I’ll admit, prior to studying abroad in Spain I had never really eaten a ton of Spanish food (as I sit writing this I’m trying to think if there was in fact any time I ate Spanish food). It’s just not a cuisine as much on the radar as much in American homes as say that of Mexican or German; it’s one of those that you need to actually be interested in either making it or consuming it to care. But care I did because seven years later Spanish cuisine is one of my favorites. I’m also not ashamed to admit that I’ve developed a rather unhealthy obsession with Spanish cheeses. But should you travel to Spain here are five foods you won’t want to miss.
This one is a “gimme.” It’s probably the Spanish food most common to non-Spanish people. Paella is that all-encompassing rice dish-the one that has meats, vegetables, seafoods and probably anything else that can be added to it. Paella isn’t paella unless the rice is yellow. And what makes the rice yellow, you might be asking? Saffron, an extremely expensive spice that is the least bit cheaper in Spain. My Spanish host mom, while a good cook, never made it for my roommate and me. However, when my dad came to visit I finally had it in a hole in the wall restaurant and it was one of the best meals I had while living there. Although Spaniards will generally eat anything (i.e. boar, rabbit, creepy crawler fish) and their paella reflects this, you can often order a vegetarian paella, a meat lovers’ paella, or a seafood one. Best tip-avoid the tourist trap restaurants that have their menus printed in six different languages and claim to be the best place for paella. They’re lying.
I grew up in a non-fried food house, so I never had croquettes (or croquetas as they’re known in Spanish) until my host mom made them for dinner one night. In terms of a guilty indulgence food, they are it. They are essentially a breadcrumbed fried food roll containing some sort of filling; our host mom would make them with ham. Although my host mom would often prepare more food than my roommate and I felt comfortable eating, this was one dish we just depleted. If I remember correctly she made more than a dozen once and we just ate them all. In case you don’t have an awesome host mom who can just whip some up for you, croquetas are often found in tapas bars. And for the record, I tried making them once but it was a semi-disaster. I’m a pretty awesome cook but these were just one thing that was not worth the time, effort, and mess to clean up to try again. Get them in Spain.
For most Americans, when they hear the word tortilla they automatically think of the Mexican type the one used in enchiladas, tacos, burritos-you get the picture. In Spanish cooking, tortilla refers to a type of omelet, most commonly made with potatoes-tortilla de papas. This was another dish that although my host mom only made it twice, those two times were foodie bliss. Spanish tortilla is often served as a tapa as well and can be eaten both hot and cold.
I’m not going to lie. I’m not really a fan of Spanish churros as I much prefer the sweeter kind found in Latin American countries and even American states that have large Spanish speaking populations. Spanish churros are still pieces of fried dough that have been dipped and rolled in sugar and cinnamon, but in Spain they are just not AS sweet (i.e. less sugar and cinnamon has been used). This is probably due to the fact that churros are often dipped in Spanish hot chocolate (aka chocolate sludge). I am also not a fan of Spanish hot chocolate as I found it much too thick; it was like drinking melted chocolate, nothing liquid about it. But I’m still including churros since I feel they’re something you should try at least once in Spain. Ironically, they’re often considered a breakfast food, which says a lot since the Spanish people generally don’t eat breakfast.
I’ve become something of a cheese fiend as I get older (I love ordering cheese plates at restaurants) but Spanish cheeses are probably my ultimate favorites. The best are Iberico (mixture of cow’s, sheep’s, and goat’s milk), and Manchego (made from the milk of sheep of the Manchega breed) although there are countless others as well that are mighty pleasing. And in keeping with the theme here in case you couldn’t tell, cheese is yet another popular tapa in Spain.