Spanish cuisine consists of many different dishes which stem from differences in geography, culture and climate. It's heavily influenced by seafood available from the waters that surround the country and reflects the country's deep maritime roots. Spain's extensive history with many cultural influences has led to an array of unique cuisines with literally thousands of recipes and flavours. Additionally it is renowned for its health benefits and fresh ingredients. Among the multitude of recipes that make up the varied cuisines of Spain, several can be considered common to all or virtually all of Spain's regions, even though several of them have an origin known and connected with specific places.
Examples include most significantly potato omelette ("tortilla de patata", "tortilla española" or simply "tortilla"), paella, various stews, migas, sausages (such as embutidos, chorizo and morcilla), jamón serrano and cheeses. There are also many dishes based on beans (chickpeas, lentils, green beans); soups, with many regional variations; and bread, which has numerous forms, with distinct varieties in each area. The regional variations are less pronounced in Spanish desserts and cakes: flan, custard, rice pudding (arroz con leche), torrijas, churros and madeleines are some of the most representative examples.
From tasty tapas to superb seafood and traditional roasts, Spanish food is all about making the most of the best local produce. Here are some of the best dishes to try on your travels.
Gazpacho - The reddest, ripest tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, bread, peppers and cucumber are blended until silky smooth, then chilled and poured into bowls or glasses. In Andalucía in southern Spain, people have it every day in summer and there is always a jug on the counter in tapas bars. Also try salmorejo from Córdoba, a thicker version that is often served with pieces of Ibérico ham on the top.
Paella - In the Valencia region, they claim you can eat a different rice dish every day of the year, but let’s stick with the most traditional version for now. Ingredients for paella Valenciana include chicken or rabbit, saffron, runner beans and butter beans. But the all important element is the rice, ideally the bomba or calasaparra varieties grown on Spain’s east coast, which are particularly good for absorbing all the flavours.
Tortilla Española / Spanish omelette - Eggs, potatoes, onions… that’s it – and some purists even consider that adding onion is a gastronomic crime of the highest order. The Spanish omelette is so much more than the sum of its parts. The potatoes and onions are slow fried in olive oil then mixed with the beaten eggs for the flavours to mix before cooking. Add chorizo, ham, spinach, courgettes or whatever you have to hand to make a tasty meal out of next to nothing.
Gambas al ajillo - You walk into a tapas bar, the barman is handing a customer an earthenware dish of sizzling prawns, the tantalising aroma hits your nostrils and you just have to order some too. To recreate it at home, just fry some sliced garlic and green chilli in olive oil, throw in the prawns for a couple of minutes and add some parsley. Couldn’t be simpler, couldn’t be tastier.
Tostas de tomate y jamón - Black pigs roam among the holm oak trees in western Spain in search of the acorns that give marbled magenta Ibérico ham its distinctive nutty flavour. Rub thick pieces of toast with garlic and tomato, pour on some olive oil and top with slices of jamón for a quick, delicious lunch.
Patatas bravas - Perhaps the most ubiquitous of tapas, patatas bravas vary quite a bit around the country, but all versions involve chunks of fried potato. In Madrid, bravas sauce is made with sweet and spicy pimentón – Spanish paprika – olive oil, flour and stock – but never tomatoes. Some people add garlic, some a dash of fino sherry, while others selfishly insist of keeping their secret ingredients to themselves.
Pollo al ajillo - Any Spaniard will tell you that the best garlic chicken ever is the one their grandmother makes. And of course they are right. Unpeeled cloves of garlic are fried in olive oil to flavour it, and then taken out before adding pieces of chicken. When that is cooked, the garlic goes back in with some rosemary, thyme and some dry sherry or white wine. But there is no definitive recipe for this much-loved dish.
Cochinillo asado - People might claim they are going to Segovia to see its astounding Roman aqueduct, fairytale castle or elegant cathedral, but really all that is just to build up an appetite for lunch. And in Segovia that means either roast suckling pig or lamb. The meat is cooked in huge wood-fired ovens and is so tender it is cut with the side of an earthenware plate.
Pisto - The Spanish version of ratatouille turns up all over the country in different guises, but is most typical in the towns of villages across the plains of La Mancha south of Madrid. Onions, garlic, courgettes, peppers and tomatoes are slow fried in olive oil, this is not a dish that likes to be rushed. It is usually served as a starter, sometimes with fried eggs or chorizo, but is great as a side dish too.
Turrón - Spaniards devour massive amounts of turrón or almond nougat, at Christmas, although it is available all year round. Most of it is made in the small town of Jijona in the province of Alicante, using locally-grown almonds mixed with honey and egg white. There are two basic types, a soft, smooth version, called Jijona and hard Alicante turrón, which contains pieces of almond.