Letters from Spain #16: The Wonders of Spanish Food

Letters from Spain #16: The Wonders of Spanish Food

Here’s the next episode of my Spanish podcast. This one is about Spanish food:

Here’s the episode on Apple podcast:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-16-the-wonders-of-spanish-food/id1469809686?i=1000466715566

And below you will find the transcript:


Hello.

I’m back, and the world is here with me. Bernie Sanders is winning the primaries, Harvey Weinstein is going to jail, and coronavirus is in Italy now. To be honest, I am a bit concerned about what’s going on in Italy, if for admittedly selfish reasons. On Thursday my brother and I are going to Poland, and our return flight has a stopover in Milan. So I hope that isn’t affected… I’m not too eager to get stuck in Poland.

Anyway, in this podcast I’d like to talk about a long-overdue topic. Spanish food. Food is a big part of any culture, and of course Spain is no exception. In fact, I’ve found that Spanish people are particularly proud of their food. This is apt to strike an American as very funny, since there are so many amazing things about Spain—its history, culture, weather—that its food probably doesn’t even make it on a tourists top ten attractions of visiting Spain. Many visiting Americans don’t really like Spanish food very much, actually, and this was also true of me at first, too. 

Like many visiting Americans, I was absolutely ignorant of what Spanish food would be like. I had the vague notion that it would be sort of like some of the Latin American food I had tried. But that’s totally wrong. It is actually rather amazing how unaffected Spanish food is by the food of its former colonies. It’s not like Great Britain, where curry has become universal and standard. Or like the Netherlands, where Indonesian food is very influential and popular. Spanish people hardly eat chili peppers and eat corn even less. Mexican food is more popular in New York than in Madrid. True, potatoes are from the New World, and Spanish people love potatoes. But in this regard Spanish food isn’t any more similar than Ireland’s or Germany’s to the food of Peru or Argentina.

Anyways, suffice to say that Spanish food isn’t like any Latin American food I’ve tried. In fact, my most persistent sensation was that Spanish food was rather plain and bland. You see, before moving to Spain I had been eating a lot of Chinese food. So I was used to intense flavors: salty, savory, spicy. When you eat really good Chinese food, the effect is overwhelming. In fact, American food in general can have this quality. Whether something is covered in melted cheese, or drenched in barbecue sauce, or packed with sugar, American food is not known for subtle flavors. 

Spanish food is very different. For one, there aren’t a lot of spices. Aside from salt and pepper, the most common flavor is paprika. And Spanish paprika is really wonderful stuff—smoky and rich—but it isn’t exactly overwhelming. Indeed, the whole Spanish philosophy of food is diametrically opposed to what you often find in, say, Chinese food. In the latter case, a sauce gives all the ingredients a uniformly wonderful flavor. In Spanish food, however, the focus is on the ingredients. The flavor of the individual meats and vegetables is not covered up. Instead, you’re supposed to enjoy the subtle flavors of each component.

As a result of this, Spanish food can seem sort of simple, plain, and even uninspiring to visiting Americans. In general we Americans expect intense flavors, and in restaurants we expect food that we probably wouldn’t be able to make at home. This is definitely not the case in Spain, where most of the stuff you can order at a restaurant is extremely simple: a sauteed chicken fillet with french fries, a fried egg with a vegetable medley, or simply a plate of sliced ham. It’s as simple as it can possibly be. But on the plus side, it normally doesn’t leave you feeling bloated and sick—like so much American food does.

You can get an idea of the Spanish conception of food from the case of Jamie Oliver. Now, in case you don’t know, Jamie Oliver is an English celebrity chef. A few years ago he released a paella recipe that uses chorizo—the typical red Spanish sausage—and Spanish people freaked out. The whole country rose in rebellion against this foreigner’s handling of the iconic Spanish dish, and it was mainly because of the chorizo. Traditionally, paella is made either with seafood, with chicken (and possibly rabbit), or with both. There are other variations, but the important thing is that it’s never made with chorizo. Spanish chorizo is very greasy and has a strong flavor; so any chorizo could potentially overpower some of the more delicate flavors in paella, such as the saffron that is traditionally used.

Now, to an American—or to an English celebrity chef, presumably—this is not at all how we are used to thinking about food. For us, the more the better. How could you make a dish worse by adding delicious sausage? It doesn’t make sense! Jamie Oliver’s paella is sure to have a stronger, more intense flavor than the traditional variety. But, again, the way Spanish people approach food is different. The point is not to have a kind of out-of-body experience and find god. It’s to have high-quality, traditional flavors. Thus, food culture tends to be a lot more conservative than it is in America, since we have almost no allegiance to any recipe whatsoever. The only thing that matters to us is that it tastes good. In Spain—as in much of the world—there are traditional rules that must be followed if we are going to call something “paella” and not just “rice with chorizo.” 

So I already mentioned that most Americans have no idea what Spanish food is. And this especially shows when journalists talk about the Mediterranean diet. The fact that Spanish people eat a Mediterranean diet is often given as the main reason why Spain is such a healthy country whose people enjoy long lifespans. In these articles, they always talk about the fruits, nuts, vegetables, and fish that Spanish people eat—and the low levels of carbs and meat. You’d think that the country is full of people eating salads and munching on mangos. But that’s very far from the case. Let me dispel this image with one example. The most typical dish of Madrid is called cocido madrileño, and this is what it consists of: sausage, blood sausage, panceta, ham, beef, and chicken, boiled for several hours and served with a big serving of potatoes and chick peas. Does that sound like a light meal to you?

(By the way, the other typical meal of Madrid is called callos a la madrileña, which is cow intestine stewed with sausage and bacon.)

In truth, Spanish people eat a lot of meat. I mean, pork is fundamental to Spanish cuisine. Aside from the many varieties of jamón—all of them succulently good—there is the holy trio of chorizo, panceta, and morcilla (blood sausage), which are used as the basis of so many Spanish stews. My understanding is that pork became intensely important to the Spanish identity since eating it was what distinguished Christians from Jews and Muslims, back when Spain had a diverse religious populace. In any case, pork is treasured in all its varieties, from pork chops to little fried bits of pork fat, called torreznos. There is scarcely any part of the animal that isn’t used. And in many small villages in Spain, the annual pig slaughter (matanza) is a big festivity.

Madrid isn’t the only place with heavy food, by the way, It’s everywhere. Maybe the capital is Asturias, where the two most famous dishes are fabada asturiana (a bean stew with lots of sausage) and cachopo (thinly sliced pork with cheese and ham inside, breaded and fried). But heavy food is everywhere. The last time I was in Extremadura, my brother and I tried to order a plate of vegetables to go with our big plate of pork. But the restaurant literally didn’t have any vegetables to offer us. Another time, down in Andalucia, where you’d think the food would be lighter, the closest thing a restaurant could offer us to a salad was a plate of cheese. So where are all of these fruit and vegetable eating Spaniards? You certainly don’t see them in the restaurants. Maybe they eat very well in the privacy of their own homes.

Admittedly, one way that Spanish food is definitely healthier than American food is the popularity of seafood. They eat lots of fish, squid, octopus, shellfish—you name it. Even in Madrid, which is right in the middle of the country, there is a ton of seafood. My personal favorite is pulpo gallego, Galician style octopus. It’s prepared so that its texture is not at all rubbery or chewy, and it is instead tender and succulent. I also love the fried cod that you can get in many bars around the center. And calamares are always good to order. If the Spanish diet is definitely healthier than the American diet, I think the popularity of seafood plays a big role in that. Well, it’s also worth remembering that Spanish portions can be about half the size of American portions. So obesity is comparatively low.

So that’s the basic rundown of Spanish food, the best I can do in the span of a single podcast. But I haven’t explained why I’ve come to like Spanish food. To grasp the beauty of this cuisine, consider one of the most typical Spanish dishes: the tortilla. This has nothing to do with the corn tortillas from Mexico that you use for tacos. Instead, a Spanish tortilla is a potato omelette. There are only three basic ingredients: potatoes, eggs, and onion. In fact, a lot of Spanish people like their tortillas without onions (though I think that’s crazy), which makes it only two ingredients, not counting salt. Like so much Spanish food, it’s as simple as it can be. But when it’s made well, there’s nothing as satisfying as a good tortilla. I personally prefer it when it’s quite salty and when the egg isn’t fully cooked, so the inside is guey. 

In fact, I’m so passionate about the tortilla that I think it should be embraced worldwide, much like pizza is. It’s relatively easy to make, it uses cheap ingredients, its filling, and you can eat it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. You can even put it on a sandwich. What more do you want?

Thank you.

Madrid: a Gustatory Extravaganza

Madrid: a Gustatory Extravaganza

Just last week my brother and my oldest friend visited me in Madrid. I took the opportunity to show them the best Spanish food I know. We ate, and ate, and ate some more, and I still have yet to recover.

Madrid is a truly international city, with excellent restaurants of all sorts. You can find quality food from Mexico, El Salvador, Peru, or the Dominican Republic; from Vietnam, Korea, Japan, China, or the Philippines—in short, Madrid has everything. Even if you just want a juicy burger, great pasta, or a fine craft beer, Madrid can satisfy even the most gourmandizing palate.

But of course any international city has excellent restaurants of many kinds. What sets Madrid apart is not the variety of “ethnic” foods but the dishes native to the country. Spain, as is often noted, is a land deeply marked by regional differences; the south, north, east, west, and center each have their own specialties. And Madrid is perhaps the only city in the country where each can be found.

The first thing I did was to go the supermarket to buy high quality cured meats, or embutidos. We tried spicy chorizo, the archetypical Spanish sausage, filled with fat and flavored with distinctive Spanish paprika; and then lomo ibérico, or Iberian loin, tender slices of cured pork.

jamon
A store specializing in cured meats. Whole legs of cured ham are an omnipresent sight in Spain

But the most extraordinary was the Jamón de bellotas, or ham of acorns, so-called because the pigs partake of the acorns of the shrubby holm oaks that grow so abundantly in the south of the country. Spanish ham comes in many price levels, you see. Jamón Serrano is among the cheaper varieties, Jamón Ibérico considerably more expensive, and Jamón de bellotas more pricey still. But the deep, delicious, and almost woody flavor of these Spanish hams, especially of the last mentioned, is well worth the money.

We ate these slices of delight accompanied with Manchego cheese—a firm cheese with a mild yet unmistakably scrumptious flavor, made from sheep’s milk. To wash it down one could do no better than a red wine from either of Spain’s two best-know wine regions, Rioja and Ribera del Duero.

For my birthday last week, I chose to go to Café Melo’s. This is a well-known and well-loved bar in Lavapies, one of Madrid’s more famous neighborhoods, distinguished for its great Indian restaurants and jubilant nightlife. The bar’s menu is delightfully simple. They serve eight items: croquettes, empanadas, pimientos de Padrón (fried green peppers), a plate of Galician cheese, a plate cheese topped with quince jelly, grilled ham, morcilla (blood sausage), and a giant sandwich of fried ham and melted cheese that they call the “zapatilla” (literally, the “canvas shoe”). By itself, this hefty sandwich is enough to give two grown men a full belly and a guilty conscience.

zapatilla
The zapatilla

The croquettes are, for my money, the best in the city, crisp and crunchy on the outside, creamy and meaty on the inside. (Spanish croquettes, by the way, are balls of béchamel and bits of ham, cooled, rolled in breadcrumbs, and then fried.) The pimientos de Padrón—a very typical Spanish dish, using green peppers from Galicia—could not be simpler: fried in olive oil and spiced with salt. But they are fresh and savory. I also took the opportunity to introduce the Americans to the blood sausage, a dish many of us find exotic but which is really delightful and integral to Spanish cuisine. Spanish blood sausage comes in two varieties, made with onions or with rice (called morcilla de Burgos). The former is more flavorful while the latter has a firmer texture. Café Melo’s serves morcilla de Burgos, sliced and fried.

Oscar
My friend with the cider siphon

The next day I wanted to introduce them to the food from Asturias, a region in the north that boasts many famous dishes. For this I went to El Rincón Asturiano, a fairly pricey restaurant near Atocha station. The obligatory drink is hard cider. Spanish cider is neither sweet nor bubbly; indeed the taste, though unmistakably apple, is bitter. It is aerated before serving, traditionally by pouring the cider with the bottle raised high above one’s shoulder, into a glass held below the waist. Of course such a procedure takes practice and has ample opportunity for spillage. So for us neophytes the bottle was served with a little machine that siphoned the cider up a tube and sprayed it at high velocity into the glass.

The bread was served with queso de cabrales, an extremely strong, very soft cheese from Asturias made from a mixture of cow’s, sheep’s, and goat’s milk. It is potent stuff. The flavor is sour and very bitter, and causes facial contortions when ingested. I did not like it when I first tried it, during my first year in Spain, but it has since grown on me.

fabada
Mostly eaten fabada

To begin we ordered one of the iconic dishes of Asturias, fabada asturiana, a bean stew made with chorizo, morcilla, pancetta, and white beans called fabes de la Granja (“beans of the farm”). These beans are large, white, and tender, with a high fat content that makes the stew rich and smooth. The flavor—obtained from the mixing of the cured meats—is something absolutely unique to Spain, smoky, meaty, and slightly spicy. Both my visitors told me that it was their favorite dish of the whole trip.

After that we were already quite full, and not ready to face the main course: cachopo. This is a carnivore’s delight, breaded and fried pork fillet filled with ham and cheese, like chicken cordon bleu. To up the flavor, it can be dipped in the blue cheese. The description speaks for itself. We could not even finish half of the enormous dish, and ended up taking it home to eat for dinner.

cachopo
The mighty cachopo

The story continued the next day when we went to eat paella for dinner (at a truly Spanish time, 10:30 at night) at a place near Gran Vía called La Barraca. It is not the most famous paella restaurant in Madrid, and certainly not the cheapest, but I was satisfied both times I went. As a starter we ordered gazpacho, a cold soup that is one of Spain’s most typical dishes. It is made by blending raw vegetables—tomato, onion, cucumber, garlic, peppers—with bread crumbs for consistency, a bit of vinegar, and plenty of olive oil. In La Barraca the soup was served with little bits of vegetables for added texture, pleasing but not necessary. The broth is smooth and refreshing, perfect for the hot climate in which it originated (it is from the arid south).

paella
Paella with the crisped bottom, called “socarrat.”

The main course was, of course, paella. We opted for the most “traditional” kind, paella valenciana, or Valencian paella. In addition to the usual paella ingredients—medium-grain rice, onions, garlic, tomato, paprika, saffron, rosemary—this variety is made with chicken, rabbit, flat green beans, and big butter beans. (It is also sometimes made with snails.) Few things can beat the rich, special flavor of this king of Spanish cuisine.

The next day we went to Toledo, and took the opportunity to try some migas, a dish typical of Castilla-La Mancha. Literally the name of this dish means “crumbs,” and it is appropriate. Migas are made by soaking a stale baguette in a little water, and then crumbling it. Meanwhile, in the same pot and the same oil you fry chorizo, pimientos, and garlic, which are then removed and set aside. Then the crumbs are fried in this flavored oil until dry and crispy, and finally all the ingredients are mixed. Often it is served with a runny fried egg on top. The dish certainly won’t be winning any health food awards but, when made well, it is a soul-satisfying experience.

migas
Homemade (not by me) migas

The next day we went to the Casa Mingo. This is a famous Asturian restaurant that is a bit far from the usual tourist hangouts. But the place is worth visiting, not only for the food, but because it is next to the Hermitage of San Antonio de la Florida. This is now a small museum, free to enter, that contains the tomb of Goya. The ceiling is covered in frescos by Goya himself; the central dome depicts the legend of Saint Anthony reviving a dead man, and can be inspected without neckpain using mirrors.

polloasado
Chicken in the roaster

The restaurant, founded in 1888, is itself a historical building. The walls are full of bottles of Spanish cider, and barrels of the stuff (probably empty) adorn the other side. The menu is simple: a little plastic card with Spanish and English on one side and German and French on the reverse. As an appetizer we ordered Spanish tortilla, one of my favorite Spanish dishes. Do not let the name deceive you: it has nothing to do with Mexican flour tortillas. Rather, it is a kind of omelet made with eggs and potatoes, fried into a little cake with onions and salt. Few things in life are as comforting as a well-made tortilla.

The dish that the restaurant is most famous for is the roast chicken, which is cooked in multi-level rotisserie ovens. The meat is juicy, the skin crisp and lightly seasoned—simple, hearty, and good. I should also not omit to mention the restaurant’s croquettes, which are among my favorites.

tortilla
Spanish tortilla

By this time you might think that we’d had enough. But we continued the next day by eating Madrid’s classic dish: cocido madrileño, which might be translated as “Madrid stew.” For this we went to La Cruz Blanca Vallecas, perhaps the most well-known cocido restaurant in the city. It is somewhat far from the center, but very popular among Spaniards, so reservations are required.

While all part of the same dish, cocido madrileño is normally served in multiple courses. This is because the dish contains multitudes. First a variety of Spanish meats are boiled in broth: chicken, ham bones, pancetta, cured chorizo, morcilla, and lard. The concoction is boiled a long time, perhaps overnight. Indeed the dish owes this preparation to its history, for it originated among Jewish communities living in Spain, who needed long-cooking dishes in order to eat hot food during the Shabbat. In any case, as you can imagine this process instills in the broth a tremendous flavor. Later, vegetables are added to the mix—carrots, potatoes, cabbage—as well as garbanzo beans, all of which is boiled into very soft. Finally, all the ingredients are removed from the broth, and fideos (small noodles) are added to cook.

jay_cocido
A plate of cocido next to my brother, to show the scale

The first course of the meal consists of a bowl of the broth with these noodles. Though no different, in theory, from canned chicken-noodle soup, the broth is so exquisite that the soup must be savored. Then the plate of meat and vegetables arrives. Everything is suffused with a deep, savory flavor, transforming even the cabbage into a meaty delight. We ordered for two people, but the dish had enough food for six. We barely made a dent in it and took the rest home. I still have several portions left in my fridge, which I plan to eat for lunch.

On my brother’s last day we went to El Escorial. After visiting the monastery, we went to a Spanish fusion restaurant named Ku4tro. There we ordered pulpo a la gallega, or Galician-style octopus. This is another of my favorite Spanish dishes, which I make sure to order whenever I am in that verdant province. After being properly prepared, the octopus is boiled in a copper kettle, then dried, boiled, dried, boiled, dried, until the rubbery texture is almost entirely smoothed away. Then it is served over boiled potatoes, drizzled with olive oil and topped with paprika and salt. The meat is tender and lean, and retains its oceanic freshness of flavor.

pulpo

Thus concluded by week of binge-eating. I am still ready for more.

As I hope you can see from this list that Spanish food is not at all like what Americans are accustomed to. The Spanish philosophy of food is simple preparation with high-quality ingredients. Strong spices and sauces are avoided; the point is to taste the purity of the meat, fish, vegetable, or what have you. This is one reason why Spanish restaurants are not common in the United States, since it is impossible to reproduce the flavors without the right ingredients. What is fabada asturiana without real Spanish chorizo, paprika, and beans?

This is also why many Americans—myself included—are initially put off by it. The simplicity and relative mildness can strike us as unimpressive. And truth be told there are lots of very mediocre restaurants in the country, serving ill-prepared dishes. But once you know what to look for and what to order, as I hope I have finally begun to do, the country contains a wealth of gustatory delights whose textures and flavors are unlike any you can find in other parts of the world.

Now, if you excuse me, I need to lie down.