Paella, Tortilla, Gazpacho and More: The Common Foods in Spain You Oughta Know
How do I boil an octopus?
One of the major and under-appreciated joys of learning a language is that you’ll acquire phrases whose equivalents would rarely come up in your own language.
For example, living in Spain I always seem to wind up in conversations about pulpo (octupus), aceite de oliva (olive oil) and cuñados (in-laws).
We can save this family-obsessed culture’s discussions of cuñados for another day, and dive now into the mouthwatering lexicon for shopping at markets and going to restaurants in Spain.
So forget about learning una hamburguesa, por favor (one hamburger, please); this piece will uncover a new lexical universe of eating. We’ll start with Spanish restaurant menus and tapas bar countertops, and then zoom in closer to find out what is in popular dishes so that you can discuss what you’re eating, shop at mercados (markets), and perhaps even do some cooking yourself.
But firstly and obviously most importantly: that question of pulpo. Let’s take a look at some of the most common dishes in Spain.
Common Spanish Foods: The Ultimate Guide to Devouring the Best of Markets and Restaurants in Spain
Main Dishes in Spain
Pulpo a la gallega (Galician octopus)
This dish is from Galicia (and in Galician is known as polbo á feira), but is found in restaurants all over the country. This video is fantastic, both for the demonstration of making it and for learning some fun vocabulary (though be warned, the speech here is very fast!):
A few key words to know: hervir (to boil), cobre (copper) and baba (slime). Octopus can be quite tough if it’s not cooked just right, thus Galicians’ near-religious obsession with giving it two shocks to “acclimate” to the boiling water before leaving it in the third time to cook.
The octopus then remains for about 30 minutes, or until se lo puede pinchar fácilmente (it can be easily stabbed). The octopus’s legs are cut up with scissors and served with potatoes.
This is a Valencian rice dish cooked in a wide, shallow pan. Paella is the Valencian word for a pan; in Castilian Spanish it’s a sartén.
One of the most popular types of paella is the paella de marisco (seafood paella), and for some it’s also the most “authentic.” But you’ll also come across lots of paella mixta (mixed paella), which has seafood as well as conejo (rabbit), pollo (chicken) and/or other types of meat.
Paella de verdura (vegetable paella) is sometimes offered to accommodate tourists and the rare, generally younger Spaniards with vegetarian tendencies.
This Andalusian cold tomato soup comes in a variety of forms, but the important ingredients are fresh, ripe, preferably locally grown tomates (tomatos), as well as pepinos (cucumbers) and a rich, fruity aceite de oliva (olive oil).
Calamares en su tinta (Squid in their ink)
This dish consists of small pieces of squid legs cooked in their tinta (ink). It can be made fresh, but is also available in any Spanish supermarket en conserva (canned).
This is a roasted vegetable (often red peppers) dish from eastern Spain (Murica, Valencia and Catalonia). The word comes from the Catalan escalivar, which in Spanish translates to asar a la brasa (to roast on embers).
It can be served by itself (often next to a main meat dish) or on toasted bread with anchoas (anchovies).
Calçots (Scallions/green onions)
In the city of Tarragona, calçotadas are held: a gastronomic party in which calçots (sometimes also spelled calsots in Spanish—it’s a large variety of mild green onion) are asados (grilled) and eaten with salsa romesco (garicky tomato sauce) or salvitxada (a slightly thicker tomato sauce specifically for calçots).
Not to be confused with the Mexican corn wrap, the Spanish tortilla is an omelet, most typically made with scrambled eggs and pre-fried potatoes stirred together and then allowed to set and cook on both sides (and ideally left slightly moist in the middle).
It can be eaten cold, and is often served in small bars as a snack. You can order una ración (a big piece), una tapa or un pincho (a smaller piece), or un bocadillo (sandwich).
The tortilla de patatas (potato tortilla) is the most common version, but you will also encounter tortilla de espinacas (spinach tortilla) and lots of other vegetables.
You’ve surely heard of these; beware that the rules for this evening snacking tradition vary according to region, and each region is right and the others are wrong. I’ll do my best to explain things without stepping on too many toes.
The conventional home for tapas is northern Spain, particularly País Vasco (Basque Country; Euskadi in the local language), where lovely little piles of mariscos (seafood), queso de cabra (goat’s milk cheese), tortilla, chorizo and other toppings grace small slices of baguette and are held in place by a palillo (oversized toothpick).
The resulting creation is a pincho (pintxo in Basque; literally, a spike or point). Do not throw away the palillos! You will usually be given a glass to keep them in, and at the end of the night they’re counted to tally up your bill.
In other parts of Spain, tapas are not necessarily these bread-topping pinchos, but rather small snacks composed of similar ingredients, and bread is served on the side. In Andalusia especially, bars offer you a free tapa with each caña (small draft beer) or copa de vino (glass of wine) that you order. One gets drunk in order to eat well, or vice versa.
Molecular Gastronomy in Catalonia
Catalonia continues to be the world’s famed hotspot for gastronomía molecular (molecular gastronomy). The restaurant el Bulli has now transitioned into a laboratory of the art/science, and El Celler de Can Roca in Girona is probably currently the most famous.
Molecular gastronomy aims to take modern scientific advances and industrial food processing techniques and use them in the service of inventive, delightful, unusual culinary experiences.
Techniques include espumas (foams) of vegetables, cheeses and other ingredients that were never previously foamy; cocina al vacío (sous vide), which involves cooking food in airtight pouches at very exact temperatures for long periods; and criococina (freezing with liquid nitrogen) to super-cool foods.
One of the more important concepts is la deconstrucción (deconstruction), where typical dishes are analyzed for their constituent elements, reimagined and rebuilt. One example described here is a deconstructed Spanish tortilla served in a martini glass: an onion marmalade on the bottom layer, a poached egg in the middle and a potato foam on top.
Eating/experiencing at the most famous molecular gastronomy restaurants is expensive and requires months of being waitlisted, but there are somewhat more affordable places to try it as well.
Key Spanish Food Vocabulary
Fruits and vegetables
One of the great joys of many Spanish cities and towns is going to the market in a central square. Most are a covered area over a city block with many little stands, each specialized in a particular type of food.
Note that in some of the fruit and vegetable stands, you will not touch the produce yourself, but rather ask for what you want. This is a great opportunity to practice your vocabulary!
Important phrases to know:
Quiero tres … por favor. — I want three … please.
Un kilo de …. — one kilo of …
Un manojo de …. — (m.) a bunch of …
¿Sale de la agricultura biológica? — Is it organic?
¿De dónde vienen los tomates? — Where do the tomatoes come from?
The following are locally grown fruits and vegetables that are produced (many year-round) in Spain:
cebollino — (m.) chives
cilantro — (m.) cilantro/coriander
berenjena — (f.) eggplant/aubergine
ajo — (m.) garlic
acelgas — (f.) chard
calabacín — (m.) zucchini
calabaza cacahuete — (f.) butternut squash
cebolla — (f.) onion
lechuga — (f.) lettuce
judía tierna/verde — (f.) green bean
patata — (f.) potato
pimiento italiano — Anaheim pepper (long)
pimiento verde/rojo — green/red bell pepper
rábano/rabanito — (m.) radish
remolacha — (f.) beet
tomate — (m.) tomato
tomate cherry — (m.) cherry tomato
melón — (m.) melon
pera — (f.) pear
pruna/ciruela — (f.) prune
limón — (m.) lemon
naranja — (f.) orange; these are sold as naranja zumo (juice oranges) and naranja mesa (table oranges)
guindilla — (f.) yellow banana chili pepper
It’s also possible to buy your organic, locally grown fruits and vegetables in Spain from CSAs and, my favorite, a pick-and-choose system with local organic farmers called La Colmena (literally, the hive).
The most common way to eat seafood in restaurants is breaded and fried (frito). If that’s not your thing, you can look for al horno (baked; literally: in the oven) on the menu.
If you buy a fish in a market, pescadería (fishmonger’s) or the fish counter in a supermarket, you can ask for it limpio (cleaned) and con la cabeza (with the head), which has lovely bits of meat.
The most-consumed species of frozen and fresh fish in Spain are:
merluza — (f.) hake
pescadilla — (f.) small hake/whiting
sardinas — (f.) sardines
These are cheap, healthy, and available fresh in markets. They are also available canned, and the smaller versions are sold as sardinillas. This Spanish sardine-obsessive provides an enchanting jaunt through the very best.
boquerones — (f.) anchovies
The word anchoa also exists, but is less common, and according to the RAE can refer to anchovies cured in brine and some of their blood, or can be a regional word (in Northern regions) for the same fish. It’s quite common to see the boquerones served as tapas in bars, where they are preparados en vinagre y aliñados con aceite, ajo y perejil (prepared in vinegar and seasoned with oil, garlic and parsley). Fresh, they’re usually battered, fried and eaten whole.
salmón — (m.) salmon
The most consumed conserva (canned fish) is atún (tuna). It is sold both canned in oil (en aceite) and without (al natural). You will also find cans of ventresca de atún, which is the belly of the tuna, close to the head. This is said to be a cut that has a more refined and yet intense flavor than the rest of the fish, which is cheaper. It is available fresh, frozen and canned.
Another important sea critter to stick in your mouth is ostras (oysters). These are usually eaten crudas (raw) with a few drops of limón (lemon). The season for oysters in Spain varies according to the region and the type of oyster. ¡Ostras! is also an extremely common expression of surprise and enthusiasm.
Note that each of the above categories of seafood are used to market a variety of species of fish in Spanish—the same is true in English. There is thus not a one-to-one relationship between what is considered a sardina and what is considered a “sardine.”
Types of meats
Spain is obsessed with cerdo (pig), and eats more of it—by a couple million metric tons—than any other animal. All parts of it can be cooked in any imaginable way.
A great dish that you might not be familiar with is manos de cerdo or manitas de cerdo (pig hooves), which takes advantage of all that cartilage to produce a very rich, gelatinous stew. Similar dishes that you may not have yet experienced are oreja de cerdo (pig ear) and rabo de cerdo (pig tail).
The crowning achievement in Spanish pig consumption is, however, charcutería or chacinería (charcuterie, cured and processed meat), for example:
chorizo — (m.) hard cured pork with paprika and garlic
salchichón — (m.) similar to chorizo but flavored with black pepper instead of paprika
lomo embuchado — (m.) the lomo (see cuts of meat below) is marinated and then smoked or air-dried; the result is very tender
There is also vacuno (cow) or ternera (beef). Certain regions produce this meat under denominaciones de origen (a sort of regional registered trademark), which ensures that the animal actually comes from the region indicated and was raised and slaughtered according to the regulations for that region.
The names of cuts of meat vary from country to country in Spanish, just as they do in English. A quick guide to sketchy equivalencies is here, but the best way to learn about Spanish meat is to throw out what you know from your home country and start over. Carcasses are simply divvied up differently from country to country. A few common cuts and other parts in Spain (good picture at the link) to know are:
lomo alto — (m.) This is the shortloin—the tender, juicy muscle between the shoulder blades. Moving down below that, unsurprisingly, you find the lomo bajo.
solomillo — (m.) This prized piece is the tenderloin, or the interior side of the lomo bajo. It can be cooked a la plancha (in the pan) or a la parrilla (on the grill).
tapa — (f.) These are tender cuts from the very top of the legs that are also good for frying.
cerebro — (m.) The brains of calves, pigs and sheep are available in many Spanish markets. They have a soft, fatty texture and can be boiled and then prepared with scrambled eggs, casseroles and other dishes as a way to add nutritious fats.
hígado — (m.) The livers of chicken, cows and sheep are widely available from butchers and very cheap.
Words to know for ordering meat from a butcher:
trocitos — (m.) little pieces
loncha, tira — (f.) slice
Lo quiero para cocinar a la plancha. — I want it for cooking in the frying pan.
trescientos gramos de… — three hundred grams of…
Becoming Familiar with Common Foods in Spain
I hope that this is simply a starting point in your learning adventure with Spanish food. As I write this, I’m just a short walk from la Boquería (Barcelona’s famous market) and a few other markets. I’ve been going to these for years, and yet I still spot new and strange-looking things sometimes. That’s always an opportunity to learn new vocabulary.
While mostly one speaks Catalan at this market, some are Spanish speakers, in which case I’ll say:
¡Hola! ¿Qué es eso? — Hi! What is that?
And then of course:
¿Cómo se lo prepara? — How is it prepared?
Gracias por la explicación. ¡Me lo llevo! — Thanks for the explanation. I’ll take it!
If I get home and can still remember what the strange-looking fish or cut of meat is called, I Google that new vocabulary word plus “receta” (recipe) and maybe “España” (Spain) to be reminded of the best ways one might cook such a thing, and maybe see a cool video of an octopus and learn a little more vocabulary while it’s boiling.
If all goes well, I’m left with a delicious, absolutely unforgettable lingo-culinary experience. Enjoy!