The culinary traditions of Spain go back to the beginnings of western civilization, and have evolved over centuries of trade, change, and conquest. Early Spain was inhabited by Celts in the north, who fished and farmed, Iberians in the center who hunted and kept domesticated animals, and the Tartessos in the south, who were craftspeople and traded around the Mediterranean.
Under the Roman Empire, olives for oil and grapes for wine were first introduced to Spain, followed by Muslim conquest and with it the cultivation of rice, sugar, oranges, almonds, and other ingredients from India and the Middle East.
Finally, exploration of the Americas brought tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and New World spices to Spain. It was the Spanish who thought to add sugar to the bitter cacao seeds brought from America, starting a craze that endures to this day.
Spanish cuisine reflects all of these historic influences and ingredients, combined in ways that are particular to this special part of the world. The mealtime tradition of having several courses, often consisting of small portions, also adds depth and variety to Spanish food. Here are some characteristic Spanish dishes:
Delicious Spanish Soups
Cocido Madrileño: This hearty stew has been prepared and served in Madrid since the middle ages, and is steeped in tradition. The base of the cocido is chickpeas or garbanzo beans, with potatoes, cabbage, carrots, and other vegetables. Pork belly is added, and often also chorizo, ham, beef, and sometimes chicken, along with bones for richness. It’s a stew that should simmer all day for the best flavor. When served, the tradition is to begin with pouring out the clear broth over noodles or rice, then serving the vegetables, and finally the meat.
Gazpacho: Originating in Andalusia, gazpacho is a cold soup consisting of raw vegetables ground or blended to a liquid, flavored with spices, olive oil, and vinegar, and often served with bread, hard boiled eggs, or diced ham. While tomatoes were only introduced to this traditional soup in the 19th century, the characteristic red color and tomato flavor are now integral to the dish.
Salmorejo: Salmorejo is a Cordoban variation on gazpacho, in which the tomato is the featured ingredient. Tomatoes, bread, olive oil, and garlic are pureed and served cold, garnished with diced ham or hard-boiled eggs. The bread gives this soup a creamy texture and a pale pink color, and makes it more filling than gazpacho.
Traditional Spanish Main Dishes
Paella: While paella is thought of worldwide as the national dish of Spain, Spaniards tend to think of it as a regional dish of Valencia, where it comes from, and where it is a celebrated symbol of the region. Historically, paella united the ancient utensils and cooking methods of Rome, with the rice and saffron introduced by the Muslims, and fish and seafood that made it an acceptable meal for Catholics during Lent. Valencians acknowledge only two traditional paellas (one meat, one seafood) as authentic, and the variation and proliferation of ingredients that have been added within Spain and around the world are frowned upon. In either instance, meat or seafood are cooked to create a broth or stock, then vegetables, paprika, and saffron are added, and finally rice is added to the broth and cooked in the liquid. In Valencia, it is traditionally cooked over an open fire fueled with orange and pine branches, which infuse the dish with aromatic smoke. To summarize, it’s probably best to go to Valencia and have them make it for you.
Tortilla di patate: the classic Spanish omelet is a fluffy concoction of potatoes, onions, and eggs, and is served in small portions as tapas or with a salad and wine as an excellent light lunch or dinner. Similar to an Italian frittata, it is enjoyed throughout Spain and is a traditional staple.
Cordero asado: Originating in the Catalan region, this dish consists of a lamb shoulder (traditionally a whole lamb on Christmas Eve), marinated with garlic, herbs, and lemon, then roasted slowly over an open fire. The resulting meat is tender and delicious, and of course potatoes complete the dish.
Pata negra: The story of Jamón Ibérico ham is steeped in mystery and romance. The ancient oak pastures of Spain, the noble black Ibérico pig, the mountain air which caresses each ham as it magically is transformed into one of the world’s most exquisite foods – all play a part in this uniquely Spanish phenomenon. The ultimate result is a long, thin leg of ham with a deep golden hue to its fat. The meat is dark red and well marbled.
Spanish food is vibrant, flavorful, and diverse. Even simple ingredients like potatoes, tomatoes, and olive oil are combined and prepared in unique ways in different dishes to highlight local flavors and culinary traditions. The Spanish believe in eating slowly and making every meal an occasion, and this is reflected in their attention to quality ingredients and careful preparation. Visit Spain and savor every bite!
Be sure to check out our top culinary experiences in Spain and other Mediterranean destinations right here!