Spanish cuisine, like all great cuisines, is highly regionalized, but the homogenizing forces of modernity in general, and tourism specifically, threaten this diversity. These days you’ll find paella and sangria and patatas bravas in every corner of the country. But that just means as a traveller you need to be aware of where you are and make your food choices accordingly.
The people who find Spanish food disappointing are the ones who order paella in Madrid and sangria in San Sebastián. Of course, there is a common language that unifies Spain’s cooking — high-quality olive oil, cured pork, an abiding love of seafood — but it expresses itself in very different ways as you move around the country.
Up in Galicia? Eat octopus and shellfish and gooseneck barnacles and wash it down with a crisp Albariño. Galician empanada filled with chocos (cuttlefish), zamburiñas (variegated scallops), cod and raisins, tuna… anything! You must also taste Lacón con grelos (shoulder of pork with turnip tops), another winter classic based on the same ingredients and the infallible Galician gastronomy formula.
And if you are in Galicia at summer and the sun is out, is a perfect day for a churrasco! A few pork ribs, chorizo, our unbeatable marinade, a few beers, and… time to eat! Finally, don’t forget to taste Padron’s fried peppers, as Galicians say, some are hot, and some are not.
When in Andalusia, eat jamón and fried little fish and drink sherry. Move over, gazpacho; Andalusia’s spooning out a better alternative to the chilled tomato-based soup. Salmorejo is thicker than gazpacho, but made with similar base ingredients: tomatoes, olive oil and bread.
Tiny, delicate clams known as coquinas are harvested from the waters off Andalusia’s coastline. However, these little treasures aren’t always available; they’re so treasured that only certain numbers of them can be brought to shore.
Originally brought over by the Sephardi (Spanish Jews), aubergines are a staple in Andalucian kitchens, whether in pistou (ratatouille-like vegetable stew) or deep-fried and then drizzled with molasses (made in Malaga).
No doubt, eat paella. Sample Spain’s most famous rice dish at its birthplace – but try the others too! There are also ‘sticky’ and ‘soupy’ versions (meloso and caldoso) variants too.
If your only experience of eel has been in its grilled, unagi nigiri form, all-i-pebre will make for an intriguing second foray. Its name refers not to the fish but to the sauce itself: a soupy blend of garlic, paprika, and ground almonds, in which chunks of fresh eel and potato are simmered to the point of melt-in-your mouth perfection.
In Valencia, the familiar refresher of horchata is made exclusively from chufas, a local variety of tiger nut. Order a glass of this ice-cold milky drink with a serving of the amusingly-named fartons. Not as sweet as a doughnut, nor as savoury as a bread roll, these elongated, sugar-dusted dipping pastries are the perfect vehicle for soaking up horchata’s sugary goodness.
Another dish that you must taste is Esgarraet. Esgarraet is cured salt cod, mixed with sweet red peppers, garlic, and olive oil. So delicious!
Our advice, spend a bit of time learning about the great regional specialties of the country and seek them out aggressively. An hour or two of reading online will make your food experience exponentially better.
And of course, there are some dishes that you can order without fear in any area of Spain such as tortilla de patatas, calamari or delicious olives. And, enjoy your meal!