My family is only going to have six nights to spend in Spain, which is almost too little time to do this country justice—but hey, it’s better than nothing! It would be impossible to cover all aspects of Spanish food in such a brief stay, but I’m hoping that if we stick to the highlights they’ll leave having gotten a good overview of what authentic Spanish cuisine really is (hint: it’s not paella on a Tuesday evening in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor!). Below are what I hope to share with my family when we head out for lunch or dinner during their trip.
1) Tortilla de patatas (potato omelet)
|(Source: Luís Rodgríguez)|
You can eat it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. You can eat it on its own, with mayonnaise, or stuffed into a loaf of bread to make a sandwich. You can order an entire tortilla to share with friends and family at dinner…or you can eat the whole thing yourself. You can order it poca hecha where the egg is still runny and the potatoes are oozing out, or you can ask for it “well done,” firm, starchy, and fluffy.
When tortilla comes up in conversations among expats here, we almost invariably discuss how to deftly flip the frying pan in order to cook the other side of the omelet (i.e., without having eggs and potatoes spill all over the stovetop). Native Spaniards, however, continue to debate whether or not to include onions in the recipe.
2) Jamón ibérico (Iberian cured ham)
|(Source: Evan Bench)|
When Ferdinand and Isabella completed their “re-conquest” of Spain from the Moors in 1492, there were still hundreds of thousands of Muslims living in the lands of Castilla and Aragón. Over the next hundred or so years, people were given an ultimatum: convert to Catholicism or get out. Countless families chose to flee to Morocco or the Ottoman Empire, but many stayed and resisted for decades, often practicing Judaism or Islam in secret while living as Christians on the outside. One way these covert Jews and Muslims—or even suspect Catholics—proved that they belonged to the faith was by cooking with pork, sausages, lard, etc. in public. Spaniards have been hog-wild for ham ever since.
Today Spaniards still religiously consume jamón, or the meat of salt-cured ham legs, although not with the same religious or nationalistic overtones. Glossy, deep red, and translucent, jamón is bursting with that rich umami savoriness. It makes the perfect dish to share with others, or a great topping for a sandwich. It pairs nicely with some Spanish red wine and local cheese, or as the foundation of an elaborate pincho or snack on top of a slice of bread.
Be aware that not all jamón is created equal. Jamón serrano is cured ham made from garden variety white pigs; the meat is flimsy and pale but still very tasty. Jamón ibérico is cured ham made from black Iberian pigs; the meat is firm and red, and has a real depth of flavor. The “de pata negra” or “de bellota” varieties are the crème de la crème.
3) Queso manchego (cured cheese from La Mancha)
|(Source: Christopher Brown)|
Perhaps the most emblematic of Spanish cheesemaking is the manchego variety, or cheese made from sheep milk in the south-central plains of La Mancha. A firm, aged cheese, it initially tastes rather dry but as you let it crumble in your mouth the subtle flavor of the sheep milk slowly melts. Great on its own or paired with some jamón!
4) Pulpo a la gallega (Galician-style octopus)
|Called pulpo á feira in Galician|
Slow boiled for 40 minutes, the octopus’s tentacles are snipped into rather plain-looking medallions that are garnished with olive oil, salt, and pimentón (smoked paprika). Often served with cachelos or potatoes boiled in the octopus broth, it’s one of the most unique things you can eat anywhere in the world—but don’t let the suckers scare you away, as they don’t stick to your tongue. My friend Amy describes the meat as “a cross between calamari and chicken,” so it’s nothing too fishy or chewy if cooked correctly.
5) Lentejas (lentil stew)
|(Source: Xurxo Martínez)|
6) Croquetas (croquettes/fried nuggets)
|(Source: Xisco Bibiloni)|
7) Gazpacho (cold tomato soup)
|(Source: James Blick)|
8) Chocolate con churros (hot chocolate with fried dough)
|From my favorite churrería in Úbeda|
9) Calamares fritos (fried squid)
10) Paella valenciana (Valencian meat-and-veggie rice dish)
|(Source: Spanish School Tarjona)|
That said, paella is a delicious combination of saffron-colored chunky rice with vegetables—such as green beans, peppers, and artichokes—and meat, from chicken and rabbit to mussels, shrimp, and other shellfish. If you happen to be passing through the city of Valencia, do make an effort to try a cooked-to-order paella split among two or more people. If you’re elsewhere in the country, especially Madrid, pass up those tourist trap restaurants, which often serve up paellas from frozen packages. Better to warm up with a typical bowl of callos a la madrileña!
Have you tried everything on this list yet? What would be on your own list of essential Spanish food? Tell me what you think in the discussion below!