Love Spanish Food? Thank the Moors

Jonathan Harris | February 2020

If you have ever tasted a bite of paella, you’ve enjoyed the deep culinary legacy of the Moors, who ruled much of Spain for 800 years and introduced rice and saffron to Iberia. The list of Moorish ingredients at the heart of Spanish cuisine shows the profound legacy they left behind. What would Spain’s recipes look like without foods such almonds, oranges, rice, saffron, eggplant and artichokes?

Spain has been influenced by several great civilizations. Legend has it that Hercules founded the city of Cádiz, though that is hard to verify! For certain, the Phoenicians established cities and towns across southern Spain around 3,000 years ago, imparting seafaring traditions such as the Almadraba tuna harvesting methods. The Romans ruled for six centuries, and during that time, Spain became a major source of grain, wine and olive oil for the empire. In the north, Celtic tribes and Visigoths brought other food traditions, such as ciders, lard and beer, along with pastoral foods from pigs, sheep and goats.

Arriving in 711, the Moors from north Africa quickly conquered the fragmented post-Roman Visigoths and within eight years they controlled nearly all of Iberia except for the mountainous regions of Asturias and the Basque Country. For the next 800 years, their culture influenced all of Spain, though some regions were only under their rule for less than a century.

The heart of the empire was Ál-Andalus, the vast southern region now called Andalucía. The Moors transformed cities like Sevilla and Granada into prosperous centers of culture, and Córdoba was arguably the biggest city in Europe in the 10th century. Over time every aspect of life began to reflect the new culture, from architecture and language to the spices and ingredients used to make everyday meals.

I recently visited the Triana neighborhood of Sevilla with my friend Ika Zaken, a Sephardic Jew of Moroccan descent. As he walked through the market and passed restaurants and historic buildings, his face kept lighting up. From the intricate ceramic tilework to the local foods, he saw so much that was familiar. Other than the fact that everyone was chatting in Castilian, he swore that he could be in Morocco.

Even the Spanish language was transformed. There are hundreds of words with Arabic roots, especially in food, including arroz (rice), aceite (oil), aceitunas (olives), azafrán (saffron), albaricoque (apricot) and almendra (almond), to name a few.

This speaks to the changes in agriculture brought by the Moorish conquerors. These invaders from an arid land were delighted by the relative abundance of water, and their expertise in irrigation brought an increase in farming production. They planted groves of oranges, lemons and grapefruit, expanded the olive groves, and introduced almonds to the hills. Rice was one of their greatest gifts, and soon rice fields were established not only in the lowlands of Valencia and Catalonia, but even in mountain valleys such as Calasparra in Murcia.

Many of these foods became so established that we now simply consider them Spanish. As I mentioned, paella, the rice dish seasoned with aromatic saffron, has become famous worldwide. Turrón candy, a delicious confection mixing roasted almonds and honey, is enjoyed across Spain to this day. An aside - because almonds are harvested in the fall, most turrón is made in November and December. Through this coincidence, ironically, this candy with Arabic roots is now closely associated with Christmas celebrations in Spain.

Seafood preparation is also strongly influenced by Moorish techniques. The Moors introduced the idea of deep-frying fish in olive oil. Thus, was born the tradition of ‘pescaito frito,’ where fresh fish like anchovies, flounder, squid and cuttlefish are tossed in a light garbanzo flour and fried until crispy. One of my favorites is puntillitas – tiny squid fried whole, so small you can eat fifty of them in a serving!

Another Moorish tradition is preserving seafood in salt and vinegar, basically pickling them. A great example is boquerones en vinagre, or anchovy fillets preserved in wine vinegar. Another is cazón adobado, shark prepared with vinegar and paprika.

Even Spain’s passion for jamón and other types of cured pork was partly a response to the influence of the Moors. Because Islam forbids consumption of pork, eating jamón and other pork products was a source of pride for the Christians, and a way to prove you weren’t loyal to the Moors. 

Moorish rule in Spain officially ended in 1492 when Emir Muhammad XII of Granada surrendered to Queen Isabella of Castilla. By then Spain’s architecture, language and cuisine had been irreversibly transformed and enriched. The next time you nibble on a piece of turrón candy or a enjoy a tasty white anchovy, remember the legacy of the Moorish culture and all the other great civilizations that made Spanish cuisine what it is today.