Chefs such as Ferran Adria and the Roca brothers have spotlighted Spanish food
Classic dishes range from spicy patatas bravas to albondigas meatballs
It’s fair to say Spain was late to the table when it came to recognizing the global superpowers of food.
While Italy and France have spent years in the limelight, Spain was biding its time.
In recent years, however, people have come to celebrate the extraordinary flavors and variety of produce the cuisine has to offer.
High-profile chefs such as Ferran Adria, mastermind of the now-closed El Bulli restaurant, and the Roca brothers, founders of the El Celler de Can Roca, have brought Spain’s alta cocina international acclaim.
But the heart of Spanish cooking remains in its rustic, homespun nature, a legacy of a time when hard-pressed Spaniards had to work the land for everything it would offer.
These 14 dishes – from seafood and meat to rice and pastries – are essential meals when you travel to Spain.
1. Paella Valenciana
Paella is perhaps the most famous Spanish dish of all, and certainly one of the most abused. Authentic paella originates from the region around Valencia, and comes in two varieties: Paella Valenciana, with rabbit and chicken; and seafood paella.
Saffron gives the rice its color, and the base should be left to crisp into a mouth-watering black crust, called the socarrat. Always eaten at lunchtime.
Where to try? La Matandeta near Albufera, Valencia
2. Patatas bravas
A staple among the small dishes that make up a classic tapas menu, patatas bravas – “brave potatoes” – is named for its spicy sauce, rare in a land that generally shuns fiery food.
The potatoes are cubed and shallow fried and served the same everywhere. The sauce can come in any number of ways, from spicy ketchup to garlic mayonnaise with a dusting of pimiento (smoked paprika), or both.
One theory holds that the dirtier the bar, the better the bravas.
“Tapas originated in southern Spain and is an adaptation to the social culture of eating and drinking outside the home, and fulfills the same social function as the English public house and other similar institutions,” explains Shawn Hennessey, who runs tapas tours of Seville.
“It’s important to note that the tapeo (tapas crawl) is not primarily a ‘drinking culture’ thing – it’s oriented to friends and family with a communal atmosphere.
“Intoxication and rowdiness are rare. Key factors are the social sharing of food, and the opportunity to try a lot of different things in one meal. In short, tapas are a way of life.”
Where to try? La Taverna del Clínic, Barcelona
This tomato-based Andalusian soup is most famous for being served cold. This can be quite a shock for those who aren’t expecting it, but in the searing heat of a Seville summer, the attraction becomes clear.
Its principal ingredients, aside from tomato, are peppers, garlic, bread and lots of olive oil.
Where to try? Enrique Becerra, Seville
4. Pimientos de Padron
A common dish on tapas menus, pimientos de Padron are green peppers that hail originally from the town of that name in Galicia, in Spain’s lush, rainy northwest.
Pimientos de Padron are fried and served with a deep sprinkling of salt. Though generally sweet and mild, their fame stems from the fact that the occasional pepper will be fiery hot – lending a Russian Roulette element of surprise to eating them.
Where to try? Bierzo Enxebre, Santiago de Compostela
Less well known to tourists, fideuà is a type of Spanish pasta similar to vermicelli. It’s popular in Catalonia and Valencia in seafood dishes that rival paella for their taste and intricacy.
Fideuà is typically cooked in a paella dish.
Where to try? El Rall, Valencia
Jamón, or cured ham, is the most celebrated Spanish food product. Legs of ham were traditionally salted and hung up to dry to preserve them through the long winter months.
Jamón Serrano (of the mountain) is the most common kind and comes from white pigs; the more expensive Jamón Iberico (pictured) comes from black pigs.
The best ham should be enjoyed in thin, melt-in-your-mouth slices on its own, with a little bread.
“Jamón is the staple of the Spanish table,” says chef José Pizarro, the brains behind the celebrated José tapas bar and Pizarro restaurant in London.
“We eat it before we eat; its salty, acorn-laden taste is the perfect accompaniment to sherry and Cava, and it gets your juices flowing for the meal that is yet to come.
“It’s brilliantly good value and a leg can last ages as long as you cover and store it properly. Look for ‘waxy’ fat: when you rub it, it should melt into your skin like candlewax.”
Where to try? Museo del Jamón, Madrid
The humble Spanish omelet can be made with chorizo, peppers and onions, among other ingredients, but purists will tell you it should only contain potatoes and eggs.
The potatoes are diced and lightly fried before being added to the egg mixture and fried on a high heat; the trickiest part is when you have to flip the pan over to turn the tortilla.
If you get it right, someone should shout “Olé!;” get it wrong and you’ll have gooey half-cooked tortilla everywhere.
Where to try? Any self-respecting tapas bar
Churros are a popular snack made from fried dough pastry, cut into sausage shapes and doused in sugar. They’re a favorite at fiestas, or street parties, when they’re sold by roadside vendors. Dipping them in hot melted chocolate is pretty much the law.
Where to try? San Ginés, Madrid
Another typical item on a tapas menu, croquetas are tubes of bechamel sauce encased in fried breadcrumbs, but a lot more tasty than that sounds.
Jamón croquetas and salt cod croquetas are common varieties. They’re tricky to make and are perhaps best enjoyed at a tapas bar, along with a cold beer.
Where to try? Casa Julio, Madrid
A classic tapas item, albondigas, or meatballs in tomato sauce, are served all over Spain.
A tasty variation serves up the meatballs drizzled in an almond sauce, minus the tomatoes. The version pictured is a squid meatball, by José Pizarro.
Where to try? Cafe OMKA, Granada
A legendary dish spoken of in almost hushed tones by Spaniards, migas is a good example of how much of Spain’s cuisine has evolved from peasant food.
It’s essentially dry breadcrumbs torn up and fried in a variety of combinations – often served with chorizo or bacon.
Migas, handed down from agricultural laborers who had to be thrifty with their ingredients, is comfort food supreme – and in recent times has found its way onto fancy restaurant menus.
“Like many traditional cuisines, the ‘rustic roots’ mostly show themselves in the use of basic or commonplace ingredients, ways of using everything available, such as nose-to-tail use of animals, dishes that use up leftovers – including migas – and methods of preservation such as curing and salting, pickling and preservation in oil,” says Shawn Hennessey.
“For a modern-day nation such as Spain, tapas still has a high proportion of locally sourced food.”
Where to try? Eustaquio Blanco, Cáceres
A prized dish in Spain, bacalao, or salted cod, was brought back by Spanish fisherman from as far afield as Norway and Newfoundland – the fish not being found in local waters; it was salted to preserve it on the journey.
It has to be left to soak in water for at least 24 hours to remove all but the slightest tang of salt.
Bacalao is served in all manner of dishes; one of the most popular is with pil-pil sauce, made of olive oil garlic and the juice of the fish, and typical in the Basque Country.
Where to try? Bar Gatz, Bilbao
A favorite of the northwestern Asturias region and based around the white fabe bean, fabada is a one-pot feast usually served with a mixture of pork meats.
Chorizo, pork belly and bacon are common accompaniments, as is morcilla, Spanish blood sausage, which tastes far better than it should.
Where to try? Casa Gerardo, Prendes
14. Leche frita
Think it’s impossible to fry milk? Think again.
Leche frita, or fried milk, is a popular dessert made by whipping up milk, egg yolks and flour. This is left to chill and solidify, before being coated in breadcrumbs and fried.
Can be served hot or cold.
Where to try? Casa Alvarez, Madrid