Stories About Spain
My Top Ten Favorite Spanish Foods
Written by: Jonathan Harris
The other day I was daydreaming about traveling to Spain. I pictured landing at the Barajas airport in Madrid, grabbing a bocadillo de jamón and a café con leche from an airport café, renting a car, then heading out to explore cities and towns across this amazing country. And, of course, sitting down for delicious meals wherever I stopped.
Since La Tienda started over 20 years ago, I’ve had the privilege of eating my way across the country as our family searched for new products to bring back to America. Over that time, I’ve developed a list of my very favorite Spanish foods. Most are distinct to one part of Spain, such as paella from Valencia, or rich fabada stew from Asturias. Others are more universal, like croquetas with their crisp shell and creamy interior, or tortilla Española potato omelet, both popular in tapas bars and cafés across the country.
It was hard to narrow the list down to only 10! There are some iconic dishes I had to skip, such as ‘arroz abanda’ from Alicante, or ‘bacalao al pil pil’ from the Basque Country. We will save those for another day, but here are the top ten you must try when you visit Spain.
My father, Don Harris, always says the best way to rate a tapas bar is the quality of their croquetas, since a well-run restaurant will make them from scratch daily. These crisp fried croquettes have a warm, creamy interior - I call them Spain’s comfort food. Tapas bars in Spain feature a dizzying variety of flavors. Diced jamón is my favorite, but you can also get croquetas with hongos (wild mushrooms), bacalao salt cod, Bonito del Norte tuna, chorizo sausage, piquillo peppers and so many more options. For just a few euros, you can devour one of Spain’s very best dishes.
2. Pimientos de Padrón
These tasty little green peppers originated in the town of Padrón in the lush green northern region of Galicia. The local saying is ‘algunas pican, algunas no,’ translated as ‘some are hot, and some are not.’ When fully grown, the peppers are bright red and flaming hot, so they are harvested when they are very small, green and mostly mild. Fried in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt, most are mellow and delicious with a nutty flavor. But keep a cold beer close by! Every once in a while, you will get a boldly spicy pepper, one of the few picante foods in Spain. No wonder The New York Times dubbed them “Spanish Roulette.”
3. Gambas al Ajillo
So simple, but so delicious, gambas al ajillo are small shrimp served in bubbling hot olive oil seasoned with garlic and a piece of cayenne pepper for a touch of spice. They are usually cooked in an earthenware cazuela and served stove-to-table in the same dish. Slices of great bread are a must to sop up the delicious olive oil.
4. Boquerones en Vinagre
Boquerones are fresh anchovies, filleted and marinated in olive oil and vinegar, seasoned with parsley and sliced garlic. These delicate white fillets are mild with a nice vinegary zing, very different from salted anchovies. Again, simplicity is the key – the delicious and healthy fish can shine when not covered with a bunch of other ingredients. Especially popular in Andalucía, boquerones en vinagre are enjoyed at tapas bars across Spain. I like to serve them with a bottle of white wine and freshly baked bread.
Paella is arguably the most famous Spanish dish. Its popularity has spawned many shockingly bad versions, especially in Spain itself. If you want to taste great paella in Spain, it is best ordered at a restaurant in the area of Valencia where it originated – northern cities like Santiago de Compostela and San Sebastián are not places to try paella. Paella began in the rice fields of L’Albufera near the city of Valencia. It started as a simple dish that farmers cooked outdoors over a wood fire. They prepared the rice in a rustic pan with ingredients on hand – some fresh beans, a rabbit snared in the fields, snails harvested from nearby bushes.
Over time paella became more sophisticated, with seafood versions and pricier ingredients. But a few rules are still sacrosanct. First, the rice is the star and should not be overloaded with other ingredients. Second, meat and seafood should not mix. Third, chorizo is never an ingredient. If you break these rules, Valencians will scoff that you are serving “arroz con cosas,” meaning “rice with a bunch of stuff in it,” not real paella. If you want a great paella in Valencia, go to the restaurant ‘El Famós’ where brothers Vicente and José María Navarro have cooked their rice over orange-wood fires for decades.
6. Ibérico Pork
I recently grilled a plump shoulder steak (presa) of acorn-fed Ibérico pork over charcoal and served it to some friends at a party. As I sliced the dark red, marbled meat no one could believe it was pork – they thought it must be aged beef. As they tasted the first bites their eyes widened as they experienced this amazing pork for the first time.
Ibérico pigs are the noble black hogs of Spain. Hearty and inquisitive, they are at home wandering the forests of southwestern Spain (called ‘la dehesa’), munching on grass, herbs and sweet bellota acorns. Since Roman times, Ibérico hams have been acclaimed as the finest in the world. The rest of the animal was typically ground and made into chorizos and other sausages.
In the last 20 years, Spanish producers started rescuing select cuts of Ibérico pork from the sausage grinder and offering them as grilling cuts. With dark flavorful meat and meltingly luxurious marbling, these cuts are now celebrated. I’ve even tried Ibérico pork carpaccio – it was amazing!
7. Gazpacho Andalúz
Another icon from Spain, gazpacho combines vegetables at the peak of ripeness with olive oil and a little bread to become the most refreshing soup in the world. When we lived in Andalucía in the 1970s, our housekeeper, Milagros, taught us her personal recipe which we make to this day. Andalucía in southern Spain is scorching hot in the summer – Sevilla can reach 120 degrees regularly. No wonder gazpacho became such a staple. So, if you want to find a great gazpacho, visit southern Spain and order it only in the summer when tomatoes are ripe.
When I was in college in the 1990s, I hiked over the Pyrenees Mountains and across northern Spain, following the ancient Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. I will always remember entering the old city of Santiago de Compostela, carrying my backpack down streets paved with granite blocks and viewing the breathtaking spires of the cathedral after our six-week journey.
Soon after arrival we sat at the outdoor patio of a local seafood restaurant within view of the cathedral. We ordered a couple of cañas (small beers) and a plate of berberechos, which are little cockles steamed in sea water. I will never forget those amazing tiny clams – tender and sweet, with a little pocket of seawater that bursts as you bite into them. Years later I visited an artisan Galician canning company and they showed me the tidal flats in the pristine estuary nearby. The sandy bottom was divided into large squares with sticks, marking the locations where families seed these clams, then rake them out when they are ready for harvest.
9. Fabada Asturiana
Asturias is a stunning region in the far north of Spain, where the steep Picos de Europa mountains plunge down to meet the north Atlantic Ocean. Asturias is famous for its hearty, rustic foods such as tart hard cider poured in the glass from high in the air, impossibly bold Cabrales blue cheese aged in damp caves and Roman mines, and their famous stew called Fabada Asturiana.
They call this the dish that changed history, since legend has it that the soldiers of Pelayo, King of Asturias, feasted on this stew before the pivotal battle of Covadonga in 718, ending in the defeat of a band of Moorish invaders. This victory was the beginning of the reconquest, as the Spanish battled for the next 700 years to expel the Moors from the country. It must have been a pretty great stew!
At the heart of this stew are Fabes de La Granja, broad white beans grown slowly in the cool valleys of Asturias, then hand-husked and dried. It is impossible to substitute another bean if you want authentic fabada – the texture and rich, buttery flavor are unrivaled. The beans are then soaked and cooked with slices of chorizo and morcilla sausage, along with fatback or Serrano ham pieces. The stew is seasoned with garlic, a pinch of saffron and the intensely smoky Pimentón de La Vera paprika. Don Pelayo’s men would not have had access to saffron (unknown in Spain at the time) or pimentón (made from peppers that didn’t arrive in Spain for centuries), but I am sure it was an energizing dish all the same.
10. Tortilla Española
The final dish is possibly the most ubiquitous across Spain – the beloved tortilla Española potato omelet. Simply a cake of sliced potatoes and eggs cooked in olive oil, tortilla became a staple across Spain - a filling, inexpensive and delicious meal for all to enjoy. Go to almost any café or tapas bar and you can order a tasty wedge of tortilla, or even a bocadillo sandwich with tortilla in the middle.
There are many different variations, and if you ask anyone in Spain, they will usually say their mother makes the best. Some swear that a tortilla should be prepared so that the eggs are not fully cooked, leaving it a little juicy in the center. There is also a disagreement about whether onion adds a nice level of flavor or ruins the whole thing. I’ve been known to mix in in diced chorizo, mushrooms or jamón, though it would be shocking to most Spaniards.
Great Spanish food is simple and delicious, showcasing the best quality ingredients without hiding them under creamy sauces or complex preparations. Some of my favorite meals are universally loved across Spain, but I try and seek out the treasured local dishes of whatever region I am visiting. In a country so big and diverse, there is so much to discover and so many great foods to eat!
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