Europe is home to some of the best cuisines on the planet and while revisiting Europe this summer, we were reminded of just how important the cuisine of a destination is to complement our adventures and activities. This past month we’ve enjoyed tasting Greek cuisine (again) and are relishing the fine French food in southern France, and when planning our upcoming coverage from our summer in Europe, we thought we’d start with rounding up Spanish food and why traditional Spanish dishes are some of the best you’ll come across.
Spanish foods harbor just the right amount of sophistication to go alongside what are otherwise simple dishes. The regional variety means that your travels will always come with something new to try, with fresh farm-to-table or ocean-to-plate cuisine readily available.
The variety of Spanish cuisine separates it from its neighbors, particularly Italy and France. From Valencia on the east coast to the Basque Country in the north, you’ll never grow bored. Whether it’s fish, zesty soup, or delightful tapas.
Traditional Spanish Food
We have spent quite a bit of time and Spain and really fell in love with Spanish food. The zest for eating in this country is contagious. Every meal is an event. From the most famous dishes to the lesser-known ones, there is no doubt in our minds that you will also come to have the same appreciation as we do for food in Spain.
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Whether you tackle some of these at home, take a Spanish cooking class, or jump on one of the famous Spanish Food tours while you are in the country, you won’t be disappointed. These are our favorite Spanish Foods that we think you have to try at least once.
1. Seafood Paella
Paella is at the forefront of Spanish cuisine. For many Spaniards, this delicious meal is the national dish. Paella has a long history, having originated in Valencia before gaining popularity, eventually spreading through the country and indeed the world. Want to try to make Spanish paella at home? Try this recipe here.
For travelers who know a little bit about Spanish cuisine, you’ll likely have come across paella previously. But like a lot of popular eats, you can’t beat the authentic version cooked up in the recipe’s original location.
If you venture to Valencia, you’ll be able to try the traditional iteration of paella, which is a mix of rice, Spanish saffron, and rosemary topped with mixed meat. This usually includes rabbit, sausage, chicken, and even snails.
But as paella’s reputation has grown, so too have the many takes on Spanish food. You’ll find vegan Paella and Paella de Marisco. The latter is the most renowned twist on the dish in the world. Essentially seafood paella, this version has grown in popularity thanks to the fresh catch from the Mediterranean. Alongside the rice, you can expect to find muscles, shrimp, fish, and even a few sliced-up chorizos.
For those following along at home, Paella is cooked in a large, shallow pan traditionally over an open fire. But a regular stove will do just fine. Be sure to use an olive oil base to give the dish its famous golden color.
2. Jamon Iberico
Did you know Spain is one of the largest producers and consumers of ham? Each year, the nation produces over 35 million hams. This figure won’t shock you once you try the cured ham dish of Jamon Iberico. The traditional Spanish dish, which is such a huge part of Spanish food culture, is one you’ll find throughout the country, with some of the most popular versions found in Madrid.
Jamon Iberico became a part of Spanish cooking in the 1400s. The simple nature of the delicious Spanish food no doubt appealed to the masses. The ham is made from black Iberian pigs found along the peninsula. It’s then salted and dried in the open air for up to 36 months to cure it before serving.
You’ll find two versions of cured Iberian ham around Spain, with Jamon Iberico being more expensive than Jamon Serrano, and higher quality. So, since you’re on the road, why not treat yourself? Due to its savory-sweet and smooth texture, it’s one of the more famous hams on earth.
Similar to Paella, Jamon Iberico is one of those amazing Spanish dishes you must try on your travels. While you can try the ham by itself, Tostas de Tomate y Jamon is a twist on this Spanish food. It’s a simple dish that involves rubbing pieces of toast laden with tomato and garlic together before soaking them in olive oil and topping it with the cured ham. You will find this in every tapas bar in Spain.
One of the most common ingredients in the best Spanish dishes, chorizo, can be found all over the world. But the sausage’s beginning harks back to 16th century Spain. Over the next five centuries, it took on a variety of flavors and you’ll now find spicy, sweet, smoked, dry-cured, and even a vegan version of the amazing chorizo.
But to get back to its roots, classic Spanish chorizo is a fermented, cured, and smoked sausage that is typically pork. It’s then chopped up, and seasoned with Spanish paprika, salt, and garlic with a splash of olive oil to taste.
As you travel around Spain, chorizos are split up into two simple groups: Picante (spicy) and Dulce (sweet). This will refer to the type of pimenton (Spanish paprika) used in the famous Spanish dish. Regardless of the type, chorizo gets its famous deep rouge color from the pimenton.
The delicate curing process plays a large role in Spanish chorizo having a mouthwatering flavor. But whether it’s been smoked or not, you’ll find it in a range of recipes, including on a Bocadillo and in Paella. You can enjoy it cold cut on a tapas or grill it up and try it alongside some authentic tomato sauce with some red wine on the side.
4. Zamburinas a la Gallega
One of the best seafood dishes in Spain, Zamburinas a la Gallega hails from Galicia in the northwest corner of the country. The town, situated on the Iberian Peninsula, may be renowned for its vast wooded valleys, wild beaches, and historic lighthouses, yet it’s the ocean that has provided the autonomous community with one of the most famous Spanish dishes.
Zamburinas a la Gallega are the famous Galician scallops hailing from the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. While there may be two types of scallops in Spain (the other is Vieiras – sea scallops) zamburinas are variegated scallops that are renowned as much for their flavor as their memorable shape.
If you know about the Way of St. James or the Camino, then you would have come across the famous shell that is an iconic symbol of the historic pilgrimage. This shell takes after the Zamburino and is the hieroglyph of the Patron Saint of Spain.
The neighboring Basque Country is also renowned for its amazing seafood. Including a spicy codfish dish called Ajoarriero. This combines cod, grated tomatoes, onion, smoked ham, and potatoes into one delicious stew.
Escalivada is one of the more common vegetarian dishes you’ll find around Spain. In such a meat and fish-centric country, this is a blessing for vegan and vegetarian travelers or anyone who just wants to mix things up. Follow this recipe to make Catalan Escalivada at home.
The vegetable-laden dish hails from Catalunya (Catalonia) and can also be readily found in Valencia, Aragon, and Murcia. Escalavida comprises grilled vegetables like eggplant, onions, and red peppers cooked to give them a delicious smoky flavor.
The vegetables are first sliced thinly, or in the case of the eggplant in thin layers. All three then swim in olive oil and sherry vinegar until each welt and soak in the flavors. Traditionally they are then roasted over a fire or BBQ grill, although wrapping each in foil and placing it in the oven is the modern preference.
After they’re cooked you can enjoy them on their own. Or rub some oil and garlic on a slice of bread and chuck the cooked vegetables on top. For some additional Spanish food culture, pair it with a few slices of Manchego cheese and a side of Cava, a Spanish sparkling wine.
You’ll also find Escavida served regularly in tapas bars, or as a side to a meat-based meal. Read more on Andulasia, with our guide to the Spanish region.
6. Gambas al Ajillo
Spain is known for its many aromatic tapas bars. On many occasions, you’ll be able to forego the main meal thanks to the many shared small plates featuring mouthwatering tiny eats that quickly add up, leaving you full and satisfied. Try making it at home here.
The tradition of tapas dates back to the reign of King Alfonso X. One time when he was recovering from a sickness, all he could muster was small eats, and quickly, word spread.
One of the most common dishes found at the many tapas bars around Spain is Gambas al Ajillo. After wandering inside, the sweet smell of prawns sizzling on the grill floats towards you. You’ll quickly be tempted to order the easy but delicious dish.
Gambas al Ajillo essentially comprises grilled prawns, topped with chili, olive oil, and roasted garlic. The simple flavors combine to create a masterpiece that doesn’t lose its flavor the more you eat.
Gambas al Ajillo hails from the Andalusian region. Thanks to the ease of the recipe, it quickly became a must-have around Spain, which is also good news for you. I
If you ever find yourself missing Spanish cuisine, simply fire up the wok or frying pan, sizzle some prawns for a few minutes, and top it off with the aforementioned seasonings.
In the heart of winter, when the sniffles and coughs are floating around the community, tomato soups are a top choice for keeping warm and staying healthy. But in Spain, they have created a cold tomato soup as a way to stay refreshed in those stifling summer months when the old cobblestone streets disperse heat as much as the sun itself.
Salmorejo is the name of this soup and it was created in southern Spain, within the charming city of Cordoba. Tomatoes had long been a focal point in Spanish cuisine, but this unique twist lead to one of the country’s most delicious recipes.
Salmorejo has some similarities to the iconic gazpacho, but for the most part, it stands on its own. The soup comprises skinned tomatoes mixed with olive oil and garlic. Bread is then added, and the amount is used to determine just how thick the soup is. The combination leads to a wonderfully creamy flavor profile.
Common additions to Salmorejo include ham (Iberian if you’re feeling fancy), finely chopped tuna, and slices of hard-boiled eggs. You’ll find many versions served throughout Spain, and it also makes for some delicious leftovers for an easy lunch.
8. Pulpo a la Gallega
Seafood is at the heart of Spanish cuisine, but there’s one ingredient we haven’t yet talked about: octopus. For hundreds of years, octopus has been a beloved part of the local cuisine, so much so that it’s taken on the status of a delicacy. If you like your seafood, then you’ll be excited to know that few countries cook octopus as well as the Spaniards.
Pulpo a la Gallega is the common name for a traditional Galician dish otherwise known as Polbo a Feira. While the dish can be recreated at home, to truly experience the authentic flavors, you have to leave it to the masters in northern Spain.
Traditionally, the octopus is boiled in a vast copper cauldron. The recipe was refined over the years and those that do it best have the timing of the boil down pat.
This is because if you boil for too long, the octopus quickly becomes overcooked, not enough, and it remains rubbery and hard to chew. Once cooked to perfection, it is lathered in paprika and salt with a splash of olive oil. It’s then placed on a serving board alongside some bread and your choice of red wine.
Pulpo a la Gallega is so popular in Spain, that there are restaurants in Galicia that specialize entirely in it. These are called Polbeiras.
If you find yourself in a rush while traveling around Spain, then do what the locals do and get your hands on a Bocadillo. This is a sandwich and a common midday meal throughout the country. This Spanish food is a baguette-style bread loaf stocked with your choice of vegetables, meats, and cheeses to fashion a delicious, hunger-busting sandwich.
Bocadillo has been popular for centuries, as it was one food the poorest in Spain could afford. From there it gained popularity across the nation with the endless fillings, meaning you can have a different Bocadillo every day of the week.
Like a lot of sandwiches, cold-cut meats are the most common ingredient in a Bocadillo. These can include ham (of course), salami, or thin-cut beef. Add in some famous Spanish cheese, thinly cut olives, and tomatoes and you’ll find yourself in lunchtime heaven.
You’ll find this classic Spanish food in “Jamonerias” throughout the country. These delis-slash-cafes have the full range of Bocadillos. But if you can only try one, enjoy the Bocadillo de Jamon, which includes Iberian ham, Manchego cheese, piquillo peppers, and black olives and the baguette is brushed with oil and garlic.
Just like Salmorejo, Gazpacho is a cold soup. It’s another example of Spanish cuisine going against the grain. But for us travelers, I doubt we would have it any other way. Rather than your classic steamy soup, Gazpacho incorporates raw and native vegetables into the iconic Spanish dish.
While it won’t keep you warm in the winter, it’s as valuable as an ice-cold drink in the summer. The vibrant taste will fill you up and restore your energy without sapping your will to deal with the summer sun.
You may know Gazpacho to have a rich, creamy tomato flavor. But that was a relatively recent addition to the recipe. Gazpacho was first made in the Roman era, yet it took until the 1800s for tomatoes to be added.
This is another Spanish food that you won’t have trouble finding on your trip. But it’s also perhaps the easiest to make back home. Simply cut up your chosen veggies, blend them in a juicer, and use the liquid to create the soup. The longer you blend, the thicker the dish will be. Alongside tomatoes, common ingredients include avocados, cucumbers, and even some fruits like watermelon.
Afterward, top the soup off with thinly chopped tomatoes and a hearty serving of pepper.
11. Spanish Omelette
When it comes to simple dishes, Tortilla Espanola is even easier to make than Gazpacho. All you need is eggs, potatoes, and onions to create a Spanish omelette. In fact, if you want to keep it truly traditional, you can part with the onions. But we aren’t here to keep things basic, flavor is at the heart of Spanish cuisine and the simple omelette is merely the foundation of this dish.
Like many other famous Spanish dishes, Tortilla Espanola bounced onto the scene in the 19th century. It was a common working-class meal thanks to the affordable ingredients of eggs and potatoes. Today, it’s a common side dish, found on tapas, or just an easy, delicious way to start the day.
To make this beloved staple, cube the potatoes and fry them in a thin layer of olive oil. If you wish to go against the bollistas (those against onions) add them in as well. From there it’s a classic Spanish omelette dish with the addition of eggs, with the combination grilled on both sides before being sliced into bite-sized pieces.
12. Patatas Bravas
Simplicity is a theme in Spanish cuisine as much as the classic zesty flavors known throughout the world. This trend continues with Patatas Bravas, which is a popular tapas served in bars throughout Spain and one you should include the next time you host a gathering.
It took famine and starvation for European countries to begin eating potatoes, a far cry from the transcendent status potatoes enjoy today. During the 16th century, potatoes became more common in Spanish cuisine, which marked the beginning of this delicious food. Recipes then changed throughout the centuries into what we can enjoy today.
The simple tapas consists of cubed potatoes that are fried in hot olive oil. These are then placed on a small plate, with spicy sauce drizzle, salsa brava, or aioli, before being topped off with some sundried tomatoes. You can easily find them along your travels, but some of the best patatas bravas are made in Madrid.
Croquetas are another famous tapas and are balls of breadcrumbs often filled with leftovers, or a variety of meats or vegetables, with the addition of a delicious bechamel sauce. Croquetas originally hail from France and were brought to Spain during the early 19th century at a royal banquet.
The Spanish version has gone on to be a must-try tapas. With a balance of crunchy exterior and the soft, heartwarming inside the dish will make your tastebuds jump with glee. The breadcrumb exterior allows chefs to be as creative as possible and the same sense of adventure can be applied when you’re cooking at home. Potatoes are a common ingredient, but so too is ham, Spanish blue cheese, morcilla (Spanish blood sausage) along with bacalao.
If you’re up for being creative, add bacalao to your croquetas. Bacalao is salted cod that often forms the key ingredient in a tomato soup or stew. But save that for later, and place the codfish in the crumbed ball for a tasty seafood snack.
If you’ve tried and loved ratatouille, then you’ll love the Spanish version of this famous dish. While you’ll find Pisto around Spain, it’s most common in the small towns and villages south of Madrid in the region of La Mancha. Pisto is best served as an appetizer or shared plate as a warmup to the main meal, but its lively flavors have earned it a place on our list.
The foundation of Pisto are courgettes, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and peppers that are fried slowly in a bed of olive oil. Taking your time is vital to let the flavors come together. Alongside the regular ingredients, many recipes call for the addition of fried eggs or chopped-up chorizo.
One of the best versions of this Spanish food is Pisto con Huevos. Using a cast-iron skillet (if possible), fry up the onions before adding the vegetables alongside oregano, thyme, and bay leaves. Finish up by cracking open four large eggs and serving with a topping of parsley.
15. Pimientos de Padron
Set around Padron peppers, which come from the region of Padron in the northwest corner of Spain, this delicacy has a unique flavor profile and can be served in a number of ways.
It’s a dish that holds a fascination among many travelers and is beloved across Spain. This is because of the peppers’ beguiling shape. They’re small and twist their way from the top to the bottom, changing their width along the way.
The peppers may be oddly contorted, but their flavor is memorable. They are in part quite mild, yet some sections will be piping hot. This is accentuated by different growing practices that mean each pepper is not like the last. So often you won’t know how spicy your Pimientos de Padron will be until you take the first bite.
The peppers are fried in bubbling olive oil until they welt. They’re then splashed with more oil, and seasoned to taste before being served. One thing is for sure, spicy or not, there will be a plethora of flavors.
16. Burnt Basque Cheesecake
Now that we’ve covered some of the best Spanish dishes served for lunch and dinner, let’s take a look at two that are served afterward. Just like the many main meals, Spanish desserts are full of flavor.
A great example of this is the Burnt Basque Cheesecake. From the Basque Country, this dessert is famous for its crustless creamy composition. Now known around the world, if you’re traveling through this part of Spain, you can’t pass up the opportunity to try the real thing.
There’s just one place to go to try authentic Burnt Basque Cheesecake, and that’s in San Sebastian at a restaurant called La Vina. The smell of baked desserts will hit you before you enter. Then you’ll have the painful wait (just a minute or two) until you get the cheesecake in your hands.
The first bite is the most memorable, when you taste the creamy deliciousness for the first time. The good news is, that its fame has carried across the globe, and there are countless recipes you can follow back home.
17. Churros con Chocolate
The cheesecake may have taken the world by storm, but churros will always be the original Spanish dessert, although they’re just as common at breakfast. It’s a treat you’ll find across the continents and one you’ve likely tried once or twice before. But trying one on your Spanish travels is a classic experience.
The treat consists of a simple fried dough pastry. It gets its famous shape after the dough is pushed through a churrera, a star-shaped syringe. The churro is then fried until crunchy. It’s one of the most popular Spanish foods and is served alongside hot chocolate or chocolate sauce.
Another dessert to try, or even make at home, is Leche Frita, aka fried milk. Simple and sweet, the popular Spanish food is a pudding with a crunchy casing with cinnamon spread across the top.
The Best Spanish Foods
From a Spanish rice dish and tapas all the way to mouthwatering desserts, Spanish food is a culinary adventure. The simple ingredients mean it’s not just a place for adventurous foodies. Travelers who consider themselves more conservative eaters can still get in on the fun.
The many regions of Spain, with the addition of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea, provide you with an astonishing variety of dishes to try. Travelers will be rewarded by getting out of Barcelona and Madrid to see smaller villages where you can experience authentic cuisine with a healthy profile, that isn’t too heavy while remaining full of flavor.
Although the food in Spain uses a lot of vegetables, culturally the Spaniards do eat a lot of meat and seafood. For vegetarians, this can pose some difficulties at places like a tapas bar although Barcelona and Madrid have a growing list of vegan and vegetarian restaurants.