Spanish Cuisine/Food - What to eat in Spain
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Spanish food

Questions I attempt to answer on this page:

What makes Spanish cuisine special?
Where will I find the best places to eat in Spain?
Do I need to speak Spanish to eat well in Spain?
What are some of my meal choices in Spain?

Food Glorious food
One thing is certain in Spain. There's no reason to go hungry. Restaurants of every variety, food venders, and food markets are almost everywhere in the inner cities. At regular intervals along the regional highways of Spain, just as in the USA, one can find roadside restaurants.

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Photo right - Food stand in the Barcelona Mercat de Sant Josep.

In my view, what makes Spanish cuisine special is its freshness, all he regional dishes, and the plentiful availability of quality seafood. Go into any major food market in Spain and you will see a huge variety of produce.

fruit display at a Spain market

In my experience, you are more likely to find the better eats in establishments frequented by the natives than in the ones strictly targeting English-speaking tourists. Interestingly, some of my best meals for the price have been from those roadside restaurants. One of my best meals was from a restaurant attached to a hostal (Hostal del Senglar near Poblet), and though the pleasant staff spoke almost no English, they surprised us with menus translated into English.

If enjoying the absolute best in Spanish cuisine is important to you, take the advice of guidebooks for Spain, but be forewarned: Reservations are usually a prerequisite for the finer restaurants. For example, Madrid's smallish and much recommended Casa Poco has some of the best steak and Iberica ham in town (oddly it doesn't serve coffee), but don't drop by during lunch and expect to be seated.

Sevilla soup

Photo above - This cold soup, similar to gazpacho, is a specility of Sevilla..

Ordering the Food
Outside of Barcelona and the tourist areas, selecting restaurants of local character can often mean little or no communication with the waiter in English, so it is best to be able to recognize a few food- related Spanish words. It is also good to be the adventurous type of person. When the unexpected meal shows up, you will at least have the nerve to give it a taste (see my unexpected tapas in Cuenca).

Start by learning the Spanish words for the food categories, for example: salad (ensaladas), soups (sopas), fish (pescados), seafood (mariscos), meat (carne), etc. If you can recognize the food category, you will at least know you are geting some type of fish dish when pointing to one of the offerings listed under PESCADOS. A technique used by some people is to look around at what others are eating. If something looks good, they will point to it when the waiter comes to take their order.

The restaurant norms in Spain are very similar to those in the U.S.
On entering a restaurant you generally will wait for the server to seat you. When menus are brought to the table, you will likely be asked what you would like to drink or if you would like white (blanco) or red (tinto) wine (vino). The waiter is also likely to bring you Spanish bread, sometimes placed right on the tabletop. A dish of olive oil, possibly containing slivers of butter, will also come with the bread in some regions of Spain. Usually, the waiter will ask for your order when bringing your drinks or if an attendant brings you drinks, the waiter will take your order when he is available. At the end of the meal, you will need to ask for your bill (la cuenta, por favor).
In cafes the norms are slightly different. One generally will seat oneself and when it comes time to pay, it is better to ask for the meal's cost (cuanto cuesta?).

One of the typically Spanish dishes you encounter in Spain is paella. Paella is a rice dish, usually cooked with either seafood, pork, rabbit or chicken and seasoned with saffron. Traditionally a dish of eastern Spain, with variable quality you can find it in almost all tourist areas. This dish is best when fresh; do not order as the ‘menu de dia”. Often restaurants will want two people ordering the dish in order to cook up a serving. Cooked sometimes over an open fire, the finished paella is brought to the table (most of the time) in the very hot metal pan it was cooked in.

cafe con leche
A "café con leche," hot espresso coffee, is half coffee and half milk. If you want a standard U.S. sized cup, you will need to add the word "doble" when you order.

I like seafood, so when in Spain I take advantage of the abundant availability of squid, fish, and shellfish dishes. Try the calamari, particularly the offerings in southern Spain. The calamari there is served as large rings, nothing like the little calamari rings I have been served at seafood chains in the U.S., where you need to chew forever before you can swallow.

In eastern Spain, you might consider ordering suquet, a tomato stew of fish, shellfish, potatoes, and wine, spiced with saffron. Around Madrid and central Spain, variations on regional Spanish dishes abound. It is also a region known for its meals based on wild game, pheasant, partridge, and wild boar.

Southern Spain cooking was strongly influenced by its time under the Moorish Kingdoms. The Arabs introduced a number of food types to the Iberian Peninsula, among them olives, lemons, and oranges. Along the Costa del Sol you might want to try fritura de pescado, a squid and fish dish with lemon wedges.


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This page last updated December 2011
The information on this page comes from my families 2001 visit to Spain.