Top 10 Spanish foods – with recipes
It would be impossible to list all the tasty foods from the rich Spanish food culture – but here are at least 10 top Spanish foods you have to try.
Spanish food is often recognised as one of the top cuisines in the world, and some traditional Spanish dishes and recipes date hundreds of years. Food has become as integral to Spain as its rich and tumultuous history, with each region of Spain – once a collection of numerous, distinct kingdoms – boasting their own unique cuisines and flavours.
Each regional speciality in Spain is worth trying, and many of the top Spanish restaurants are known by the different regions they come from. In the main Spanish cities you can find Basque, Galician, Asturian and Valencian (paella) restaurants, to name but a few of the renowned regions for local food specialities.
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In bars you'll quickly find the usual top Spanish tapas all around the country, for example olives, Manchego cheese, tostadas con tomate (grated or scratched tomato on Spanish bread), pinxtos (Basque-style, mini sandwiches) or a plate of Spanish bravas (fried potato with spicy tomato sauce). While Spain's tapas are a gourment exploration in itself, here are some more top Spanish foods you have to try.
Top Spanish foods you have to try
You can find Spanish a plate of croquetas in almost any restaurant or bar, each made to the establishment's own – sometimes secret – recipe, combining ingredients such as jamon (cured ham) or bacalao (Atlantic cod fish) with béchamel sauce, which is then breaded and fried. The creamy cheese (queso) croquettes pack a smooth flavour, or try the croquettes of local sweet-spiced black sausage (morcilla) or Spanish blue cheese (queso de Cabrales) for unique Spanish flavours.
It's also a good yardstick for comparing food in Spain: the quality of a bar-restaurant can often be judged by their ability to handle the Spanish tapa staples of croquettes or bravas (Spanish potato chips). The traditional, scrubbed-down bars usually serve the best.
Make your own:
- Perfect the ham and béchamel croquette.
- Try this variation with blue cheese.
- A local recipe for mushroom croquettes.
Make your own:
- This classic tortilla recipe has detailed instructions;
- ...and this one includes photos.
- This recipe caramelises the onion for a twist.
3. Gazpacho or salmorejo
This zesty, chilled tomato soup has claimed space in supermarkets and on menus around the world, but few compare to refreshing Spanish gazpacho made with full-flavoured Spanish tomatoes. Usually eaten as an appetizer – and sometimes drunken straight from a bowl or glass – this thick soup is made from blending a whole heap of fresh tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers, garlic, onions, vinegar and herbs. It's the perfect Spanish food for summer, as well as a low calorie and healthy dish. Salmorejo is a similar Andalucian version combining pureed bread, tomatoes, garlic and vinegar – also served cold – and sometimes varied with a bit of ham or egg slices on top.
Make your own:
- Try this traditional gazpacho recipe;
- or watch a video on how to make it.
- A quick and easy salmorejo recipe.
4. Pisto – Spanish ratatouille
This vegetarian top Spanish dish is for all ages, eaten in Spain as a tapa, appetiser, a side dish to meats, or even as a meal with a fried egg on top or chorizo. It's a Spanish ratatouille of tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, onions, garlic, and of course, olive oil. The palatable competition of intense roasted flavours makes this a tasty recipe to try at home. You can find it in restaurants around Spain, and especially in the towns across the plains of La Mancha, south of Madrid.
Make your own:
- This recipe makes a vegetable-packed pisto;
- or you can spice it up with this recipe.
- Grill the vegetables for extra flavour.
5. Cured meats – jamon, chorizo, salchichón
Jamon is ubiquitous in Spain, carved thinly off cured legs of pork that you will see hanging in most bars and restaurants. Jamon is a serious business and an art in Spain, with many factors in place to determine quality, such as what the pigs are fed, the type of pig and the curing process. Jamón ibérico de bellota is the top category, where Spanish pigs (Ibérico) are free-range and acorn-fed (bellota); other types include Ibérico (corn-fed) or Serrano ham, which are typically cheaper.
Another Spanish favourite is chorizo, a cured sausage with sweet and spicy flavours, identified by its red smoked-pepper colouring. You'll also see the softer-flavoured salchichón served on mixed charcuterie platters.
Make (it) your own:
- Learn the different varieties of Spanish cured meats with this slideshow guide.
- Find out how to identify the different types of jamon.
6. Pulpo a la gallega
This boiled octopus dish gets its unique flavours from maceration in three simple ingredients: paprika (pimenton), crusty rock salt and a drizzle of olive oil. It's a signature Galician dish and you'll find it on the menu in many Galician restaurants around Spain, and especially in the many polbeiras (octopus restaurants) dotting the Galician region. This top Spanish dish is usually served with a potato or two, on top of a wooden platter.
It was traditionally cooked at fairs in copper cauldrons, which supposedly gave the octopus a unique taste that couldn't be achieved with other ways of cooking. You can still see this fair-style cooking in some places, such as in Lugo where the dish is the celebratory food for the fair of its patron saint (San Froilán).
Make your own:
- Try this traditional recipe with fresh octopus;
- or use frozen octopus instead.
- Watch a video for preparing the dish.
7. Spain's famous bean stews – and salads
Spain is home to a wide variety of unique beans and legumes, and certain regions are famous for particular types and dishes, for example the large white kidney beans from the Asturias region (Faba Asturiana), where these tender, creamy beans are key in the local bean stew Fabada Asturiana. The Basque town of Tolosa even holds a week-long festival in November in honour of the local renown black bean, alubias de Tolosa.
Rising international demand for Spain's tasty beans has seen them become available online and in large supermarkets around the world. Spain reportedly has more than 20 bean varities, with some even having protected geographic status. Some renowned types include judion de La Granja (in Segovia, an hour from Madrid), Barco de Ávila beans (from Ávila and Salamanca, Castile-León), alubias de La Bañeza-León (La Bañeza beans, Castile-León), Lourenzá beans (from Lugo, Galicia) and Rubia de la Amuña (one of the best Spanish lentils, from La Amuña).
Around Spain you can find many regional bean stews known as fabada, which involve cooking the beans slowly with a mixture of meats – such as chorizo pancetta, black sausage and so on – depending on the region. The hearty Asturian stew, Fabada Asturiana, is one of the most widely available in restaurants across Spain and commonly eaten in winter.
A twist on this is Madrid's cocido, which adds vegetables and cabbage to a tasty mix of sausages and chic peas (garbanzos). For chickpeas, some of the best include the Blanco Lechoso (from Andalusia and Extremadura), the Castellano, a fleshy yellowish chickpea grown in southern Spain and on the Castilian plains, and the smaller Pedrosillano. The buttery fine-skinned chickpeas from Fuentesaúco (Zamora, Castile-Leon) have received protected geographic status (PGI).
Spain's beans also make flavoursome bean salads; just drizzle on olive oil, lemon, vinegar and salt to taste, alongside a hearty helping of diced garlic, tomato, onion and green and red peppers.
Make your own:
- Make the traditional fabada asturiana;
- or watch this video to guide you.
- Use chickpeas to prepare cocido.
This rice-based dish is well known internationally, although in Valencia you will find many authentic variations that equally vie for attention. Some consider this a national dish of Spain, but many consider it a Valencia dish, from where it originated and you can typically find the best paella. The most traditional Valencian paella is a mixture of chicken or rabbit (or both), white and green beans and other vegetables, but seafood is also common, where you can find an array of seafood suprises among the flavoursome rice, such as calamari, mussels, clams, prawns, scampi or fish, depending on the type you order. For the adventurous, a black rice stained by octopus ink is a must try (arroz negro), and if you find paella with less common ingredients such as eel (anguila) or duck (pato), don't miss the rare chance. Fiduea is tasty twist on the rice-based paella, as it uses a small curly pasta instead.
Make your own:
- A traditional chicken paella recipe.
- Rick Stein shares a recipe for seafood paella.
- Try a black rice paella using squid ink.
9. Fried milk
You might not find ‘leche frita' on every menu, but it is a classic Spanish dessert to try for something unique. Its firm, cool, milk-pudding centre contrasts with a warm, crunchy encasing of flour and egg, dusted with sugar and cinnamon. A similar popular Spanish dessert is torrijas, a mix between french toast and bread pudding, where large slices of bread are soaked in milk and sugar, and then lightly fried in a pan and topped with sugar and cinnamon or honey; their pudding-like consistency make them an impressive but easy dessert to make at home. If that's not on the menu, it's hard not to like the Catalan version of crème brûlée, Crema Catalana, that can be found with variations of orange or lemon zest or cinnamon in many Spanish restaurants. You'll also see many churrerías, stalls or cafes serving up thick Spanish hot chocolate and churros, a thin long donut-type pastry that you can dip in your hot drink; the thicker, less-sweet version, porras, go great with coffe. If you visit at Christmas time, the must-eat sweet is turrón, a Spanish-style almond nougat.
Make your own:
- This recipe adds nutmeg.
- Watch leche frita being made.
- A simple torrijas recipe, or try this Madrid-style recipe for torrijas.
10. Prawns in fried garlic
As in many top Spanish foods, simplicity and drawing out natural flavours of fresh ingredients are key, and this is easily seen in this tantalising yet simple dish gambas al ajillo. Small Spanish prawns are typically lightly cooked in a small clay dish of hot olive oil, roasted garlic and usually a small chilli that gives this dish a little kick. It's hard not to want this sizzling dish when the fried garlic smell hits your nostrils.
Make your own:
- Try this authentic gambas al ajillo recipe;
- or watch how to create the tasty dish.
- Mix it up and make gambas a la plancha by using grilled shrimps.
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Top Spanish drinks
There's less taboo about drinking in Spain at every meal, whether it's coffee and brandy in the morning or after lunch (carajillo), or taking a beer, wine or cava (Spanish sparkling wine) with a morning tapa, lunch or dinner. There's also a revered gin and tonic culture in Spain, where they are specially prepared.
Two Spanish favourites are the refreshing tinto de verano (‘summer wine') and rebujito (white sangria), which involve little more than mixing wines with soft drinks but create a surprisingly tasty refresher. Tinto de verano is red wine with lemon soda, while rebujito is a white wine mixed with lemonade and topped off with fresh mint, and popular at the Sevillan Feria de Abril (April Fair).
You'll, of course, see red sangria in most restaurants and sold by the litre in supermarkets, although it's not as popular in Spain as some foreigners think.
Make your own:
- A traditional sangria recipe.
- Use white wine to make white sangria.
- Mix it up with these five easy to make sangria recipes.
Read more on local and traditional foods in other countries
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Photo credit: PincasPhoto (croquettes), Tamorlan (tortilla), cyclonebill (gazpacho), The Aimless Cook (thumbnail), Hotel Gastronomico Casa Rosalia (pisto), Kai Schreiber (jamon), Javier Lastras (pulpo, leche frita, gambas), Juan J. Martinez (fabada), Evan Swigart (sangria).
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