Two years ago, I took a trip to Spain, and trust me, add the country to your list if you enjoy the culinary side of travel as much as I do!
In Spain’s capital, Madrid, you can find anything from street food to home-cooking-style fare to cutting-edge gourmet menus. You can enjoy the Spanish equivalent of a late night 24-hour diner stop by ordering churros con chocolate (more on those, later) at the famous Chocolatería San Gines. Or you could head to DiverXO (which boasts 3 Michelin Stars) for something more upscale…if you can get a seat. Chef David Muñoz's creations have made the restaurant one of the hottest in town.
Jump on a high-speed train, and in less than two hours, you’ll arrive in the artsy, coastal city of Valencia. Its food claim to fame? It’s the birthplace of paella. Go to Casa Roberto for authentic flavor. It’s a local favorite. Or visit La Pepica for a beach view to accompany your giant pan of rice, veggies and seafood.
Thanks to the diversity of both Spain’s people and its landscapes, it’s hard to throw “Spanish food” in a box. You’ll find pinxtos (similar to tapas) in the Basque region, fresh seafood in Galicia, and a tomato and bread breakfast in Catalonia. Travel south to Andalusia and try their answer to gazpacho: salmorejo. But there are a few must-try dishes, no matter which part of the country you visit.
Spain is famous for a lot of food: paella, Spanish tortilla, and of course, jamón. Jamón may be the Spanish word for “ham,” but that description does the dish a disservice. It’s so much more than ham. If you forced me to compare it to something else, I suppose it vaguely resembles prosciutto. But even that doesn’t do it justice. This thinly-sliced, melt in your mouth, cured ham is found in pretty much any restaurant, market or deli in Spain. Jamón Serrano is ubiquitous, and a good place to start. But it’s the highly-sought after Jamón Ibérico de Bellota that you won’t want to miss. It comes from Iberico pigs, which are allowed to freely roam the Spanish countryside, feasting on acorns. Sample different types of jamón at one of the many Museo de Jamón across Madrid.
On to another stereotypically Spanish food: paella. Let’s start with a warning. Restaurants across the country will offer “paella” on their menus, but the best place to get it is the city where it was invented, Valencia. If you can’t make the trip, avoid restaurants with big signs outside their doors featuring pictures of different types of paella, or any spot that serves it in small portions. That’s a sign it’s cooked from frozen or reheated in a microwave. True paella will be made in a gigantic pan made for sharing. So what is paella, exactly? It starts with a sofrito – a mixture of spices and veggies. Add in rice and broth, and then step away from the pan while the rice soaks up the liquid. You can add in meat, fish, seafood, or all of the above. Paella recipes vary from region to region, and there’s no “right” recipe. But each variation is delicious.
Are they a breakfast item? A dessert? A late-night snack? The truth is, churros con chocolate, doughy donut-like tubes you dip in the thickest mug of melted chocolate you’ve ever encountered, can be all of the above. Chocolatería San Gines, around so long it’s become an institution in Madrid, is open all hours. Many Madrileños make it their first stop after partying all night long. No matter when you eat it, don’t miss it. The rich, fried dough is made even more decadent post-chocolate-mug-dip.
Many major cities have a signature street food. Grab a hot dog in Chicago, pizza by the slice in New York, a doner kebab in Istanbul, or a Banh Mi in Hanoi. In Madrid, you get a bocadillo de calamares. This monochromatic sandwich doesn’t look like much to write home about. They are, simply, a bunch of fried squid in a baguette drizzled with an aioli-type sauce. But they’re frighteningly addicting. The best ones are sold on the streets surrounding Madrid’s Plaza Mayor.
Speaking of simple, yet yummy combinations, this popular breakfast option shouldn’t be missed. Start your morning right by ordering a cortado (espresso with a dash of milk) and some pan con tomate. It’s called Pan amb Tomaquet in Catalonia, where it was invented. A baguette, sliced length-wise, is topped with olive oil, garlic, and crushed or grated tomatoes. It’s a perfect breakfast for anyone craving something savory instead of sweet!
Visit Latin America and ask for a tortilla, and you’ll get the form most of us are familiar with: a flour or cornmeal wrap for your taco fillings. But tortilla, in Spanish, translates to “little cake,” and the Spanish version better fits that definition. Also called a Spanish omelet, this cousin of the frittata combines thinly-sliced potatoes, eggs, onions, and your choice of extras. You can find tortilla Española served by the slice (warm or cold), or whole, and big enough to share. You can find my personal favorite at El Buo, a restaurant with a few different locations in Madrid. El Buo’s version is made up of caramelized onions, goat cheese, potatoes, and egg, and is served with a pimiento marmalade.
Hungry, yet? This is hardly an exhaustive list. I didn’t even have time to tell you about some of my other favorites. If you’ve been to Spain, I’d love to hear about which foods you’ve tried! Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.