A GUIDE TO SPANISH DISHES





Spanish cuisine is rooted in a strong mediterranean foundation and shaped by a history full of culinary influences. Maximising the flavour of humble, closely-produced ingredients is paramount.  













WRITING BY: JAVIER LEAL-OLIVAS & LUKE DARRACOTT
ILLUSTRATIONS BY: 
JAVIER LEAL-OLIVAS   
31st March 2019  /  Version 1.1









Introduction




The Spanish cuisine we know today is the result of a long history of external influences and numerous foreign conquests: Romans, Visigoths and an Islamic caliphate contributed in shaping a diverse cuisine with a rich Mediterranean and a subtle Middle Eastern flair.

Spanish cuisine boasts an abundance of vegetables and legumes, many of them first brought centuries ago from the American continent. Meat and poultry are also plentiful due to Spain’s diverse climate zones, and a broad coastline between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, that provides easy access to a plethora of fish and seafood.

The appeal of Spanish dishes lies in their simplicity: dressed just right or lightly preserved in order to make the key ingredient shine by itself. 


Tapas, the world-popular small servings of food served to accompany a drink, make this quality most obvious. Each “tapa” is somewhat simple, but their vast choice can turn a light snack before lunch into a meal in its own right.

The taste




Rather than a concoction of many parts, dishes aim to accentuate the flavour of the key ingredient. Save the heartwarming ‘platos de cuchara’ soups or stews, Spaniards favour clear and distinguishable flavours. Don't expect food being bland though as flavours can be intense or strongly seasoned. Spanish dishes make good use of a few recurrent spices and condiments. Garlic is an essential component and represents the cornerstone of the many 'al ajillo', or garlic-style dishes.

Pimentón (Spanish paprika) is probably the most used spice, featuring generously in soups and braises, particularly in home cooking.


Leafy greens are commonly served raw in salads or used as a flavouring and garnish, with flat-leaf parsley being the most popular of all. A centuries-long Islamic rule left a lasting imprint in Spanish cuisine. Nuts like almonds or walnuts as well as citrus fruits are widely used in pastries, desserts and savoury dishes. Spices like saffron, cumin and aniseed aromatise many preparations.


The olive, also referred as aceituna, is the country’s most popular snack. At the bar or restaurant, it’s mostly served complimentary. Occasionally, it’s cracked and preserved on the premises, always served brined, never in oil. Their taste can be a combination of salty, bitter, and mellow.

Perhaps as a way of differentiating themselves from Jewish and Muslims, pork came to be the first meet of choice for Christian Spaniards, and its adoration became widespread all over the country. The pig is used to produce an incredible variety of by-products that form the backbone of Spanish cooking.


Jamón Serrano, the omnipresent Spanish air-dried ham, is used in any possible form to flavour countless dishes.


Fresh or dried sausages like chorizo (paprika-flavoured sausage) or morcilla (blood sausage) are thrown into stews, soups or cooked as a dish in their own right. Poultry and beef are common too, while cordero (lamb) or cordero lechal (suckling lamb) tend to be considered dishes for special occasions.


Tapas and Pintxos




In its most basic concept, tapas are nothing more than small food servings, typically shared and served along with drinks in Spanish bars. Some tapas are dishes that could be turned into full servings (also called raciones) but others are only consumed in smaller portions: salted anchovies or pickled olives are classic examples.

The variety of foods considered tapas is astonishingly wide, and can include cold or hot preparations, pickled foods, stews, deep fried or griddled seafood and meat.

Some tapas have a recognised place of origin but others are widespread and popular everywhere. Restaurants abroad usually serve a selection of the most popular, although it’s becoming increasingly common to see regional specialities on some menus.

Pinchos (or in its Basque spelling, pintxos) have become the hallmark of Basque cuisine, but whilst similar to  tapas, there are a few differences. The main one lies in the composition. A tapa is a serving of any food on a small plate, while a pintxo is mounted on a piece of bread and held by a toothpick (‘pincho’ means toothpick or skewer in Spanish). For that reason, while most dishes are subject to be turned into a tapa by turning them into a smaller portion, the food used for a pincho must stand on a piece of bread. The bread allows for the pincho to be eaten individually and with your hands – unlike tapas, for which you often need cutlery and are commonly shared.


Tapas and pintxos are the manifest expression of the Spanish way of socialising: a few dishes shared with good friends over a drink debating, discussing or joking about literally anything. 


While most Spanish restaurants abroad focus on tapas, pintxos bars are slowly springing up in some world cities. They tend to be run by Basques and are a great way to experience a different expression of Spanish cuisine.





Restaurant customs




Customs at the restaurant aren't too different to other European countries, with main dishes being individual and ordered following the familiar entrée–first–second–dessert format. When it comes to tapas bars the rules are a bit more relaxed: a few drinks and a couple of simple tapas are ordered to start with. Olives, pickles and salted almonds are often served at this time, sometimes as a complimentary snack. That's followed by one or two more rounds of orders, along with some more drinks.

Other than tapas and snacks, not many items are shared at the Spanish table. One exception is salad. Considered more than a side dish, it is an essential part of the meal, often placed in the middle of the table for everyone to share and enjoy. The basic variant is called mixta or de la casa, including the standard lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and olives. Extras like caperberries, carrots, hard-boiled eggs, preserved tuna or white asparagus  are welcome additions. 

When it comes to table mainstays, el pan (bread) is the first and foremost staple at any Spanish table. Many dishes are strongly seasoned, so they are better eaten with a chunk of bread to balance the flavour. Bread, in fact, deserves a special mention as an eating utensil itself: hold the fork with your right hand and use a piece of bread with your left to push and scoop food.

Spaniards like to eat and drink slowly, stretching the experience and promoting long conversations which frequently span well beyond desserts. This habit is so entrenched in Spanish culture that patrons rarely force a table to leave while diners are having the period of conversation after the meal, also called sobremesa.





Drinks




Spanish people love to eat and drink together, and it's difficult to know what actually comes first. Most drinks are enjoyed with at least a bite of food to go with, and food is rarely eaten socially without a drink. When eating out, drinks should be chosen according to the occasion and to what kind of food will be ordered.



Wine


Spain is a land of wine, with more land under vine than any other. It is the third largest producer of wine in the world and can boast seventy-one regions (called denominaciones de origen or DO). That being said, they are not big consumers of wine. Wine is a stalwart classic gastronomic feature of the dinner table; a drink that is commonly drunk as part of a sit-down meal or in a restaurant or bar with food. The locals don’t really consider wine an ‘alcohol’ but more of a foodstuff.

The idea of the DO is an important one. In Spain wine is usually ordered by the region, not by the grape. For example, Tempranillo is grown all over the country and gives different wines, so you would order a glass of Rioja or a Ribera, not Tempranillo itself. Currently becoming more popular and widespread are the wines from the level below DO, the Vino de la Tierra designation. Be on the lookout for these as less regulation sometimes means more creativity. Though the country is famous for its big juicy reds, the northwestern whites and some good dry rosés are worth trying.


Beer


Spain is a beer drinking country, locals drink almost as much beer as the French drink wine! Though the craft beer revolution has definitely arrived to Spain, the traditional style is a cold and refreshing lager/pilsner style. Spaniards normally drink smaller servings: the most common is a small ‘caña’ size, not pints.


Sherry     


Sherry or ‘jerez’ (pronounced he-reth in Spanish), is a fortified wine originally from the province of Cádiz, in the southern Andalusia region. It is typically enjoyed in a short, narrow glass called a ‘copita’. The wine is matured in oak casks in the right conditions to promote the growth of a layer of ‘flor’ (Spanish for flower) over the wine, a yeast key in turning the initial white wine into a unique, complex drink. The versatility of this drink makes it great for any occasion, but it really shines as an aperitif before lunch or as a mid-afternoon snack alongside a small salty tapa.

The popularity of sherry wine has been increasing in the recent decades, both outside and inside the country. Spanish restaurants or bars abroad now feature a surprising range of sherry varieties, each one produced in slightly different ways, providing pretty distinct results. Contrary to popular opinion, the acidity and taste of sherry wines can vary enormously, ranging from rich and sweet wines to sharper, dry styles.



Fino. A very dry pale sherry, matured under the ‘flor’ yeast layer. A very dry and delicate style and a great pairing with salty and oily snacks.

Manzanilla. The lightest and most refreshing of sherries with a subtle salty aftertaste, it is perfect to pair with deep-fried or oily dishes.

Amontillado. A fino that has aged oxidatively after the flor dies, boasting an amber colour and a deep, nutty flavour.

Oloroso. A wine that experience maturation by oxidation but no flor contact, this sherry is brown in colour and has rich notes of nuts and caramel.

Palo cortado. A rare, delicate and complex sherry somewhere between fino and amontillado.

Pedro Ximénez. Darkly coloured and richly sweet, this is a sherry made from the Pedro Ximénez grapes after they are dried in the sun.
 


Cava


Cava is Spain’s answer to Champagne; a fresh sparkling wine made in the same traditional method. Like its French cousin, there are white and rosé styles ranging from the dry (the Bruts) to sweet (the Secos and Dulces). As an aperitif served with cured meats and cheese, it is unparalleled.

Vermouth


‘Vermut’ or ‘vermú’ in Spanish, is a popular aperitif made with fortified wine which is infused with botanicals to provide its characteristic sweet, scented taste. It is traditionally served on ice with a slice of orange. Vermouth is typically enjoyed before lunchtime, perhaps over a small snack or while waiting, but never during the main meal. Although once considered an ‘old man’s drink’, vermouth has become a popular drink among the younger generations, especially in the biggest cities of Madrid and Barcelona.


Licores


Sweet wines and digestifs are a common occurrence after the meal. The latter are typically served ice-cold in a shot glass and are popularly known to aid digestion. The most famous type of digestif is licor de hierbas (herbal spirit), astringent and aromatic in equal parts. Anís, made with aniseed, is sweet and fragranced. Licor de café (coffee liquor) and patxarán (sloe gin) are typical from the north of Spain. Mistela a sweet wine liquor, and moscatel (Muscat wine) are popular dessert wines, best served with dried fruits or confectionery.


Café


Coffee is an essential finale to the traditional Spanish meal. Usually, a cortado (single espresso with a shot of milk) or café con leche (single espresso with a bit more milk but less froth than a latte). If you've got a sweet tooth, try ordering bombón, a single espresso with a dollop of condensed milk.

Those who don't drink coffee generally would go for an infusión (herbal tea). Some of the most popular being menta-poleo (peppermint), manzanilla (chamomile) or anís (aniseed).


Horchata


Although traditionally not part of a meal, horchata deserves a category on its own. The sweet and milky drink is made with Tiger nut tubers — an Islamic import— and is loved in Eastern Spain where it’s the most popular. Not to be confused with the Latin American horchata, which is made from different ingredients. Spanish horchata is mostly enjoyed in the afternoon. It is served on its own, ice-cold and at a special establishment called a horchatería. Some restaurants abroad might serve the bottled variety, which is often of less quality than the freshly made type.





What to order





 

Croquetas


One of the most classic examples of Spanish comfort food. Breadcrumbed and deep-fried béchamel rolls, usually filled with jamón (cured ham), chicken or bacalao (salt cod). The flavour should be clearly distinguishable at the first morsel, if a bit rich. Croquetas must be served freshly fried, crispy outside and with a piping-hot soft inside.

Fried seafood

Chipirones / Calamares / Fritura de pescado

Pretty much any type of deep-fried seafood, coated with a light batter or dusted with flour. Frituras are true staples at any given Spanish bar, and some of the most recognisable tapas. Some of the most famous include chipirones (baby squid), calamares (squid rings) or a fritura de pescado platter combining seafood and small fish. Squeezing some lemon over the fish is customary. They are best washed down with an ice-cold beer.





Gambas al ajillo

Garlic prawns

The appeal of this famous tapa lies in the combination of fresh prawns, loads of garlic (al ajillo meaning ‘garlic-style’) and the odd dried chilli. Preparation is minimal here, the ingredients are thrown into a preheated earthenware dish with oil, then served straight away while the prawns are still being cooked. For the grand finale, the sizzling dish appears on the table, bubbling hot and fragrant with heaps of garlic and perfectly cooked prawns. This shared dish unequivocally calls for a chunk of bread. Dip it into the garlicky oil while you help yourself to some prawns.

Gazpacho


Blended tomato, cucumber, red or green pepper, onion and garlic in its most popular form. Its colour varies from orange to red depending on the proportion of green/red vegetables. This liquified salad is a refreshing summer classic, especially in the hottest regions. The taste of garlic and vinegar should be subtle and not mask the flavour of the vegetables. A topping of ice cubes or finely chopped vegetables are a great addition.
Salmorejo, a similar-looking dish, relies on tomatoes and bread to achieve a creamier, thicker consistency than gazpacho. It is garnished with Spanish ham and hard-boiled eggs, both finely chopped




Griddled seafood

Marisco/gambas a la plancha

In this economical cooking method, seafood is laid on a very hot metal griddle until perfectly cooked. To help lock in the juices and prevent excessive charring, generous amounts of coarse sea salt are smothered on the griddle beforehand. Almost anything can be cooked on the plancha, from gambas (prawns), cigalas (langoustines) or sepia (cuttlefish) to shellfish like almejas (clams), navajas (razor clams) or atún (tuna steak). A dressing of olive oil, garlic and chopped parsley may be added a couple of minutes before serving.


Tabla de ibéricos

Ibérico de Bellota charcuterie board 

Often a good starting point for anyone who wants to try a range of Ibérico charcuterie. An assortment would commonly feature jamón (ham), lomo (loin), chorizo (paprika-spiced cured sausage), salchichón (peppercorn-spiced cured sausage) and occasionally, cecina (air-dried beef).


Jamón
Spaniards claim to be producers of the world’s best cured ham, jamón ibérico de bellota. The leg of the acorn-fed Iberian pig is internationally sought-after for its deliciously marbled meat and intense nutty flavour. The fat itself should render down just by the heat of a finger. Any jamón not offered as ‘bellota’ means it has been fed on fodder, rather than acorns. Jamón should have been freshly hand-carved to order, thin slices arranged carefully over a serving plate at room temperature. It is occasionally served with small breadsticks.




Fabada

Galician butter bean stew

A thick soup made of one type of bean that’s slowly braised alongside meat, bones and/or sausages. Fabada, made with white beans, chorizo, morcilla (black pudding), jamón bones and panceta/tocino (pork belly/cured lard) is both a restaurant and home classic. Other legume stews you’ll likely come across are potaje (chickpeas with salt cod and spinach), alubias de Tolosa (black Tolosa bean stew), or lentejas (brown lentil stew).

Boquerones

Marinated anchovies

Cleaned, deboned and marinated anchovies in white vinegar. Served dressed with parsley, garlic, salt and olive oil. This simple yet piquant tapa is a beloved classic in any Spanish bar.




Pulpo a feira

Galician-style octopus / Pulpo a la gallega

Simple and rustic boiled octopus from the northwestern Galicia region. Cooked until perfectly tender, thickly sliced and laid over a bed of boiled potato. Served sprinkled with salt, pimentón (Spanish paprika) and extra virgin olive oil.

Cochinillo

Suckling pig roast

A delectable way of cooking suckling pig, it is slow roasted until the crackling skin separates from the butter-soft meat, after hours of cooking. It’s not a frequent sight outside Spain, but if you happen to come across it, gather a bunch of friends and enjoy a meal you will never forget. For the whole animal, you might need to let the restaurant know a day or two in advance.




Paella

Paella valenciana 

This much-debated dish is both locally and internationally loved. Rather than a single recipe, paella (also the name of the pan, pronounced pa-ey-ya) is a way of cooking rice, uncovered, over a wide and shallow surface. Pieces of meat, poultry and vegetables or a mix of seafood are boiled to create a rich stock before the addition of the rice.

The rice should be fully cooked but dry, with no remaining moisture on the pan. The layer of rice is meant to be finger-thin and proportional to the pan. A thick layer of rice means the rice grains will be overcooked at the bottom and undercooked on the top – not a pleasant bite! Sometimes, a sought-after crust called socarrat can occur, as the remaining oil caramelises the bottom.

Paella valenciana is considered the most classic recipe, made with local ingredients widely available in and around Valencia: chicken, rabbit, snails, green beans, fresh garrofó (butter beans) and saffron.

Other seafood paellas easily found are Alicante’s arroz a banda (seafood-flavoured paella), arroz del señoret (shell-less seafood paella) or arroz negro (squid ink paella). Small fish and crabs are used to make the stock, whilst monkfish, cuttlefish, squid, shellfish or prawns can serve as ingredients.

Countless variations can be found, some with better luck than others, like the mixed seafood-meat versions or others featuring chorizo slices. The latter is particularly repudiated by Spaniards since the sausage overpowers all flavour nuances in the dish, and is often an attempt by foreign chefs to make it look ‘more Spanish’. These aren’t traditional recipes, but might still taste good if they are based on quality ingredients sensibly put together.

Fideuà, as a paella-style dish made with short vermicelli noodles, falls into a slightly different category. The texture of fideuà is much less starchy than paella, although it should remain wet or dry, but never soupy. Some fideuàs feature meat, game and mushrooms instead of seafood. A pungent, garlic-intense allioli is commonly served as a dipping sauce, occasionally on top of the dish.





Escalivada

Roasted vegetables salad / esgarraet

Red peppers, aubergines and onions roasted until soft until the flavours start to turn sweet. Dressed with a pinch of salt, vinegar, and plenty of  extra virgin olive oil – do not hesitate to dip bread in the juices. Served at room temperature, it’s often topped with preserved anchovies, olives or bonito chunks.


Ensaladilla rusa

Potato salad / Olivier salad

The widely reimagined Olivier salad holds a special place in the hearts of the Spanish people. The mix of ingredients is debated, but potatoes, carrots, eggs, tuna, mayonnaise and some sort of pickle tend to be the most common. Use breadsticks to scoop up the mixture and wash it down with a cold beer.






Mojama

Salt-cured fish / hueva / salazones

Salt-cured fish served thinly sliced, either as an assortment over a simple tomato salad or simply with a few almonds. The flavour is pure umami, with an iodine heavy flavour that comes from this age-old way of preserving fish. It’s likely you will be served either mojama (lean tuna), or hueva (grey mullet roe), but either way you’ll need a piece of bread to go with it.


Ajoblanco

Garlic cold soup

This invigorating cold soup is a Southern Spain summer standard based on the smoothed amalgamation of almonds, garlic and bread. Fresh grapes are halved and dropped on the soup as garnish. Feel free to drizzle some extra virgin olive oil on top.





Tabla de quesos

Spanish cheese board

Despite not enjoying the overseas popularity of other European cheeses, Spain has an overwhelming number of award-winning cheese varieties, most of which are strongly tied to a specific town or region. Any menu might feature manchego, a piquant sheep milk cheese from La Mancha region, a pungent blue cheese from northern Spain and idiazábal, a famed Basque variety. In any case, being adventurous pays off, so it’s often best to just let your waiter serve you their recommendations. A small portion of membrillo quince paste is customarily served to provide a sweet contrast.



Tortilla de patatas

Tortilla española / Spanish omelette

A thick (often very thick) omelette made with egg, potato slices and –depending on what family, town or region the chef is from– onion. The omelette mix is set in a shallow pan and served either with a runny inside or fully set. It’s not uncommon to find variations with different fillings, although Spaniards stick to the classic recipe in most cases. Other popular variants are tortilla de bacalao (with salt cod) or tortilla de espinacas (with spinach) – avoid ones filled with chorizo. A tortilla de patatas portion works best as a tapa rather than as a course in a meal, except when served with accompaniments like pisto (Spanish ratatouille).





Txuletón

Basque rib-eye steak / chuletón de buey / txuleta

A succulent, complex and intensely meaty rib-eye steak from aged cows and oxen. Txuletón is the jewel of the crown in Basque cider houses and asadores (traditional grill houses), and is one of the most appreciated cuts of meat available. This love for perfectly cooked meat has produced a high level of skill and specialisation in the Basque Country, where some of its most famous asadores have acquired recognition for the world’s best steak. 

The finest quality comes from the rubia gallega (Galician blond), an indigenous breed reared only for beef and fattened until remarkably old, just when the marbling of its meat and the characteristic rich yellow fat reaches peak level. In true Basque tradition, the meat is later aged between 2 to 5 weeks, letting the muscle fibres relax and enhancing its taste. The loin and the rib bone is sliced into steaks at least 4cm, averaging somewhere between 800g and 1400g. They are sealed over the grill and then smothered with coarse sea salt until perfectly cooked.

The resulting steak is lightly chargrilled on the outside, half a centimetre well cooked but with a deep red rare inside. It’s served on a hot plate trimmed around the bone, with the meat and fat sliced in thick segments. Its intense beefy flavour should remind you of fresh pastures and cream. Since it’s quite a rich and filling portion, the best possible way to eat a txuletón is to share it among a few diners, accompanied with a good wine and a light lettuce salad to freshen the palate.






Fish in salsa verde

Bacalao (cod) / merluza (hake) in salsa verde

Fresh cod or hake fillets braised in salsa verde, a sauce made with garlic, flour, white wine and olive oil – garnished with very thinly chopped parsley for colour. The sauce is thickened by the juices from the fish (often including clams) and the olive oil, ending with a smooth, glossy texture. The subtle taste of this sauce goes well with the easily-flaked, silky-white fish.

Arroz con leche

Spanish-style rice pudding

Spain’s version of the famous pan-eurasian dessert. Creamy and intensely flavoured with cinnamon, it’s commonly garnished with orange peel to give clear citrus notes – a common garnish to many Spanish desserts.












CONTRIBUTORS:

Luke Darracott is a British writer, wine expert and linguist based in Madrid.

Marta Vergara is a marketing executive stablished in Madrid and devote of all Spanish food.

Cameron Black is an advertising creative and copywriter from London.

SPECIAL THANKS TO:

Eli Gonzalez, Jordi Candela, Luis Javier Murcia, Sagardi Restaurant London, Elisabeth Bolzon.
ILLUSTRATION CREDITS:

Arroz con leche: recetas-de-cocina-casera.com, Boquerones: Wikimedia Commons, Cochinillo: Hogarmania, Croquetas: Shutterstock, Ensaladilla: gastronomistas.com, Escalivada: Wikimedia Commons, Fish in salsa verde: © Restaurante Lagunak (Barcelona), Fried seafood: Gettyimages, Gazpacho: The Star, Griddled seafood: Restaurante La Pesquera, Paella: Guía La Safor, Pulpo a feira: Sonia Selma Management, Salazones: Bitácora Culinaria, Tabla de ibéricos: Mesón La Sidrería, Tabla de quesos: Restaurante Pirámides, Txuletón: Sagardi Restaurant London.
  




Mark

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Javier Leal is a home cook and graphic designer working in the advertising industry since 2005.