What comes to mind when you think Spanish food? Delicious salsa? Guacamole atop sizzling pepper fajitas? Some cold margaritas or tequila and lime? Well that in fact is Mexican food. In turns out not all Spanish-speaking countries have the same cuisine, and oddly enough if you ask for a tortilla out here in Spain, you’re actually in for an omelet.
After four months of Spanish breakfast, lunch and dinner, I have to say I’ve still got mixed feelings on the subject. Go to the right place and you’ve got yourself a plate of gourmet cheeses, seafood and other tapas, a generous pitcher of thirst-quenching sangría, and delectable desserts that are so rich you understand why the Spanish siesta after lunch. On the flip side, there’s very little variety and close to zero use of spices, so if you don’t have the greatest ingredients or recipe, you’re going to feel like you’re eating in a school cafeteria. I’ve paid good money at restaurants to eat the exact same mass-produced dish served at my residencia the night before.
But let’s start with the good: tapas. Tapas were the greatest idea that never made it to college towns in the States. They are literally complimentary appetizers that come with your drink and while there are several floating myths behind the origins of tapas, one I quite like is that tapas were originally meant to ensure that you always had something in your stomach when you were drinking. Smart, no?
Now, if I could sum up the rest of Spanish food in 3 dishes it would be jamón (ham), paella, and churros and chocolate:
1. Jamón is in everything. No literally, chopped up in my bowl of peas everything. You will get different cuts of pig for every slab of meat, in every sandwich, and on plate after plate of tapas. The chips here even come in, you guessed it, jamón flavor. And the person checking out in front of me at the grocery store will typically have two sausages, maybe a baguette, and then packs of bacon bits. It will forever be a mystery to me how on earth these people are not yet as obese as us.
2. Paella is to die for! Gooey melt-in-your mouth rice. Fresh seafood straight from the coast. Steaming vegetables. Oh, and your shrimp will probably still be looking at you in the eye. (Ok it’s actually not that bad, but I myself sure had a hard time trying to get any meat out the damn thing still in its shell.)
3. Churros and chocolate. Need I say more? Use your rich cup of melted chocolate to dunk your fried friends in and then drink the remainder! In Madrid there’s a famous churro joint called Chocolatería San Gines that’s open 24 hours, strategically placed next to one of the most popular clubs so you can get your fix before you go home in the wee hours of the morning. Success.
A cute quirk I like about Spanish food establishments is that you can tack -ía onto just about anything. Commonly you’ll find cervecerías which serve cerveza (beer), and cafeterías which serve café, but you can also find a chupitería (chupito is Spanish for shot) or a champagnería which only serves shots or champagne, respectively.
Speaking of drinking, the culture of imbibing over here is not too shabby. Akin to the majority of Europe, wine is often literally cheaper than water here. You can find a glass for as little as €2 to €3 in most establishments, and bottles run about the same in most liquor stores. Yes we have “2 Buck Chuck” at Trader Joe’s back in the States, but after that the cheapest bottle you’re likely to find is at least $7. Here the question is: ‘Should I go for the €1.50 or €1.65 bottle? Or, should splurge and go for the €3.50 brand!’ In addition, much Spanish business capitalizes on unbelievably cheap drinking – pick up a bucket with five bottles of beer at La Sureña, get a large beer and mini sandwich for €1 each at Cien Montaditos on Wednesday nights, or find a promoter outside almost any bar or club in the center of the city and enjoy a free shot or small drink just for walking in the door.
Famously, we also boast the much beloved pitcher of sangría and the less well-know agua de valencia. It’s cute because it’s not actually agua, but moreso a mimosa. With vodka. Oh Spain :) Still, the one thing I can’t stand is that you will hardly ever find more than one beer on tap. And 99 percent of the time it’s Spain’s Mahou or Cruzcampo, the two least flavorful brews you’ll probably find in Europe. Would it kill you to import something from your neighbors in Belgium or Ireland?
Eso es my experience with Spanish food. Though I can’t wait to finally have my own kitchen again and try my hand at some of these dishes, I gotta say a trip to T.G.I. Fridays recently reminded me that I miss the hell out of American food, too. And no, that does not just mean a stereotypical cheeseburger with fries. A thick piece of turkey or juicy barbecue steak would do plenty nicely to give me a much needed break from jamón right about now.
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