the east side of the bustling Plaza Mayor, Chef Juan Jose Vega Rodriguez carefully lays out the ingredients for the day’s tapas selection.He’s making gazpacho, the traditional Spanish warm-weather dish. The creamy soup is a customer favorite.

“People like it because it’s a seasonal item,” said Rodriguez through a translator. “It’s only for the summer.”

To begin, the chef loads 20 tomatoes into a large silver pot. He tosses in a peeled, whole yellow onion, four cloves of garlic, a peeled cucumber and red bell pepper. Next, Rodriguez adds a quart of olive oil, two cups of water and a handful of salt.

If he looks poised and confident, it’s because this isn’t the first pot of gazpacho for Rodriguez, 38. He studied at Auxiliar de Clinica, where there is an emphasis on nutrition and health, and has been working at this particular restaurant for four years. He is in charge of the kitchen.

With two hands bracing a heavy industrial Bermixer, Rodriguez purees the ingredients and removes the pulp with a cone strainer. The result is hard to resist, a pinkish-red soup that’s smooth, rich and velvety on the tongue and meant to taste the same as it did 800 years ago when it emerged in the cafes and taverns of southern Spain.

Historically, the word tapas means lid, or to cover – as in to use the food as a cover on top of a glass of wine to keep bugs out. Functionally, the concept is to have a small portion of food that can be held in one hand.

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To Spaniards, tapas are not just about convenience. Their presence in everyday Spanish life is part of the country’s cultural mélange of food, drink and socializing.

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