When I first moved here, I remember originally feeling confused why they seemed to serve the same dishes at every restaurant. Don’t they get bored of the same foods over and over?! But I soon realized my naivety and recognized the same can be said for most countries – just not my own. My perspective was shaped by growing up in the “melting pot” without one strong, unifying culture, let alone food culture. I am used to regularly eating food from nearly every world culture – well, at least the Americanized versions of them.
So I’ve put together a short list of those seemingly ubiquitous Spanish foods. Keep in mind, this is entirely based on my personal experience from spending three months (!) living in the city of Madrid, specifically. I say this because Spain, though relatively small, is an incredibly culturally diverse country and the different regions vary greatly when it comes to cuisine (as well as traditions, climate, and language)!
#10 – TOMATOES. Tomatoes are an essential ingredient in Spanish cuisine. They serve as the base for soups like gazpacho and salmorejo as well as other stews and rice dishes like arroz con pollo and sauces to ladel over meat and fish. A popular breakfast is simply tomato and olive oil puree spread over toasted bread. Fun fact – tomatoes were actually brought back to Spain from the “New World” (central America)!
#9 – CHUCHES. Pronounced like “choo-chase,” this is the general name for candy but it normally refers to gummies! You’ll find a wide variety of chuches available to purchase by the kilo from bulk bins at grocery stores, convenience stores, or shopping malls but it is not unusual to receive a small dish of them to pick on with your drinks (alcoholic or caffeinated) at restaurants!#8 – CHEESE. Manchego cheese (from sheep’s milk) of course, but queso de cabra (goat cheese) is also extremely popular. The grocery stores are full of other freshly packaged cheeses from camembert to swiss. Fun Fact: cream cheese here is called “filadelfia,” their spelling of Philadelphia, after the American brand!
#7 – LEGUMES. Specifically garbanzo beans, white beans, and lentils. These are almost invariably eaten in soups and stews. I love that the primary school I work for often serves lentils as the main course of the school lunch – something you never see in America.
#6 – OLIVES. Canned olives take up nearly a whole grocery aisle. It’s also very common to be given a small dish of them with your wine at a bar. I hate olives, but I still always try them because the body is amazing in that your taste buds change over time (on average every 7 years) and with continued exposure 🙂 It can take up to 20 times of trying the same food to change your mind!
#5 – EGGS. Eggs are a part of so many popular Spanish foods. Tortilla española, huevos rotos, and ensalada or sándwich ‘mixto’ all incorporate them. Their yolks here are a much richer orange than the pale yellow yolks you often see in the States, which is indicative of the hens having higher quality diets. And fun fact – they are not refrigerated in the grocery store.
#4 – FISH. Specifically shrimp, cod, octopus, and tuna. These four guys are everywhere. But tuna- these people are obsessed with tuna. If olives take up one half of a grocery store aisle, canned tuna takes take up the other half. They put it on everything- sandwiches, salads, and they even use it as a frozen pizza topping. Not exactly appetizing to me… neither is the other crowd favorite, empanada de atún (tuna empanada).
#3 – POTATOES. Before coming here, I never would have associated potatoes with Spanish cuisine but alas, Spain loves spuds. French fries are a classic side dish here as in America, and potato-based Spanish dishes served at every restaurant include patatas bravas and tortilla española. Interestingly, potato chips are extremely popular here too. Forget pretzels, tortilla chips, Wheat Thins, and CheezIts – potato chips basically take up the entire snack aisle at the grocery store. Potato chips are also very commonly served with your drinks at restaurants as something to pick on, the juxtaposition with such authentic Spanish food I find very entertaining.
#2 – BREAD. In the evenings you can see people walking home from work after stopping by the panadería toting their long, skinny loaves of bread home for dinner that night. Bread is consumed like water here- mini loaves served with every sit-down meal, croissants and their endless flaky counterparts, pan con tomate y aceite, and so many bread-based snacks such as picos (little hard bread sticks). Additionally, it’s very rare to see anyone eating whole grain bread; the dietitian in me is pained. And if it’s sandwich bread – no crusts either!
#1 – PORK. Pork is by far the most popular meat, eaten as salchicas or chorizo (sausages), chuletas (pork chops), pulled pork shoulder, or cuchinillo. But Spanish ham is a way of life. It is unreal how seriously they take their ham, how many different varieties there are, the way they display ham legs in chandelier-like arrangements in their establishments. And any self-respecting Spanish restaurant has a leg of cured jamón serrano mounted on a jamónero, ready to be carved to order. Or you can purchase a whole leg for your family for Christmas and eat it poco a poco throughout the month of December (yes this really happens). You can even sport a stylish carrying case for it. The most interesting part about all this pork business is that it dates back to the Spanish Inquisition where Jewish people had to “prove” they had converted to Catholicism (lest they be brutally killed) and did so by making a big show of the fact that they consumed swine. Love the way food culture is so influenced by religious and political history.
Essentially, these are the ten foods that have been the basis of my diet for the past few months. When in Spain, eat like a SpaniaRD. 😉