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.

Review: Cooking in Spain

Review: Cooking in Spain

Cooking in SpainCooking in Spain by Janet Mendel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are few places a New Yorker can go—especially in Europe—to find truly exotic food. Whether the cuisine is from Italy or Germany, China or Korea, Ecuador or El Salvador, chances are we have tried it—or some Americanized version of it—at least once. But, like many Americans, I was totally taken aback when I moved to Spain. The eating culture struck me as radically different; and the cuisine, if not exotic, was animated by a very divergent approach to cooking.

For a long time, I admit I was not very taken with what I discovered. Like many Americans, I am used to heavy meals with intense flavors, dishes that scorch your tongue and sit in your stomach like an iron weight, and I don’t feel satisfied unless I feel sick and slightly overwhelmed at the end of a meal. Spanish food very seldom produces that sensation. It is generally mild and relatively light. I don’t think I have ever had a dish from a Spanish restaurant I could call properly spicy, and Spanish portions are not usually large enough to produce the semi-comatose post-prandial mood that I was used to.

There are also many things that are simply not to my taste. I am not fond of tuna or hard-boiled eggs, yet nearly every sandwich in the cafeteria in my school has one—or both!—of those ingredients. And in general I cannot stomach as many carbs as the Spanish seem able to do. I am still baffled by bocadillos de tortilla—potatoes on a baguette?—even if I find them delicious; and many times I have been served a heaping plate of rice or potatoes with a side of bread (no meal in Spain is complete without bread), and wondered how Spanish people manage to stay so thin.

I am not the only American to have this reaction. Friends and family have expressed disappointment to me several times regarding the state of Spanish cookery. It is not that Spanish cuisine is bad, of course, only that Americans and Spaniards look for quite different things from food.

One major difference is that Spanish people like to be able to taste the ingredients, to savor the freshness and the quality of the individual elements of the dish, which is why Spanish cooking is often astoundingly simple and mild: both the form and the flavor of the original ingredient are preserved. Americans, on the other hand, like to transform and process ingredients beyond recognition. Another difference is that Spaniards are not so passionately fond of excess, and usually eat until they’re satisfied, not at death’s door. And this is putting aside the difference in Spanish meal times—lunch at two or three p.m., dinner at nine or ten—which I still have trouble adapting to.

Now, I should warn my American readers at this point that Spanish people are extremely proud of their food. Indeed, it seems to be the only thing about their country that Spaniards are unanimously proud of. They will freely denigrate nearly everything else—their government, their universities, their economy—but Spanish cooking is sacrosanct—¡se come bien en España!—and the quickest way to achieve good rapport is to praise the food vigorously. I would also like to mention, in self-defense, that despite some initial misgivings, I have grown to be extremely fond of Spanish cuisine—I swear!

Most cookbooks I’ve looked at—admittedly not many—don’t give an accurate idea of the food you actually encounter in Spain, presenting instead a fusion or haute-cuisine version, but this book is different. Janet Mendel is an American journalist who has been living in the south of Spain for many years now. Her cookbook is the most “authentic” book on Spanish cooking that I have come across. It begins with an overview of the different regions of Spain, moves on to Spanish ingredients, and contains over 400 recipes, as well as a glossary for food terms. The glossary is especially useful, since I’ve found that menus are more difficult to translate than poetry. (In Spanish, food words are particularly variable from country to country, or even region to region, making a Spanish-English dictionary of limited utility when faced with a menu.)

The regional overview is also valuable, for, like everything else in Spain, food can be quite specific to a location. Each major city has its own distinctive dishes; and particular cities—Seville, Logroño, San Sebastian—are famous for their food. The major axis of difference, I’ve found, is between the north and the south. Typically I prefer eating in the north—Cantabria, Asturias, Galicia, and the Basque Country—though there is excellent food to be found all over. In the south, mainly Andalusia, they tend to fry nearly everything, with the exception of the two famous liquid salads, gazpacho and salmorejo, both of which are delicious and refreshing under the brutal southern sun.

The north is far more verdant than the south, and the northern coast is at least equally as good for fishing, which means they generally have fresher ingredients. The Basque Country is the province most famous for its cuisine, and deservedly so, but I am particular to the food of Galicia. If you get a chance, perhaps when hiking the Camino de Santiago, find a pulpería, order some of the Galician octopus—seasoned with the distinctively intense local paprika—and drink the local Ribeiro wine, young and sharp red wine often served in a ceramic bowl. It is an exquisite meal.

Recipes for all these, and more—including all the Spanish classics, like my favorites, cocido, paella, cochinillo, fabadas, croquetas, and tortilla—can be found in this book, in simple and easy-to-follow recipes, along with extensive information on Spanish wines, cheeses, and produce of all kinds. Admittedly, I have not had great luck in my attempts to cook Spanish food, but this was entirely my fault. (My croquettes and my tortilla turned into mush; I am not a good chef.)

My failures notwithstanding, Mendel’s book is excellent, and almost encyclopedic in its coverage of different ingredients and types of dishes, methodically going through every type of meat and fish, including sections on snacks and desserts, with charming little vignettes along the way. She clearly knows Spanish cooking thoroughly, both the typical dishes and the meals for festive holidays, and does not dilute it or change it to cater to foreign palates.

Unfortunately, however authentic the recipe, the dish will not taste exactly right unless you buy the ingredients locally. To pick just one example, pork products play an integral role in Spanish cooking (they say it’s because eating pork differentiated the Catholics from the Jews and Muslims), and you will have a very difficult time finding true Spanish pork in New York. And this is a shame, considering that Spanish jamón is far better than prosciutto, and Spanish chorizo and morcilla (blood sausage) are wonderful flavoring agents for stews. Indeed, for my part I think Spain has the best pork products in the world, not that I would know.

As a parting piece of advice, if you go to Spain try to avoid those omnipresent tourists traps in the city center, with big yellow billboards advertising their paella. I had one of the worst meals of my life at one of these in the Plaza Mayor. You can find many excellent fine-dining establishments in Madrid. But to find more typical food, done well, look for the cheaper, less ritzy places. I can recommend the Café Melo’s—the menu has about six things, and they’re all good—and the Casa Mingo, an Asturian restaurant with famous roast chicken and Spanish cider, that’s right next to the chapel that contains Goya’s remains. And if you’re in Madrid in winter, try La Cruz Blanca de Vallecas for its famous cocido madrileño, a heavy stew of meat and garbanzos.

Well, I’m afraid that’s the best I can offer. I can only add that Spanish food may seem unpromising at first; but once you develop a taste for it and you know what to look for, it is a fascination and a delight.

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