Letters from Spain #19: Spanish Eating Culture

Letters from Spain #19: Spanish Eating Culture

The next episode of my Spanish podcast is out, this one about Spanish eating culture. Here’s the link to apple podcasts:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-19-spanish-eating-culture/id1469809686?i=1000469772585

And here’s the video:

See the transcript below:


Hello,

It’s been pretty hard for me to motivate myself to do this podcast lately, now that everything is so crazy. After all, this podcast is about life in Spain, and life in Spain has basically stopped thanks to the coronavirus. The streets are empty, the cafés are closed. Here in Spain, we’re not even allowed to go on walks or exercise in the open air, unlike people are in most other countries. So I can’t say I’ve seen a lot of Spanish life lately. 

But all this isolation has given me a lot of time to think. And the lockdowns being carried out all around the world are creating rather interesting conditions to compare countries side by side. The way people will react to them is partly a result of culture, I think. To be honest, I’m quite surprised at how Spain is reacting to the lockdown. In my experience, Spanish people are being quite cooperative. The streets are mostly empty and I haven’t really seen any disobedience with my own eyes. It’s bringing out a sense of solidarity in Spanish culture that I’ve never seen before. Everyone seems quite willing to do their part. And every night, at 8 pm, everyone gathers on their balconies and cheers for the doctors and nurses. Some people are even cheering for the police!

I doubt that Americans will adjust so easily to a lockdown. Though they’re both recognizably Western cultures, I think Americans are more concerned with notions of freedom and rights than people are in Spain (where democracy is younger), and so I doubt many Americans will be comfortable with having police cars patrol their neighborhoods, giving big fines to anyone disobeying the orders. Speaking for myself, I admit that it does make me feel queasy. But maybe I’m wrong, and the crisis will bring out a sense of solidarity and cooperation in America, too. After all, I didn’t predict that Spanish people—who love going outside and being social—would adjust so easily to being inside. 

Now that we’re seeing Italy and Spain hit hard by this disease, it makes me wonder if culture has something to do with this. In this podcast I’ve repeatedly talked about the Spaniards love of proximity. This is true on every level. They like high density living, they like getting real close when they talk to each other, they like crowded bars. Spanish people just want to be close. Also, physical contact is much more permissible here, and kissing and handshaking is done ritualistically. Another interesting point to consider is that Spaniards have a lot of cross-generational contact. Lots of people live with their parents well into their twenties, and Spanish people keep in very close touch with their elderly parents and grandparents, often going to visit them every other weekend. Unfortunately, all of these aspects of Spanish culture may have made them more susceptible.

Well, in this podcast I don’t want to speculate about the virus. Rather, I want to pay homage to one of my favorite aspects of Spanish culture: its eating culture. This is one of the things from my daily life that I really miss, and I very much hope that we can beat this virus as quickly as possible, so we can get back to the good life of food and drink.

There are some obvious differences between Spanish and American eating cultures. The most obvious is probably just the schedule. In Spain, you eat late. Typical time for lunch is 2-3, and for dinner it can be from 9 all the way to 11. Another obvious difference is the quantity of food consumed in each meal. In America we have pretty big breakfasts, medium-sized lunches, and big dinners. In Spain, breakfast is usually light, lunch is very big, and dinner is medium-sized. In general, portions in Spain are quite a bit smaller than they are in the US, but that’s not saying much I suppose.

To me, the most important differences in the eating culture aren’t the times or the portions, but the restaurant and bar culture. I think Spain has a claim to having the world’s greatest bar culture, and this is for a few reasons. One reason is that there are just so many. Spanish people love being in public, and the number of eating establishments reflects that. Madrid, for example, has over 15,000 bars and restaurants, which translates to 1 for every 211 residents. This means that everyone in the entire city could literally go to a bar or a restaurant at the same time, and there would be enough space. And the city basically does do that.* On any day, at any given hour, there are tons of people sitting in bars, cafés, and restaurants.

Becauses eating establishments are so common and so fundamental to Spanish life, they have a very different aesthetic as they do in America. In America we go to restaurants or bars on weekends, holidays, or for special occasions. For this reason, they put more effort into creating a special ambience with music and decoration. Many bars and restaurants in Madrid are not like that. They are bare-boned, no-frills (as one well-known website calls them). They’re just for hanging out. A big advantage is that there’s often no music, so you can have a decent conversation. Also, the lights are usually not dimmed, so you can see the people around you. The ambience is more like your own living room. 

Another huge difference is the lack of a tipping culture. Americans don’t really realize how much tipping affects our eating experience. Aside from the simple fact of having to calculate and pay the tip—which I find pretty annoying, now that I’m used to not doing it—tipping has a big effect on the entire experience. Waiters are motivated to be ingratiating, accommodating, but also fast. They want you in and out as fast as comfortably possible, since more people in and out translates into more money for them. And they will bend over backwards to give you good service. In Spain, it’s not like that at all. Most places don’t care if you stay there all night. And getting the attention of a Spanish waiter is famously difficult. They don’t have to pretend to love you.

Personally, on the whole, I think it’s much, much better. I don’t like being rushed out of restaurants. And I find this whole ritual of deciding how much a waiter “deserves” to be demeaning. I think waiters should just be paid a living wage so they can do their jobs serving food without having to be actors, too. I can never entirely relax in an American restaurant because of the pressure I feel to finish, the constant questions of “Would you like anything else?” and “Is everything alright?” In a Spanish restaurant, you can be as comfortable as in your own living room.

Another interesting difference between Spanish and American eating establishments is that Spanish bars and restaurants can often be quite generic. Since eating out is sort of a special experience in America, we expect eat restaurant to have something special, something that sets it apart. But in Spain, where eating out is as common as eating in, restaurants can be pretty standard. I like this a lot, since you always know what there is and what you can get, no matter where you are. And it makes ordering a lot easier. For example, you don’t need to specify the beer you want. The beer is standard, and you just specify how big a glass you want. Also, you don’t need to choose the wine from an elaborate wine menu. You can just order “white” or “red” and you get the standard wine. It’s actually kind of liberating not to have to make so many choices. I’m not a connoisseur, after all.

The menus from Spanish restaurants can also be really very similar. That’s because, in Spain, the eating culture is much more based on a national tradition than it is in America. There are national dishes here and that’s what everyone eats most of the time. What sets restaurants apart is not anything special on their menu, but just the quality of a typical Spanish dish. One place might have really good paella, for example, and another place has really good tortilla. The funny thing is, if you haven’t had much Spanish food, you might not be able to appreciate the difference. But once you’ve eaten a lot of it, you realize that it’s worth looking for a really good tortilla.

To sum up, the greatest thing about Spanish eating culture is that it’s for everyone, all the time. It’s a beautiful part of Spanish life, and I think it is an important and even a fundamental part of Spanish life. I loved it before this crisis, and now that I am deprived of it I love it even more. So consider this my homage, my tribute, to a special part of the culture that I hope we will be able to return to as soon as possible.


*I made a mistake in the recorded version of this podcast, saying 1 bar per 21 residents. In reality, not every resident could go to a bar at once.

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.