What to eat in Spain
The Spanish are very passionate about their food and wine and Spanish cuisine. Spanish food can be described as quite light with a lot of vegetables and a huge variety of meat and fish. The Spanish cuisine does not use many spices; it relies only on the use of high quality ingredients to give a good taste. There are usually a variety of restaurants in most cities (Italian, Chinese, American fast food) if you would like to experience a variety of flavors.
Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner times
- breakfast (el desayuno) for most Spaniards is light and consists of just coffee and perhaps a galleta (like a graham cracker) or magdalena (sweet muffin-like bread). Later, some will go to a cafe for a pastry midmorning, but not too close to lunchtime.
- “el aperitivo” is a light snack eaten around 12:00. However, this could include a couple of glasses of beer and a large filled baguette or a “pincho de tortilla”.
- lunch (la comida) starts at 13:30-14:30 (though often not until 15:00) and was once typically followed by a short siesta, usually at summer when temperatures can be quite hot in the afternoon. This is the main meal of the day with two courses (el primer plato and el segundo plato followed by dessert. La comida and siesta are usually over by 17:00 at the latest. However, since life has become busier, there is no opportunity for a siesta.
- dinner (la cena) starts at 20:30 or 21, with most clientèle coming after 21. It is a lighter meal than lunch. In Madrid restaurants rarely open before 21:00 and most customers do not appear before 22:00.
there is also an afternoon snack that some take between la comida and la cena called la merienda. It is similar to a tea time and is taken around 18 or so.
between the lunch and dinner times, most restaurants and cafes are closed, and it takes extra effort to find a place to eat if you missed lunch time. Despite this, you can always look for a bar and ask for a bocadillo, a baguette sandwich. There are bocadillos fríos, cold sandwiches, which can be filled with ham, cheese or any kind of embutido, and bocadillos calientes, hot sandwiches, filled with pork loin, tortilla, bacon, sausage and similar options with cheese. This can be a really cheap and tasty option if you find a good place.
Normally, restaurants in big cities don’t close until midnight during the week and 2-3AM during the weekend.
Pintxos (pronounced as pinchos) are unique to the Basque Region, and are similar to tapas, in that they are small portions typically served at bars, but with different styles, and traditions, and should not be referred to as tapas. Pintxos are traditionally finger food served on a sliced baguette, or on a wooden skewer, but it’s not uncommon to find bars that have dispensed with that tradition, especially for higher end pintxos. Most pintxo bars will have a selection of pintxos to choose from on the bar itself, and some will have an additional menu posted you can order hot made to order pintxos from. In regions known for their pintxos, like San Sebastian, it’s not uncommon to find very high end, and well prepared pintxos that would be at home on some of the world’s best restaurant menus. Pintxo prices are typically relatively inexpensive, and are usually ordered with a drink.
Fast food has not yet established a strong grip on the Spaniards and you will find McDonalds and Burger King only in bigger towns in the usual places. The menu can be a surprise since it has been customized to appeal to the locals and beer, salads, yogurt (primarily Danone), and wine are prominent. Pizza is increasingly popular and you will find some outlets in bigger towns but it can be their own homegrown franchises, such as TelePizza. In spite of beer and wine on the menu, fast food is often seen as “kiddie food.” American franchises generally charge higher prices than in the United States, and fast food is not necessarily the cheapest alternative for eating out.
Seafood: on a seacoast, fresh seafood is widely available and quite affordable. In the inner regions, frozen (and poor quality) seafood can be frequently encountered outside few highly reputed (and expensive) restaurants. In coastal areas seafood deserves some attention, especially on the north Atlantic coast.
Quality seafood in Spain comes from Spain’s northwestern region of Galicia. So restaurants with the words Gallego (Galician) will generally specialize in seafood. If you are feeling adventurous, you might want to try the Galician regional specialty Pulpo a la Gallega, which is boiled octopus served with paprika, rock salt and olive oil. Another adventurous option is Sepia which is cuttlefish, a relative of squid, or the various forms of Calamares (squid) that you can find in most seafood restaurants. If that isn’t your style you can always order Gambas Ajillo (garlic shrimp), Pescado Frito (fried fish), Buñuelos de Bacalao (breaded and deep fried cod) or the ever-present Paella dishes.
Meat products are usually of very good quality, because Spain has maintained quite a high percentage of free range animals.
Ordering beef steaks is highly recommended, since most comes from free range cows from the mountains north of the city.
The presa ibérica, being “Iberico black pig shoulder blade cooked medium-rare and served with pea purée”
Pork cuts which are also highly coveted are those known as Presa Iberica and Secreto Iberico, an absolute must if found in the menu of any restaurant.
Soups: choice of soups beyond gazpacho is very limited in Spanish restaurants.
Water is frequently served without a specific request, and is normally charged for–unless it’s included in your menu del dia. If you would like free tap water instead of bottled water, request “agua del grifo” (water from the tap). However, not all restaurants will offer this and you may be forced to order bottled water.
Appetizers such as bread, cheese, and other items may be brought to your table even if you didn’t order them. You will be charged for them. If you do not want these appetizers, politely inform the waiter that you do not want them.
Many restaurants offer a complete lunch meal for a fixed price – “menú del día” – and this often works out as a bargain. Water or wine is commonly included in the price.
Those looking for some orientation to the rich and diverse culinary traditions of Spain can consider going on a food tour. Options are plentiful in every city, and especially in Barcelona, San Sebastian, and Madrid. A quick Google search will reveal the most popular ones.
In most cities you can also find international cuisine such as Italian, Chinese, French, Thai, Japanese, Middle Eastern, Vietnamese, Argentinian, etc. The bigger the city, the more variety you can find.
For the past decade there has been a surge in the number of Irish pubs and Japanese restaurants to be found in most cities.
Specialties to buy
- Cheese: Spain offers a wide variety of regional cheeses.
- Queso Manchego is the most famous one.
- Cabrales,Tetilla,Mahon are also popular.
Chorizo: Spain’s most popular sausage is spiced cured, made from pork, ham, salt, garlic and pepper and is produced in multitude of varieties, in different sizes, shapes, short and long, spicy, in all different shades of red, soft, air dried and hard or smoked. Frequently contains emulgators and conservatives, so check ingredients if you feel sensitive.
Jamón (air dried ham): Jamón Serrano (Serrano ham): Is obtained from the salt meat of the back legs of the pig and air dried. This same product is given the name of trowel or paletilla when it is obtained from the front legs. Also it receives the names of jamón Iberico (Iberian) and jamón of bellota (acorn). They are especially famous jamones that takes place in Huelva (Spain), in Guijuelo (province Salamanca), in the Pedroches (province Cordova) and in Trevélez (province of Granada). Jamón Iberico is made from free range pigs.
Spaniards treat their ham very seriously and types and qualities of ham vary in a similar way to wine. Quality ham is generally expensive but has little to do with the many cheaper versions available. The diet of the pig is the most important factor in determining the quality of the ham. The least expensive ham comes from pigs fed on normal grains whereas medium grade pigs are raised on a combination of acorns and grains. The top tier pigs are fed exclusively on acorns and their hams are not considered to be the best grade without an “acorn fed” stamp. These top grade hams have a rich flavor and an oily texture but to non-connoisseurs, glossiness and the presence of white lines of fat crisscrossing a slice of ham is generally a good indicator of its quality.
Morcilla: Black sausages made from pig blood, generally made with rice or onion. Sometimes flavoured with anise, it comes as a fresh, smoked or air dried variety.
- Aceitunas, Olivas: Olives, often served for nibbling.
- Bocadillo de Calamares: Fried battered calamari served in a ciabatta sandwich with lemon juice.
- Boquerones en vinagre: Anchovies marinated in vinegar with garlic and parsley.
- Boquerones Fritos
- Caracoles: Snails in a hot sauce.
- Calamares en su tinta: Squid in its ink.
- Chipirones a la plancha: Grilled little squids.
- Churros: A fried horn-shaped snack, sometimes referred to as a Spanish doughnut. Typical for a Spanish breakfast or for tea time. Served with hot chocolate drink.
- Empanadas Gallegas: Meat or tuna pies are also very popular in Madrid. Originally from region of Galicia.
- Ensaladilla Rusa (Russian Salad): This potato salad dish of Russian origin, widely consumed in parts of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, is strangely enough, extremely popular in Spain.
- Fabada asturiana: Bean stew from Asturias.
- Gambas al ajillo: Prawns with garlic and chili. Fantastic hot stuff.
- Gazpacho Andaluz: Cold vegetable soup. Best during the hot weather. It’s like drinking a salad.
- Lentejas: A dish made from lentils with chorizo sausage and/or Serrano ham.
- Mariscos: Shellfish from the province of Pontevedra.
- Merluza a la Vizcaina: The Spanish are not very fond of sauces. One of the few exceptions is merluza a la Vasca. The dish contains hake (fish of the cod family) prepared with white asparagus and green peas.
- Potajes or pucheros: Garbanzo beans stew at its best
Paella or Paella Valenciana: This is a rice dish originally from Valencia. Rice is grown locally in what look like wheat fields, and this is the variety used in paella. The original paella used chicken and rabbit, and saffron (el azafran). Nowadays varieties of paella can be found all over Spain, many containing seafood. Locals suggest finding true paella in large parties like a wedding in a village, but few restaurants still can compete with it.
Patatas Bravas: Fried potatoes which have been previously boiled, served with a patented spicy sauce. They are potatoes cut in form of dices or prism, of one to two centimeters of size approximately and that they are fried in oil and accompanied by a sharp sauce that spills on potatoes using hot spices.
Pescaíto frito: Delicious fried fish that can be found mainly in southern Spain
Pimientos rellenos: Peppers stuffed with minced meat or seafood. The peppers in Spain taste different than all other peppers in Europe.
Potaje de espinacas y garbanzos: Chick pea stew with spinach. Typical of Seville.
Revuelto de ajetes con setas: Scrambled eggs with fresh garlic sprouts and wild mushrooms. Also commonly contains shrimps.
Setas al ajillo/Gambas al ajillo: Shrimps or wild mushrooms fried in garlic.
Sepia con alioli: Fried cuttlefish with garlic mayonnaise. Very popular among tourists.
Tortilla de patatas: Spanish egg omelet with fried potato. Probably the most popular dish in Spain. You can easily assess how good a restaurant is by having a small piece of its potato tortillas. Frequently it is made also with onion, depending on the zone or the pleasure. The potatoes must be fried in oil (preferably of olive), and they are left soaking with the scrambled egg for more than 10 minutes, although better if it is average hour so that they are soaked and they acquire the suitable consistency.