Although less famous than its culinary neighbours to the east or north, Spanish cuisine is one of the great cuisines of the Mediterranean.
Spanish cuisine is heavily influenced by historical processes that shaped local culture and society in some of Europe’s Iberian Peninsula territories. Geography and climate had great influence on cooking methods and available ingredients. These cooking methods and ingredients are still present in the gastronomy of the various regions that make up Spain. Spanish cuisine derives from a complex history where invasions and conquests of Spain have modified traditions which made new ingredients available. Thus, the current and old cuisine of Spain incorporates old and new traditions.
As Spain itself is composed of many regions with strong local identities, it’s no surprise that its cuisine is very variable too. Like other Mediterranean cuisines, it has influences from Roman times, but unlike most of the northern rim of the Mediterranean, the Iberian peninsula also was part of the Islamic world for centuries (introducing ingredients such as rice). Afterwards Spain was one of the very first European powers to establish colonies in the Americas and elsewhere in the world, therefore many exotic products reached Spain before the rest of Europe.
Compared to most other countries, people in Spain tend to eat late. Lunch is eaten at 14:00 or later in the afternoon, in former times this was followed by a siesta but this is not as commons as it used to be (many businesses still close for an hour or more in the afternoon). Dinner is had at 20:00 or later; a few Spaniards even have dinner at midnight. Between lunch and dinner restaurants are often closed and you may need to go to a fast food place, café or tapa bar for a light meal if you’re hungry then. The exception is restaurants at more touristy destinations such as on the Costa del Sol but even there they might have a limited menu and the restaurant is often nearly empty.
One specialty of Spanish cuisine is tapas, small bites of meat, seafood, cheese or vegetables that are traditionally eaten as bar snacks. Some common tapas are olives, jamón serrano, manchego cheese, sardines and chorizo but almost everything the Spanish cuisine has to offer is available as tapas (depending on where in the country you are), so a visit to a tapas bar is a fantastic way to sample Spanish food. Whereas the drinks are the main thing in bars in most parts of the world and snacks are only a decoration, in a tapas bar it’s the other way around. You can actually combine tapas to have a full meal.
Before the Roman Empire, Spain used to be divided in three territories. The three different territories: the Celts (north of Spain), the Iberians (center east), and the Tartessos (South) were referred to as “clans”. The Celts were a warrior based community, and lived in small fortified round houses. The Celts were known for fishing and farming as a means for living. Even today we can see their influence as the north of Spain is renowned for their “mariscos” (sea food). The Iberians were mainly hunters and cattle keepers. The center of Spain is still considered to have great quality of meat. e.g. Cochinillo in Segovia (piglet) The Tartessos were goldsmiths, and did a lot of trading with Africa and Greece.
It should also be noted that authors, such as Strabo wrote about aboriginal people of Spain using nuts and acorns as staple food.
Spain as a territory of the Roman Empire
The Romans introduced the custom of collecting and eating mushrooms, which is still preserved in many parts of Spain, especially in the north. The Romans, along with the Greeks, introduced viticulture. It appears that the extension of the vines along the Mediterranean seems to be due to the colonization of the Greeks. Together with the Greeks, the Phoenicians introduced the cultivation of olive oil. Spain is the largest producer of olive oil in the world.
The Visigoths introduced brewing to the Spanish regions. The change came in 711 AD, when Muslim troops composed of Berbers and Arabs crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, invading the Iberian Peninsula. The Muslim conquest brought new ingredients to Spanish cuisine from different parts of the world, such as Persia and India.
The cuisine of Al-Andalus included such ingredients as: rice, sorghum, sugar cane, spinach, eggplant, watermelon, lemon, peach, orange and almonds. However the Muslim religion does not allow alcoholic drinks such as wine, therefore many rulers of Al Ándalus used to uproot vineyards as a signal of piety.
The arrival of Europeans in America, in 1492, initiated the advent of new culinary elements, such as tomatoes, potatoes, corn, bell peppers, spicy peppers, paprika, vanilla and cocoa or chocolate. Spain is where chocolate was first mixed with sugar to remove its natural bitterness. Other ingredients traveled to the Americas, such as rice, grapes, olives and many types of cereals.
Many traditional Spanish dishes such as tortilla de patata (an omelette made with potatoes), would not be possible without the discovery of America. Gazpacho, salmorejo, and pan tumaca are made with tomatoes, which traveled from America to Spain during the discovery of America.
Spanish cuisine includes a wide variety of vegetables, meat and seafood. Dishes are light and not overly spicy.
A continental-style breakfast (desayuno) may be taken just after waking up, or before entering the workplace. Due to the large time span between breakfast and lunch, it is not uncommon to halt the working schedule to take a mid-morning snack.
Lunch (el almuerzo or simply la comida, literally meaning “the food”), the large midday meal in Spain, contains several courses. In some regions of Spain, the word almuerzo refers to the mid-morning snack, instead of lunch. Lunch usually starts between 2:00 pm or 2:30 pm finishing around 3:00 pm to 3:30 pm, and is usually followed by Sobremesa, which refers to the tabletalk that Spanish people undertake. Menus are organized according to these courses and include five or six choices in each course. At home, Spanish meals wouldn’t be too fancy, and would contain soup or a pasta dish, salad, a meat or a fish dish and a dessert such as fruit or cheese.
In the last years, the Spanish government is starting to take action to shorten the lunch break, in order to end the working day earlier. Most businesses shut down for two or three hours for lunch, then resume the working day until dinner time in the evening.
La cena, meaning both dinner or supper, is taken between 8:30pm and 10pm. It is lighter than lunch, consisting of one course and dessert. Due to the large time span between lunch and dinner, an afternoon snack, la merienda, equivalent to afternoon tea, may take place at about 6pm.
Appetizers before lunch or dinner are common in the form of tapas (tiny rations).
Paella — originally from Valencia, there’s an infinite number of different paella variants. It’s a rice dish with different vegetables, often seafood (fish, shrimp, mussels, calamari…) and/or meat (often chicken or rabbit). In restaurants, you often need to be more than one person ordering a pan of paella although at some places they serve paella to lone patrons as well.
Jamón serrano and jamón iberico — cured ham served in thin slices. Iberico is a finer and more expensive variant.
Chorizo — spicy sausage
Patatas bravas — diced and fried potatoes served with a spicy sauce
Gazpacho — cold tomato soup
Cod Fritters — typical tapa from Catalonia.
Churros — long deep-fried donuts, often eaten for breakfast and with chocolate dip (churros con chocolate)
Crema catalana — a traditional recipe, similar to the French crème brûlée, where the top is caramelised by using a hot iron.
Wine — Spain is one of the world’s great wine countries, La Rioja and Penedès being the most famous wine-growing regions. Other alcoholic beverages made of grapes include the Spanish champagne cava, sherry (fortified wine from the region around Jerez de la Frontera) and Sangria, a drink with wine and orange (or some other) juice.
Coffee — the coffee and café culture is similar to the one in other Mediterranean countries.
Horchata (Valencian: Orxata) is a Valencian speciality made from sweetened tiger nuts.
Fruit juices from street vendors are readily available (at least at beach destinations) and very refreshing on hot days (much of the year).
Beer is also enjoyed by locals and visitors alike. San Miguel, Estrella Damm, CruzCampo, Moritz are the largest beer brands, and can be very affordable in supermarkets, however Spain is witnessing a craft beer revolution in major and minor cities, which is challenging the big players.
Spanish regional variation
The following is a list of traditional Spanish meals:
Andalusian cuisine is twofold: rural and coastal. Of all the Spanish regions, this region uses the most olive oil in its cuisine. The Andalusian dish that has achieved the most international fame is Gazpacho. It is a cold soup made with five vegetables, vinegar, water, salt, olive oil, and stale bread crumbs. Other cold soups include: Poleá, Zoque, salmorejo, etc.
Snacks made with olives are common. Meat dishes include: flamenquín, pringá, oxtail stew and Menudo Gitano (also called Andalusian tripe). The hot soups include cat soup (made with bread), dog stew (fish soup with orange juice) and Migas Canas. Fish dishes include: fried fish, cod pavías, and parpandúas. A culinary custom is the typical Andalusian breakfast, which is considered to be a traditional characteristic of laborers which is extending throughout Spain.
Cured meats include: Serrano Ham and Iberico Ham. Typical drinks in the area include: anise, wine (Malaga, Jerez, Pedro Ximénez, etc..), and sherry brandy.
The Aragonese cuisine has a rural and mountainous origin. The central part of Aragon, the flattest, is the richest in culinary specialties. Being in a land where lambs are raised on the slopes of the Pyrenees, one of its most famous dishes is roast lamb (asado de ternasco). The lamb is cooked with garlic, salt and bacon fat. Pork dishes are also very popular. Among them: Magras con tomate, roasted pork leg and Almojábanas de Cerdo. Among the recipes made with bread are: migas de Pastor, migas con chocolate, Regañaos (cakes with sardines or herring,) and goguera. The most notable condiment is garlic-oil.
Legumes are very important but the most popular vegetables are borage and thistle. In terms of cured meats, ham from Teruel and Huesca are used often. Among the cheeses, Tronchon is notable. Fruit-based cuisine includes the very popular Fruits of Aragon (Spanish: Frutas de Aragon; candied fruits) and Maraschino cherries.
Asturian cuisine has a long and rich history, deeply rooted in Celtic traditions of northern Europe. One of its most famous dishes is the Asturian bean stew, known as “fabada”. Fabada is the traditional stew of the region, made with white beans, sausages such as chorizo, morcilla, and pork. Another well-known recipe is beans with clams. Asturian beans (“fabes”) can also be cooked with hare, partridge, prawns or octopus. Also of note are Asturian stew (made with white beans, cabbage, potatoes and a variety of sausages and bacon) and vigil stew. Pork-based foods, for example chosco, Asturian-style tripe and bollos preñaos (chorizo-stuffed bread bums) are popular.
Common meat dishes include: carne gobernada (roasted veal meat), cachopo (a crunchy, crumb-coated veal steak stuffed with ham and cheese) and stew.
Fish and seafood play also an important role in Asturian cuisine. The Cantabrian Sea provides a rich variety of species, including tuna, hake and sardine.
Asturian cheeses are very popular in the rest of Spain. Among them, the most representative is Cabrales cheese, a pungent, blue cheese developed in the regions near the Picos de Europa. Other popular cheese types are Gamonéu, Afuega’l pitu, and ahumado de Pría. These can be enjoyed with the local cider, a low-alcohol drink made of Asturian apples, with a distinctive sourness.
Asturian cider, made of a special type of apple, is tradionally poured (“escanciada”) from a certain height, usually over the head of the waiter/server: one hand holds the glass, slightly tilted, under the hip, while the other hand throws the cider from atop, the arm usually stretched upwards. When the cider falls into the glass from above, the drink “breaks”, getting aerated and bubbly. It is consumed immediately after being served, in consecutive, tiny shots.
Notable desserts are frisuelos (similar to crêpes,usually filled with cream or apple jam), rice pudding (white rice cooked with milk, lemon zest and sugar), and carbayones (puff pastry cakes filled with almond mash and covered with sugar glaze).
The Balearic cuisine has purely Mediterranean characteristics due to its location. The islands have been conquered several times throughout their history by the French and the English, which left some culinary influences. At present are well known: the sobrassada and arròs brut, mahón cheese, Gin de Menorca (“pelota”), and mayonnaise. Among the dishes are tumbet, frit mallorquí, and roasted suckling pig.
Among the desserts we can find: ensaïmada, tambor d’ametlla, and suspiros de Manacor.
Balearic food is an example of the famous Mediterranean diet due to the importance of olive oil, legumes, unrefined cereals, fruits, vegetables and fish.
The cuisine of the Basque Country has a wide and varied range of ingredients and preparations. The culture of eating is very strong among the inhabitants of this region. Highlights include meat and fish dishes. Among fish, cod is produced in various preparations: bacalao al pil pil, cod Bilbao, to name a few. Also popular are anchovies, bream, and bonito. Among the most famous dishes is the seafood changurro. Among the meats are: the beef steaks, pork loin with milk, fig leaf quail, and marinated goose.
The Canary Islands have a unique cuisine due to their geographical location in the Atlantic ocean. The Canary Islands were part of the trading routes to the American Continent, hence creating a melting pot of different culinary traditions. Fish (fresh or salted) and potatoes are among the most common staple foods in the islands. The consumption of cheese, fruits and pork meat also characterizes Canarian cuisine. The closeness to Africa influences climate and creates a range of warm temperatures that in modern times have fostered the agriculture of tropical and semitropical crops: bananas, yams, mangoes, avocados, and persimmons which are heavily used in Canarian cuisine.
The aboriginal people, Guanches, based their diet on gofio (a type of flour made of different toasted grains), shellfish, and goat and pork products. Gofio is still consumed in the islands and has become part of the traditional cuisine of the islands.
A sauce called mojo (from Portuguese origins) is very common through the islands and has developed different varieties adapted to the main dish for which it is being used. Fish dishes usually require a “green mojo” made from coriander or parsley, while roasted meats require a red variety made from chilli peppers that is commonly known as “mojo picón”.
Some classic dishes in the Canary Islands include papas arrugadas, almogrote, frangollo, rabbit in “salmorejo sauce”, and stewed goat.
Some popular desserts are: truchas (pastries filled with sweet potato or pumpkin), roasted gofio (a gofio-based dough with nuts and honey), príncipe alberto (a mousse-like preparation with almonds, coffee, and chocolate) and quesillo (a variety of flan made with condensed milk)
Wineries are common in the islands. However, only Malvasia wine from Lanzarote has gained international recognition.
A popular Cantabrian dish is cocido montañés (highlander stew), a rich stew made with beans, cabbage, and pork. Seafood is widely used and bonito is present in the typical sorropotún or marmite. Recognized quality meats are Tudanca veal and game meat. Cantabrian pastries include sobaos and quesadas pasiegas. Dairy products include Cantabrian cream cheese, smoked cheeses, picón Bejes-Tresviso, and quesucos de Liébana. Orujo is the Cantabrian pomace brandy. Cider (sidra) and chacoli wine are also favorites.
Cantabria has two wines labelled DOC: Costa de Cantabria and Liébana.
In this region, the culinary habits reflect the origin of foods eaten by shepherds and peasants. Al-Manchara means in Arabic, “Dry Land”. Which indicates the arid lands and the quality of its dishes. It is said that the best La Mancha cuisine cookbook is the novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Wheat and grains are a dominant product and ingredient. They are used in bread, soups, gazpacho manchego, crumbs, porridge, etc. One of the most abundant ingredients in Manchego cuisine is garlic, leading to dishes such as ajo arriero, ajo puerco, and garlic marinade.
Some traditional recipes are gazpacho manchego, pisto manchego, and migas ruleras. Also popular is morteruelo, a kind of foie gras manchego. Manchego cheese is also renowned.
Given the fact that its lands are dry, and thus unable to sustain large amounts of cattle living on grass, an abundance of small animals, such as rabbit, and especially birds (pheasant, quail, partridge, squab) can be found. This led to game meat being incorporated into traditional dishes, such as Conejo al Ajillo (rabbit in garlic sauce), Perdiz Escabechada (marinated partridge) or Huevos de Codorniz (quail’s eggs).
Castile and León
In Castile and León characteristic dishes include morcilla, (a black pudding made with special spices), judión de la granja, sopa de ajo (garlic soup), Cochinillo asado (roast piglet), lechazo (roast lamb), botillo del Bierzo, hornazo from Salamanca, Jamón de Guijuelo (a cured ham from Guijuelo, Salamanca), Salchichas de Zaratán, other sausages, Serrada cheese, Burgos’s soft cheese, and Ribera del Duero wines.
Major wines in Castilian-Leonese cuisine include the robust wine of Toro, reds from Ribera del Duero, whites from Rueda, and clarets from Cigales.
The cuisine of Catalonia is based in a rural culture; it is very extensive and has great culinary wealth. Notably, it was in Catalonia where the first cookbook was written in Spain. It has a triple cuisine: seafood, mountain and interior. Among the most popular dishes include: escudella and bread with tomato. Bean omelette, coca de recapte, samfaina, thyme soup, and caragols a la llauna are famous dishes. Notable sauces are: romesco sauce, aioli, bouillabaisse of Catalan origin and picada.
Cured pork cuisine boasts botifarra (white and black) and the fuet of Vic. Among the fish dishes are: suquet de peix, cod stew, and arròs negre. Among the vegetable dishes, the most famous are calçots and the escalivada (roasted vegetables). Among the desserts are: Catalan cream, carquinyolis, panellets, tortell, and neules.
La Rioja is recognized by the use of meats such as pork, and their cold cuts made after the traditional slaughter. The lamb is perhaps the second most popular meat product in this region (Sarmiento chops) and finally, veal is common in mountain areas. The most famous dish is Rioja style potatoes and Fritada. Lesser known are: Holy lunch and Ajo huevo (garlic eggs).
Pimientos asados (roasted peppers) is a notable vegetable dish.
La Rioja is famously known in Spain for its red wine, so most of these dishes are served with wine. Rioja wine has designated origin status. Another well-known dish is Rioja stew.
The cuisine of Extremadura is austere, with dishes prepared by shepherds. It is very similar to the cuisine of Castilla. Extremaduran cuisine is abundant in pork; it is said that the region is one of the best for breeding pigs in Spain, thanks to the acorns that grow in their fields: Iberian pig herds raised in the fields of Montánchez are characterized by dark skin and thin legs. This breed of pig is found exclusively in Southwestern Iberia, both in Spain and Portugal. Iberian pork products such as sausages are common and often added to stews (cocido extremeño), as well as cachuela (pork liver pâté seasoned with paprika, garlic and other spices).
Other meat dishes is lamb stew or goat stew (caldereta de cordero and caldereta de cabrito). Highlights include game meats such as wild boar, partridge, pheasant or venison. Famous cheeses are Torta de la Serena and Torta del Casar. Among the desserts are: Leche frita, perrunillas, and Pestiños (fritters), as well as many sweets that have their origins in convents. Cod preparations are known, and tench is among the most traditional freshwater fish, with fish and vegetable dishes such as moje de peces or escarapuche.
Soups are often bread based and include a variety of both hot and cold ones. Pennyroyal mint is sometimes used to season gazpachos or soups such as sopa de poleo. Extremaduran ajoblanco (ajoblanco extremeño) is a cold soup different from Andalusian ajoblanco since it contains egg yolk in the emulsion and vegetables but no almonds.
The Northeastern comarca of La Vera produces pimentón de la Vera, smoked paprika highly valued all over Spain and extensively used in Extremaduran cuisine. The region is also known for its vino de pitarra tradition, home-made wine made in small earthenware vessels.
Galician cuisine is known in Spanish territory because of the emigration of its inhabitants. One of the most noted is Galician soup. Also notable is pork with turnip tops, a popular component of the Galician carnival meal laconadas. Another remarkable recipe is Caldo de castañas (a chestnut broth), which is commonly consumed during winter. Pork products are also popular.
The seafood dishes are very famous and rich in variety. Among these are: the Galician empanada, Galician octopus, scallops, crab, and barnacles. Among the many dairy products is Queso de tetilla. Orujo is one of Galicia’s alcoholic drinks. Sweets that are famous throughout the Iberian Peninsula are the Tarta de Santiago and Filloas (crêpes).
Cattle breeding is very common in Galicia, therefore, a lot of red meat is consumed; typically consumed with potatoes.
Madrid did not gain its own identity in the Court until 1561, when Philip II moved the capital to Madrid. Since then, due to immigration, many of Madrid’s culinary dishes have been made from modifications to dishes from other Spanish regions. Madrid, due to the influx of visitors from the nineteenth century onwards, was one of the first cities to introduce the concept of the restaurant, hosting some of the earliest examples.
Notable dairy products are: rice pudding, meringue milk, cheese, and curd. Some important fruits and vegetables are Aranjuez strawberries and melons. Madrid is rich in religious confectionery, with sweets such as chocolate con churros and buñuelos. The nutritional value of the madrilian cuisine was discovered by the American epidemiologist Ancel Keys in the 1950, the Spanish cuisine being later often mentioned by epidemiologists as one of the best examples of the Mediterranean diet.
The cuisine of the region of Murcia has two sides with the influence of Manchego cuisine. The region of Murcia is famous for its varied fruit production. Among the most outstanding dishes are: Murcia tortilla, zarangollo, mojete, eggplants cream, pipirrana, etc. A typical sauce of this area is the cabañil garlic, used to accompany meat dishes.
Among the culinary preparations are: the michirones (dried beans cooked with bay leaves, hot peppers and garlic). Among the cooked include the olla gitana, cocido murciano con pelotas, mondongo, etc. Among meat products from Murcia are black pudding, which is flavored with oregano, and pastel murciano made with ground beef. Among fish and seafood are the golden salt, the Mar Menor prawns and baked octopus. Rice dishes are common and include Caldero, the Arroz empedrado, rice with rabbit and snails, rice scribe, and widower rice.
Among confectionery products are exploradores and pastel de Cierva. They are typical cakes in Murcia gastronomy and are found in almost every pastry shop in Murcia. They are both sweet and savoury at the same time.
Desserts are abundant; among them are paparajotes Orchard, stuffed pastries, and various other pastries. This region also has wine appellation of origin, as the wine from Jumilla, Bullas wine and wine Yecla.
The gastronomy of Navarra has many similarities with the Basque cuisine. Two of its flag dishes are: Trout Navarre Style and Ajoarriero, although we must not forget the lamb chilindrón or relleno. There are very curious recipes such as the Carlists eggs.
Salted products are common and include: chorizo de Pamplona, stuffing and sausage. The lamb and beef have, at present, designations of origin. Among the dairy products are: Roncal cheese, the curd or Idiazabal cheese. Among the most typical alcoholic drinks are: the claret and pacharán.
The cuisine of Valencia has two components: the rural (products of the field) and the other coastal, which is seafood. One popular Valencia creation is Paella, a rice dish cooked in a circular pan and topped with vegetables and meats (originally rabbit and chicken). Dishes such as Arroz con costra, Arròs negre, fideuá, and throw rice, Arroz al horno, and rice with beans and turnips are also common in the city.
Coastal towns supply the region with fish, leading to popular dishes like “all i pebre” typical of the Albufera, or fish stew. Among the desserts are: coffee liqueur, chocolate Alicante, arnadí, and horchata. Notably, during Christmas, nougat is made in Alicante and Jijona; also well-known are peladillas (almonds wrapped in a thick layer of caramel).