From tapas to paella, a taste of Spanish food.
Spanish Spanish

If you’re not familiar with food from this Mediterranean hot spot, fear not, for we have put together this handy guide to Spanish cuisine and tapas.

Regional differences
As a general rule, there are six culinary regions of Spain, each with its own specialties:

1. Central Spain (Madrid and the Castilla-Leon region) adores its roasted meats like suckling pig or lamb as well as long-braised stews called "cocidos" made in "olla podrida" (earthenware pots).

2. Eastern Spain (the city of Valencia and the eastern coast) is dominated by rice dishes like the world-famous paella.

3. Northern Spain (Bilbao and the Basque region) cooks with its seafood bounty, particularly eels and octopus, as well as a wide variety of Atlantic fish.

4. The Pyrenees (the mountainous border with France) specialize in marinated meats, often served with "chilindrones," a sauce of tomatoes, peppers and onions.

5. Southern Spain (the town of Seville and the region of Andalucia) sees fish dishes as the center of the meal (and it's arguably the region where tapas, the ultimate bar food, got its start).

6. Cataluña (Barcelona and its immediate surroundings) has a penchant for many-layered cazuelas (baked casseroles).

Some Spanish restaurants in the North America will specialize in one of these regions, however most offer dishes from across the culinary landscape.

The basic flavors of Spanish cuisine
All national cuisines use a handful of ingredients as the base of a palate. (Fish sauce, sugar and lime juice, for example, would be three used in Thailand.) Here are the ingredients that make up the base of Spanish cooking:

  • Saffron. It's the dried stamens of a particular variety of crocus, known for its earthy, musky taste and its ability to stain anything reddish orange. The spice was introduced from central Asia during the Moorish conquests of Spain.

  • Garlic. Spanish dishes are often laden with garlic, the very base of the flavor canvas.

  • Salt cod (bacalao). Cod fillets are dried and salted. They must then be soaked and thus reconstituted before use. They're often used in stews and casseroles.

  • Olive oil. Spain is the world's largest producer of olive oil which is the foundational fat, much like butter in most of France.

  • Smoked paprika. Basically, it’s the common paprika we all know, but the chile peppers are first smoked before being dried and ground. The resulting spice powder can be mild, hot or banging-hot, depending on the peppers used.

  • Ham. Spanish hams are world-renowned with regional varieties galore. Jamón serrano, “mountain ham,” is a dry-cured ham similar to prosciutto. Many Spanish bars have a cured ham leg on the counter, with little bits sliced off for patrons to munch on with their drinks. Jamón ibérico is a high-end version of serrano, made only from black Iberian pigs, some of which only eat acorns for their entire lives.

  • Chorizo. This dried (and usually fatty) pork sausage is laced with smoked paprika and sometimes hot chiles.

  • Cheese. The most famous is manchego, a dry sheep's milk cheese that melts into a velvety richness in casseroles.

  • Potatoes. Spuds were first brought to Europe via Spain in the 1600s when the explorers made their way back from America. At first, the Spanish didn’t eat the vegetable — it was condemned by the church since it grew underground where the devil lives — but potatoes have since become a dominant part of Spanish cooking.

A Spanish menu sampling
Here are some typical dishes you will likely find at a down-home Spanish restaurant in the US.

  • Paella. A rice and saffron casserole, often topped with seafood (but not necessarily always). It cannot be made with brown rice — don't even ask. But it's a great dish to share among friends.

  • Gazpacho. A cold tomato and vegetable soup, thickened with bread in some regional interpretations.

  • Tortilla Español (also known as Tortilla de Patates). . An omelet with onions and potatoes.

  • Chuletillas. Grilled lamb chops. (The whole roasted lamb is called "lechazo.")

  • Menestra. A casserole of onions, green beans, carrots, spinach and cubed veal.

  • Cocido Madrileño. A chickpea and tomato stew, often heavily spiced. An excellent choice for our healthy lifestyles.

  • Cochinillo. Roasted suckling pig. Ask for the leaner pieces, like the loin, and remove the skin before eating for a healthier choice.

  • Fabada. A bean soup made with pork shoulder, blood pudding, chorizo and saffron. It’s usually served alongside hard cider — and definitely wouldn’t win any awards in the healthy-eating stakes. If you’re eating with a group, order a bowl and take a taste of this rich, fatty specialty.

No set of dishes so exemplifies Spanish cooking to most Americans as tapas, small plates of flavorful food meant for sharing. The word means "lid" or "covering," a reference to the fact that a small plate was often placed on top of a glass of sherry when served in a bar. Today, tapas make an excellent choice because you can order lots and share them among friends. There are good choices and bad among the fare, of course. So here are some that fit into your healthy lifestyle:

  • Aceitunas a la Madrileña. Marinated olives.

  • Albóndigas. Spiced pork or beef meatballs.

  • Boquerones en Vinagre. Fresh anchovies in vinegar.

  • Calamacres. Fried squid rings.

  • Carne Mechada. Slow-cooked, very tender beef.

  • Ceviche. Marinated raw fish (the acid in the lemon juice or vinegar "cooks" the fish) served with sliced vegetables and/or aromatics.

  • Champiñones al Ajillo. Mushrooms sautéed in olive oil with garlic and sherry.

  • Choriza a la Sidre. Chorizo slowly braised in cider.

  • Ensaladilla Rusa. Vegetables mixed with olives, tuna (usually canned) and mayonnaise.

  • Gambas al Ajillo. Sautéed shrimp (sometimes in their shells) with garlic.

  • Pincho Moruno. Marinated pork or chicken, grilled on skewers.

  • Pipirrana. Roasted peppers and tomatoes.

So round up some friends and get them to join you for dinner at a Spanish restaurant tonight. It’s great food to share — like at a Chinese restaurant. You’ll soon discover why Spanish food is one of the world’s best cuisines.

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