I went on a holiday to Spain a few years ago, and my first exposure to Spanish cuisine was during a conversation with the taxi driver who picked us up at the Madrid airport. In the grand tradition of taxi driver stereotypes, this one was an overweight middle aged man, with social ideologies slightly to the right of Hitler. We asked him generally about the food scene in Madrid, including whether or not we might find restaurants specialising in Basque, Catalan or even South American cuisine that we could try in addition to the local favourites. The driver laughed and told us that he would never eat any foreign food, including any that came from other parts of Spain outside of Madrid. As you may have guessed by now, one of my greatest pleasures in life is sampling exotic food, so this proclamation rendered me speechless and horrified. Eventually I managed to attempt to clarify the statement with a stammered “but… you really don’t eat anything that’s not traditionally from Madrid? Not even pizza or pasta?” to which he conceded “well, of course, everyone loves pizza and pasta!”. I feel like this curious interaction did represent Spanish cuisine in a strange way – it is a country proud (sometimes to the point of inflexibility) of its traditional food, although with a chequered history of invasions, introductions and influences that have shared and muddied the true origins of foods. Certainly, many of Spain’s most famous modern dishes rely on ingredients such as the potato and tomato, which were only introduced after the discovery and colonisation of the Americas. Before the Roman Empire, however, Spain was divided into the Celts of the north, who heavily relied upon seafood, the Iberians of the centre-east, who kept livestock and were keen hunters, and the Tartessos of the South, who were keen miners and producers of precious metal, trading their wares with Africa and Greece, and who probably received much of the early-imported foods such as olives and grapes. Modern Spain, however, is divided into many more political and cultural regions and subregions, each with their own culinary specialities and ideal environmental conditions to produce choice ingredients. I therefore couldn’t possibly cook exemplary cuisine from every single region of Spain, but tried to sample some of the most famous and produce a wide selection that one might find in many parts of the country.
“Tapa” originally meant “cover” or “lid” and its transition into the term meaning an assortment of small portions of food, often served with an alcoholic beverage, has an uncertain origin. For example, one story posits that a lid was commonly placed over bar patrons’ drinks (especially sweet sherry) to keep off the pesky flies, and that over time it became customary to serve a snack on these covers. Or perhaps it comes from King Alfonso XIII, who ordered a glass of wine in a seaside tavern of Cádiz, which the thoughtful waiter brought covered with a slice of ham so as to protect it from the sand blowing off the beach. The King purportedly enjoyed the presentation so much he asked for another glass, again with the ingenious cover. Alternatively, maybe the tradition began when few Spaniards could read or write, rendering menus pointless and recording orders impossible. Instead, tavern owners took to offering a small sample of their offerings presented on a pot lid. Of course, the fact that most tapas are salty and stimulate thirst to keep patrons drinking, while lining their stomachs sufficiently to prevent too much rowdiness, has probably helped the tradition along. There is also the fact that dinner in Spain is served notoriously late, often after 9pm, and so tapas can bridge the long gap between lunch and dinner, and offers a pleasant opportunity to barhop the afternoon away with friends, often visiting many establishments that each specialise in a different variety of tapas. Sometimes these tapas are served free with a drink, or can be ordered independently to comprise a meal, or a single tapa can even be upgraded to a whole meal (called a ración). They are often served with toothpicks to allow hygienic sharing, as well as with bread to mop up some of the saucier dishes. The association with toothpicks has also led to tapas being called pinchos/pintxos in other parts of Spain, meaning skewer. There are infinite dishes that are served as tapas in Spain, but here I have prepared some that are fairly common: mixed olives, albondigas (meatballs in a tomato and paprika sauce), calamares (battered squid), cheese-stuffed peppers, gambas al ajillo (garlic prawns), patatas bravas (roast potatoes with a tomato-based sauce), pulpo gallego (paprika octopus), ham and cheese croquetas, jamon serrano, manchego cheese, tostadas (toasted bread with fresh tomato and garlic spread), mixed grilled capsicum, tomatoes and quince paste. I would go into more detail on how I made each thing, but I feel tired just remembering the day that I prepared this, so perhaps it will not be enjoyable for you to read all about it. Suffice to say, it was a mammoth task to undertake, but incredibly delicious to eat, as one of my favourite things about any meal is having lots of different things to try, and tapas is the emperor of this concept. Of course, therefore, I love tapas with all of my heart, but maybe next time I will just pay a restaurant to make it all for me?
Tortilla española, gazpacho and ensalada mixta
Okay, okay, so technically tortilla española and gazpacho are also common examples of tapas. But almost everything can be turned into tapas in Spain, and some things are too delicious for only small portions. Tortilla española is an omelette that, at its simplest and most traditional, can comprise just eggs and potatoes. If you were feeling a bit fancy and rebellious, however, you could splurge by adding some caramelised onions, chives, garlic, or even salt and pepper! Ever the rebel, I included onion, salt and pepper in mine, although drew the line there – I’m not an anarchist. Potatoes are sliced thinly, then sautéed in a skillet, after which they are combined with beaten eggs. The mixture is fried in a skillet, and slices can be served either hot or cold, often as an appetiser. The origins of this dish are mysterious, possibly arising from poverty, with a couple of eggs being stretched to feed six people with the addition of potatoes to bulk up the meal. Another story suggests that a famous Basque Carlist general during the Carlist Wars nicknamed “The Wolf of Las Amezcoas” once happened upon a farmhouse and asked the wife for a meal. This (typically un-named) creator quickly cobbled together a potato omelette with the limited ingredients available, and the general liked it so much he distributed the recipe throughout Spain. Gazpacho is a cold soup from Andalusia, made from raw tomato, as well as cucumber, capsicum, onion, garlic, stale bread, olive oil, red wine vinegar and salt, blended into a smooth liquid. It’s thought that gazpacho has origins in ancient Rome, where soups of bread, olive oil, vinegar, water and garlic were popular and were eventually introduced to Spain. During the 19th century, tomatoes became integral to the recipe as they gained popularity in Europe. I grew up hearing pop-culture references to gazpacho, including Lisa Simpson offering the greatly-disparaged dish as a vegetarian option at her father’s barbecue, and Rimmer making the ultimate social faux pas by loudly sending back his gazpacho starter at a fancy dinner because it was cold on an episode of “Red Dwarf”. It wasn’t until well into adulthood, that I discovered gazpacho, and quickly fell in love with its wonderful savoury and refreshing taste. I served these dishes with ensalada mixta, which is a very flexible “mixed salad”, commonly containing at least tuna, lettuce, tomatoes, olives and onion.
I approached paella with great trepidation, mostly because I have long remembered the lessons learned by Jamie Oliver, famous British chef, when he published his version of the traditional dish. Social media soon went into overdrive, with comments ranging from pointed-yet-polite suggestions to overt and graphic death threats, mostly surrounding his inclusion of chorizo in a paella mixta. This, apparently, is akin to a cardinal sin, and the anger over the international incident united the oft-fractured Spain in ways that years of diplomacy could not. Oliver is not alone in his crimes: other chefs including Gordon Ramsay have faced backlash for tweaking their paellas with non-traditional ingredients like chillies. I have to admit, until I read about the furore, I would also have guessed chorizo was included in a paella (sorry, Spaniards). So, glad that poor Jamie Oliver took that particular bullet for me, I embarked upon some paella research. Paella hails from Valencia, a community on the eastern coast of Spain, and derives from an old Latin word “patella” meaning “pan”. “Valencian paella” is thought to be the original recipe, involving rice, green beans, meat (chicken, duck and rabbit), white beans, snails and saffron. Quite different to my impression of a paella! Other versions include vegetable paella and mixed paella, but I chose the version that I enjoyed most during my stay in Spain: paella de mariscos (seafood paella). Although not the original recipe, seafood paella is still regarded by Valencians as the only alternative authentic recipe to Valencian paella, as it has long been served close to the coast where seafood is easier to come by than meat. I started by sautéing garlic, chopped red onion and capsicum in a slug of olive oil, then added smoked paprika, saffron, thyme, fish stock and a little white wine and passata, and heated until boiling. I added the rice (of the “bomba” variety, specialised for paellas), evenly distributed it, then didn’t stir anymore for the rest of the process. This is important, as one of the hallmarks of a paella is the crust on the bottom of the rice that is wonderfully flavourful (called “socarrat”), and stirring will ruin its formation. I next added green peas, rings of squid, prawns, clams, and mussels in order of required cooking time, then left the liquid to absorb uncovered over a medium-low heat. I served my paella with slices of lemon and sprigs of fresh parsley, and I cooked it over the barbecue in a paella pan I picked up at a second hand store, which is required to be shallow and wide, to assist in the formation of the socarrat, perhaps. Although my paella pan is more than double the size of any of my other saucepans, it pales in comparison to some of the largest, which have made it into the Guinness World Records after feeding over 100,000 people.
Fabada asturiana arises from the Principality of Asturias, and is a rich stew of large white beans, chorizo, morcilla (blood pudding), pork/ham/bacon, flavoured with onion, garlic, saffron and smoked paprika. The dish has since spread and is now a favourite all over Spain, especially during winter when its warm heartiness is particularly appreciated. Fabada asturiana is even sold ready-made in cans in supermarkets for the culinarily unskilled or time-poor to enjoy at their convenience. The meal is often compared to the French cassoulet, which, if you cast your memories back to my very first week of southern France, I cooked with confit duck and roast potatoes (and which was, of course, delicious). I can see the similarities between the dishes, and therefore see logic in the theory that fabada asturiana originated from the French travelling to Spain along the Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James) during the Middle Ages. Legend has it that this meal was well-established by the 8th century, as the King of the Asturias feasted on fabada on the night before he battled the Moors, the victory of which fortified Christianity in the Picos de Europa Mountains for centuries to come. I didn’t have to fight any historically-significant battles after eating my fabada asturiana, but it certainly stuck to my insides in the warm and comforting way one might wish when setting out into the world on a cold winter’s morning.