I am a passionate, self-declared foodie. Lattes and Travels is a testament to that! If you have followed my rants here, you will know that Spanish food, in particular, has been my constant 2016 obsession. The unique mix of flavours and abundance of seafood makes it a special cuisine for me.
The Spanish cuisine is diverse and can take time to understand and appreciate. Opening a Spanish menu to me feels very much like an Indian menu would feel like to a Brit in a curry house. I have witnessed one too many colleagues and friends getting flustered over the unhelpfully long list of names in Indian restaurants (chicken dhansak, chicken jalfrezi, chicken balti, chicken vindaloo, chicken rezala etc etc). More often than not, they end up falling for the friendly-British-curry-in-the-house – chicken tikka korma – for fear of getting something too foreign, or worse, too spicy. Harbouring the heart of a curry-smitten Asian, I find this korma trend downright upsetting. ‘For the love of spices, give other curries a chance’, I cry! 😢
The Madrileño ex-colleague who got me hooked to Spanish food did well to whet my appetite. But I remained shackled to the clichéd idea of paellas and tapas, just like the korma-worshipping colleagues I have been trying so hard to convert. *SOB*! So I set myself out on a dedicated culinary pursuit. I started dragging the Husband and friends to Spanish restaurants any chance I got, ordering boldly. When that wasn’t enough, I threw caution to the winds and flew out to the Iberian Peninsula with the Husband, disguising it as an anniversary getaway. ✈️🇪🇸
Travelling through Spain was the best decision I ever made. Observing the locals, watching what they eat, and then helping myself to the same opened up a whole new world of sights, tastes and smells for me. I was processing food and flavours at a rate faster than my tummy could digest. Now that was a first! 😄
We discovered that there is a fine line separating Catalan and Spanish cuisine. We also discovered that Galicia, the northwestern corner of Spain, mentioned by virtually every person we met – from the Colombian driver at Barcelona Airport to the Runner Bean Tour guide who took us on an old city walking tour – was a force to reckon with. Just like Barcelona, Galicia has beautiful beaches, Roman history, rich culture and glorious food but is often overlooked by tourists in favour of Spain’s southern regions. Amongst the locals though, Galicia holds a very special place. Galacian meat and seafood was mentioned with a lot of reverence, and often.
A few more things I picked up from eating out in Spain:
- Locals eat late. When we tried looking for a restaurant to change our reservation, we were thwarted, despite walking past the location 2-3 times. That’s because it wasn’t even open at 8! The dinner buzz in Spain starts picking up as late as 9 pm.
- You can always find an English menu – just ask. It’s a godsend if you don’t know Spanish! If there is no English menu to be found, you have probably stumbled across some local haunt off the tourist beaten tracks. A good thing, if you ask me!
- Tapas are cheap but the prices can build up pretty quickly, especially if you go for seafood items. Keep a mental tab on the prices as you build on your order. Because trust me, you WILL!
- If we define the regions in Spain by food, Galicia is undoubtedly the land of seafood.
- Jamón, or ham, is everything. I do not eat ham so this was one delicacy I could not indulge in. But there was no ignoring it! Huge pig legs on window displays is a ubiquitous sight in bars and restaurants in Spain. Even in a really posh food market called Platea in Madrid, we came across giant legs of jamón hanging unabashedly amongst a hip crowd, the DJ playing casually in the background.
- Spanish food is all about making the most of the finest local produce. This is best showcased by the mercats or mercados found all over the country. Besides sourcing fresh produce, they double up as some of the best tapas restaurants. We tried La Boqueria in Barcelona and Mercado de San Antón and Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid. The tapas in all three markets were sublime, and some of the best we had in our trip.
Now the part you have all been waiting for – the bucket list of what to eat in Spain! I daresay I have only been able to put a slight dent in the list of wonderful foods during our week long stay. While the list below is by no means comprehensive, it is a tribute to the amazing food we were lucky enough to enjoy. And hopefully a good starting point for those seeking to decode the Spanish cuisine. Some are classics, while others are wonderful, accidental discoveries. ALL are finger-lickin’ good!
- Tortilla Española (Spanish Omelette)
The classic Spanish omelette needs no introduction. Fluffy and voluptuous, it’s a hug-in-the-tummy kinda meal. Ingredients are simple – onions, potatoes and eggs. Although a breakfast-y item, Spaniards eat this filling dish throughout the day. Additional ingredients are packed on to create fancier renditions.
- Croquettas and Patatas Bravas
Perhaps the two most commonly found Spanish tapas. Croquettes are made from mashed potatoes and meat or cheese. Creamy on the inside, golden and crispy on the outside, they reminded me of bitterballen, a similar sort of Dutch snack. Patatas Bravas can loosely be described as a Spanish version of French Fries – chunky portions of potatoes doused in a wonderfully tangy and spicy sauce. YUM!
Spanish sandwiches made in baguette-style bread loaf. Comes with all sorts of fillings!
The Spanish version of a pie, hailing from the North West region of Spain. They come in both sweet and savoury varieties, baked in large portions that are then cut up like a cake or a pizza.
- Salmorejo or Gazpacho
A cold tomato soup, often topped with pieces of Ibérico ham. This is a staple summer meal for Spaniards, used as a cooling mechanism to beat the scorching temperatures. The mix of ingredients include ripe tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, stale bread and peppers. The popular, lighter cousin of salmorejo is called gazpacho. Both hail from Cordoba, Andalusia, in southern Spain.
- Padrón Peppers (fried peppers from Padrón)
Another staple tapas dish that I chanced upon by accident. They arrived from food heaven as a companion to a greasy side of fries with one of our meat tapas. It was love-at-first-bite. Next thing I know, I cant stop eating them in mouthfuls. They aren’t spicy by my Asian standards and it seems the Spaniards too can handle the heat well, as it is a popular add on to almost every meal.
The Husband and I LOVE seafood and what better place to get our fix than the seafood cornucopia aka Spain? You can try them as mains or as a tapas style dish. The wide selection of seafood available is exciting and incredible. Squid, prawns, fish, octopus, anchovies, sardines – we did our best to taste it all. Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid, in particular, had us spoilt for choice. We decided to try the Squid Tentacles. Just thinking back to it makes my mouth water!
- Pulpo a la Gallega
In Spain, octopus, or pulpo, is a special kind of seafood, a cut above the rest. I decided to give it a number of its own based on how popular pulpo ala gallega seems to be. Pulpo ala gallega refers to octopus prepared in the Galician style. And it’s quite special! Forget the rubbery, bland taste you associate with this seafood. Fresh, well cooked octopus is tender, moist and almost of a melt-in-the-mouth quality. In Madrid, specially, eating pulpo is as good as having it straight off the boat and onto your plate. As my ex-colleague guiltily told us over the most delicious octopus in Platea, Madrileños have the luxury of enjoying the freshest seafood and fish in the country. Daily catch from all over Spain travels to fish markets in the capital first, before being distributed to other parts of the country.
Does this glorious dish even need an introduction? This traditional, saffrom-infused rice dish originating from Valencia comes with meat, seafood, vegetables or a combination of all three. Given how obsessed I have been, my highlight of the Spain trip was definitely the first paella meal in Barcelona. TIP: Owing to its popularity, paella is used as a touristy trap, much like the Angus beef steaks places all over Central London. We fell for such a trick and ended up with an expensive, disappointing meal. Having learnt it the hard way, I realized you can go wrong with paella even in Spain, if you don’t watch out for the touristy restaurants and succeed in avoiding them.
THE SWEET STUFF
- Churros and Hot Chocolate
Fried sugary sticks of dough dipped in a cup of thick Spanish hot chocolate. This is not hot chocolate as we know it in the UK – it’s a thicker, darker, and much more delicious version, which adds the x factor to the dessert. Perfect for cold, rainy days. A must have for your food bucket list for Spain!
We call it ‘pudding’ in Bangladesh and crème caramel in the UK. Tucking into this was an emotional experience. It brought me memories of my Mamma’s rich and homemade rendition, a special dessert that was reserved for special days like Eid.
Whether you opt for a city break in Barcelona or Madrid, or prefer a countryside or coastal retreat, rest assured that the food in Spain will blow your mind. Bring on the tapas and tortillas! 💃🏻