Tapas vs. Hors d’oeuvres: What’s the Difference?

Social gatherings usually involve some type of food or a sit-down meal.

When invited for an evening with friends, have you ever wondered how much food there will be when the invitation includes the word hors d’ oeuvres?

How about tapas food?

Do you question whether it is a full meal or a starter for a meal? 

“Tapas” is a word of Spanish origin and refers more to the way we serve the food. Tapa means one dish or plate, a snack, or a small amount of food. “Hors d’ oeuvres” is a French term describing what most often comes before a bigger meal. They are usually finger foods that disappear in one or two bites.  

There is a lot of mouth-watering deliciousness connected to both words.

Creating a better understanding of the amount and types of foods served as hors d’ oeuvres or tapas food may help to ease some insecurity with what will be on the menu during an evening of socializing. 

The Origins of Tapa, or Tapas Foods

Spanish Tapas in cazuelas in a bar
Tapas Dishes

A tapa is an appetizer or snack in Spanish cuisine. This can be anything that is bite-sized, presented before the main meal, or combined to be in place of that meal. It need not be finger food; it may be messy enough that utensils will be necessary. 

Many tapas are loved and regarded as some of Spain’s most popular dishes.

As far as tapas history, the story is told that long ago, in pubs or bars, the owners would give a slice of bread or meat to the customers to cover their drinks and keep pesky flies out. The word tapas means “to cover.”

As time has passed, tapas food has become more than just a cover on drinks, we now consume it, and there are many easy tapas recipes available of delicious, bite-sized, small-plate snacks. Tapas

The Origins of Hors d’oeuvres  

Hors d’ oeuvres, pronounced “or-DERVS,” comes from a French word that means “out of work,” but when translated, it means “outside the meal”. It refers to the “starter”, something that helps the guests at a party wait just a little while longer to eat the main meal. 

There is a lot of debate when it comes to where they served these small snacks or starters first. Russia, China, and France all top the list of those countries known to serve food outside their meals. Hors d’ oeuvres

The Meaning of Tapas

As stated before, the word tapas means one dish or small plate. It is the Spanish term “tapa” which means appetizer or snacks. In Spain, they eat their evening meal very late.

Tapa may help people from getting too hungry. It is a late afternoon pick-me-up.

Tapas is not referring to a certain kind of food. What it is referring to is the presentation of or the amount of the serving. Again it is a small plate or a small amount of food. 

Tapas food is easy to make, and preparing it will not take you away from any other responsibilities for long. Make it ahead and save it for later. Tapas Meaning

Hors d’ oeuvres

We learned a little about the history behind hors d’ oeuvres. Here are a few more interesting pieces of information about these starters. We can serve these tasty treats cold or hot, and they are almost always finger foods.

Hors d’ oeuvres might also be dips or anything created on or picked-up with a stick, toothpick, or skewer. They can also be heavy enough, meaning small sandwiches or a Quiché that we serve as the meal. They call this heavy hors d’ oeuvres.

Hosts may pass them on trays, or they may place them on a table or buffet. Creating these starters may take more work. Although it most likely refers to single items like cheese or even pieces of fruit. Hors d ‘oeuvres Explained

Hors d’ oeuvres & Tapas Foods vs. Appetizers

You may have heard the word “appetizer” used in the place of hors d’ oeuvres or tapas foods. This is generally not correct, especially when referring to hors d’ oeuvres. 

Appetizers have their own meaning. The word appetizer, used correctly, is referring to the first course of a meal.

We will eat this course at the table and enjoy a light treat that wakes up our taste buds yet does not make us too full.

Tapas food is small plate treats that combine to make a meal or a light snack. We enjoy hors d’ oeuvres “outside of the meal” and most likely, we pass them on trays or take them from a buffet and eat them as finger food. Comparison

Let’s Dig into Tapas Food

Spanish Tortilla Tapa served with toothpicks
Tortilla Española

Since the word tapa is of Spanish origin, it seems like a good idea to dig into just what they consider as tapas treats.

Tapas food is definitely regional. If the area is closer to the water, tapas food may contain or be created with seafood. Those regions that are inland will use more root vegetables and meats for their tapas food treats.

Here is a list of some classic Spanish tapas foods:

  • Patatas bravasdiced potatoes with a zesty tomato sauce topping. Served hot.
  • Calamares a la romana – fried squid or fried whole baby squid. This covered with fresh lemon juice. 
  • Tortilla de patatas – this is a Spanish Quiché, but without crust; eggs, potatoes, and onions are the key ingredients. An excellent choice if you are looking for a vegetarian tapas dish.
  • Ensaladilla rusa – a Spanish potato salad that contains peas, carrots, olives, mayonnaise, and tuna. 
  • Chorizo al vino – chorizo soaked in a red wine, with a side of bread.
  • Croquetas – fried and filled with vegetables, fish, or meat. They cook these in a béchamel sauce or a white sauce made of flour, milk, and butter. 

Spanish Tapas

Tapas American Style

If you have ever eaten at a tapas food restaurant or chosen several items from the tapas section of the menu, it was possibly the American version of tapas foods. Once again, there are several top choices when eating American style. 

  • Marinated Olive & Cheese Ring – this is a combination of white cheddar, cream cheese, fresh herbs, a selection of olives, olive oil, pimento, and crusty bread.
  • Crab Crescent Triangles – crescent dough, crab meat, mayonnaise, mustard, cheese, carrots, and onions. Baked to a flaky, crispy treat.
  • Candied Bacon-Wrapped Figs – bacon, dried figs, cream cheese, brown sugar, cocoa chile blend, and cinnamon. 

Is your mouth watering yet? See full recipes and more ideas in this link. Tapas American Style

French Hors d’oeuvres

We have covered tapas food from both Spanish and American styles. We need to dig into what the French do when they create hors d’ oeuvres.

    • Cheddar Gougeres – containing flour, eggs, butter, and salt to make these yummy cheesy puff pastry.
    • Mini Tartes Flambees – bite-sized finger food that contains egg roll wrappers, bacon, onion, sour cream, and pepper. 
    • Chicken Liver Pate with Pistachios – the title really gives away the key ingredients; chicken livers, pistachios, shallots, herbs, and chicken stock. 

For more recipes and complete ingredients and directions for those listed above see: French Creations

Hors d’oeuvres Americanized

It is easy to make hors d’ oeuvres for American tastes. There are pages and pages of recipes for these wonderful starters. Here are just a few:

  • Baked Three Cheese Onion Dip – lots of different cheeses, onions, chives, mayonnaise all melted together for cracker or chip dipping.
  • Cauliflower-Carrot Cheesy Tots – carrots, cauliflower, cheeses, chives, eggs, and breadcrumbs, to name a few ingredients, and then ketchup or sweet chili for dipping.
  • Crab Rangoon – Crabmeat, cream cheese, onions, wonton skins come together for a delicious treat.

There are so many wonderful recipes; these are just to give you a taste of what Americans have done with hors d’ oeuvres. Full recipes and other wonderful ideas here. Tasty Treats

What is the Difference Between Tapas and Hors d’ oeuvres?

Spanish Chorizo with Padron Peppers Tapas on a bread
Spanish Chorizo with Padron Peppers Tapas

When it comes right down to it, the difference between tapas and hors d’oeuvres is rather significant. 

Tapas means small plates; it is referring to how the food is served, not so much the actual food.

We eat the food on these small plates with our hands or with utensils. A combination of many small plates or tapas (small plate) foods makes a meal. 

Hors d’ oeuvres describes the food that comes outside of a bigger meal.

It can be finger foods, and there are a lot of dips, cut vegetables, chips, and crackers that are a part of the food group.

There may be some occasions when heavy hors d’ oeuvres are available.

Yet, we rarely serve hors d’ oeuvres as a meal, they more often than not get us ready for the main meal to come.

Not that we’ve learned about some small savory dishes, you’re going to need to same some room for dessert!

Check out 13 Spanish Desserts That Transcend Your Tastebuds

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