From tapas served with drinks to desserts and breakfast, you’ve got the gastronomic part of your journey to Spain covered with this basic Spanish Food Alphabet!
First of all, let’s sort through a couple of terms. Tapa is a dish served with a drink. The word “tapa” stemmed from the verb “tapar” meaning “to cover,” as a tapa was originally placed on top of the glass to keep bugs away from the drink. Another version is that dining places started serving food with drinks to prevent workers from getting too drunk on their lunch break. No matter what their real origin is, tapas are a genius invention!
So, when you order a drink, you automatically order a tapa, which can be anything from a small appetizer to a full lunch of a small steak and a side dish. If you don’t want to guess, take a look at the menu by asking for carta.
If you want to make sure the food they bring you will satiate your hunger, order a menú, a full meal of two or three dishes: a soup or a salad and a meat-based second and/or third dish PLUS a dessert, a glass of wine/beer and bread!
- Aceitunas (pronounced ah-say-TOO-nahss) is the Spanish for “olives.” Is there anything more Spanish? You’ll often get a small plate of olives (always with pits) served with your drink for free.
- Arroz con leche is a sweet and creamy rice pudding that is very common in Spain. It is sometimes seasoned with lemon zest, but only slightly, and topped with ground cinnamon.
- Bocadillo is a baguette sandwich, but there are local peculiarities to it. Most often it is very basic, with few ingredients: bocadillo de jamón=baguette+ham, bocadillo de tortilla=baguette+omelet, and nothing else. If you want something fancier, ask for it specifically, e.g.: con tomate, por favor! If you want a plain sandwich, ask for it using the English word, and - voila! - you’ll see familiar sandwich bread! If you are starving, order a bocata – a max size bocadillo.
- Calamares (you got this one, right?) can be cooked a la romana (deep-fried) and served with alioli. Or you can try bocadillo de calamares (bocadillo is the Spanish for sandwich, remember?) - it is especially good as a late-night snack.
- Chorizo is a pork sausage that is well-loved around the world and borrowed into various foreign recipes. You must know it, too. What you should try it choriza a la sidra, or chorizo cooked in cider.
- Crema catalane is crème brûlée, only Catalonian. Literally. The same custard hidden under crunchy caramel.
- Croquetas are not for those who count calories! These are balls of thickened béchamel sauce and cut-up jamón (you’ll find an entry about it below) coated in breadcrumbs and fried. Fat c-c-combo! Jamón can be replaced with chicken or cod, but this does not make this tapa any less heavy.
- Empanada is a stuffed bread or pastry. It originated in the province of Galicia (north-west of Spain). Most popular fillings are tuna, egg, or chorizo.
- Ensaladilla rusa can be translated as “Russian salad.” It is a heavy mayo salad with eggs, carrots, pepper, tuna, peas, olives, and, probably, something else you can’t discern because of the rich dressing. It’s – ahem- a recherché dish, but you might like it!
- Fideuà (pronounced fee-deh-WAH) is well-known paella, only cooked with noodles in place of rice.
- Flan is a very popular Spanish dessert. You will find it on the menu at most (if not all) restaurant or cafes. Classic flan is very sweet, yet light; it consists of vanilla egg custard and caramel topping – definitely worth a try!
- Huevos rotos (pronounced WEH-bos ROH-tos) are a basic food that, despite its obvious simplicity, is very classy. Translated as “broken eggs,” the dish is a mixture of chopped potatoes and chorizo (or cured pork sausage sobrasada, or cured ham jamón serrano, or blood sausage morcilla, etc.) topped with fried eggs. The right way of eating huevos rotos is to break the yolk and mix it with all the other ingredients, hence the “broken” part of the name!
- Jamón serrano (pronounced hah-MON) is a very peculiar Spanish ham – you can see whole patas (legs) of it everywhere around Spain. Kept out of the fridge, jamón is one of the staples of Spanish cuisine. Ordering jamón serrano at a restaurant will get you a full plate of paper-thin slices accompanied by bread or breadsticks. Remember: you can’t eat jamón with any sauce unless you intentionally want to offend the Spanish!
- Paella needs no commentaries. It is extremely well-known and well-loved around the world. Paella is always made with rice mixed with various spices, seafood, meats (except beef) and vegetables. Note that the paellera (a deep pan with two handles used for cooking paella) will always have some socarrat (caked on paella) at the bottom. You can scrape it off and eat after you are done with paella – it is a delicious tradition!
There are many variations of paella:
- Paella marisco is cooked with seafood: mussels, prawns, and calamari.
- Paella mixta is cooked with both seafood and meat.
- Paella valenciana is cooked with chicken, pork or rabbit.
- Paella vegetal is vegan-friendly paella with no meat at all.
Let's continue with the letter P!
- Pan con tumaca y jamón is a popular Spanish breakfast you can order at any café/bar. It a toast topped with tumaca (tomato pureed with olive oil, garlic, and salt). You can drizzle your pan with more olive oil and salt and place a slice of jamón serrano on top – your ultimate Spanish breakfast is cooked! Tip: if you are a vegan, skip the jamón step – your pan con tumaca will be just as delicious. You can order a zumo natural (natural juice) to wash your pan down with, and be surprised to get a glass of fresh orange juice AND a coffee!
- Patatas bravas is a vegetarian dish that will leave no meat-eater indifferent: chopped potatoes are fried and coated in a spicy tomato sauce! Yum! Or try patatas alioli – it is cooked in the same way, but coated in a garlic mayonnaise sauce alioli.
- Pimientos de padrón is a fun tapa for the risky ones! Small green peppers are covered in coarse salt. They say, 20% of the peppers are extremely hot, so take a bite and see which one you got!
- Pulpo a la Gallega is an absolute must-try for seafood lovers! It originated in Galicia – the seafood capital of Spain. This tapa consists of just pulpo, which is the Spanish for “octopus” – boiled, sliced, and sprinkled with salt and paprika. Pulpo a la Gallega is often served with boiled potatoes on the side. However, if you do not like the bright purple color or the sight of suckers on your food, you might not like the dish.
- Queso Manchego is a regional variant of cheese cooked in La Mancha. It is made from sheep milk and comes in 4 “ages”: soft fresco is aged 2 weeks which is aged only 2 weeks, then goes semicurado, curado, and, finally, viejo, which is firmest and sharpest, and also the best.
- Queso y membrillo is a sweet-and-tart dessert of soft cheese slices topped with dulce de membrillo, which is a kind of thick jellied marmalade made from quince fruit.
Sobrassada is a sausage spread that originated in the Balearic islands. It is made with pork, paprika and a variety of spices, spread on a baguette and topped with - prepare to be surprised! – honey!
- Tigres have nothing in common with tigers, which is the literal translation of the Spanish word. They are shelled mejillones (mussels) mixed with a béchamel sauce and put back into their shells, topped with breadcrumbs and fried. Sometimes shrimp, jamón, peppers, onions, and other ingredients are involved.
- Torrijas are made from stale bread, and yet, it is a surprisingly delicious dessert. In Spain, it is customary to buy fresh bread for dinner every day, and torrijas originated as a solution for the problem of dealing with bread leftovers. They are sliced, soaked in milk or wine seasoned with honey and spices, dipped in beaten egg and fried in olive oil. Cooked torrijas are coated in cinnamon sugar.
- Tortilla is the apogee of basic food. Also known as a Spanish omelet, it actually consists of chopped potatoes and beaten egg mixed together, seasoned with a pinch of salt and fried in olive oil. Tortilla is usually big, so if you are ordering one, make sure you have somebody around to share it with! Or go for a bocadillo de tortilla, which is a slice of potato omelet in a baguette.
We hope this basic food alphabet will help you have the most delicious Spanish meals only! ¡Qué aproveche!