Spain has become known the world over as a top destination for foodies. San Sebastian, famous for its elaborately styled, pint-sized bites called pintxos, is home to one of the most elite gastronomy universities in Europe. In Andalusia, you'll get a free tapa with every drink (though you can also find tapas in Barcelona and throughout Spain). And perhaps most famous of all Spanish foods is jamón, exquisitely cured ham that's like nothing you've ever eaten.
But I have to admit something. The first time I went to Spain, I thought the food was pretty disappointing. The problem was, I didn't know how or what to order. I didn't know, for instance, that in places like San Sebastian, every bar (the name for a casual restaurant) has its own specialty, so you need to know what to ask for. I didn't know about the menú del día, where you'll get two courses, a drink, and a dessert—usually at lunch time—for a single price.
This list is designed to solve that very problem for you. I've taken many more trips to Spain since, and have fallen in love with the food. There's truly nowhere in the world that can match the freshness, flavor, and creativity of food in Spain. Here's what you absolutely must eat during your trip.
I've never liked ham—not the pasty lunchmeat variety, not the big roasted and honey hams people buy for holidays in the United States. But this isn't ham. This is jamón.
Anywhere in Spain, you're likely to see patas de jamón (ham legs) hanging from the ceilings of restaurants. Jamón is cured for months or even years before it reaches your plate. It's less greasy (and so much better) than prosciutto, and there's a stunning variety of types and flavors—far more than I can go into here. Just as with wine, becoming a connoisseur of jamón takes time, but here are a few pointers to get you started.
The most common terms you'll see are jamón serrano and jamón ibérico. The former comes from a type of hybrid pig, distinct from the Iberian pig. Jamón serrano will be cheaper, but it won't have the same complex flavor as jamón ibérico.
Pata negra, or black-hoofed, jamón is considered to offer the best flavor. And for the highest quality, look for jamón ibérico de bellota. It's fed exclusively on acorns and the flavor is next to none.
When you see this classic dish at a celebration or festival, it might be served from pans as wide as a small car. Paella is a rice dish seasoned with saffron and rosemary, and usually served with beans and a variety of seafood, including shrimp, calamari, and mussels. Valencian paella has chicken rather than seafood. It's well worth your while to try both.
Migas translates to crumbs, and that's exactly what this dish is. Traditionally served for breakfast, migas consists of day-old bread soaked in water, paprika, garlic, and olive oil (also a Spanish staple).
The ingredients mixed in with your migas vary regionally. In Extremadura, they might add pork ribs and spinach, while in Aragon they might mix in bacon and chorizo. While there's no word for "comfort food" in Spanish, this is comfort food at its best.
As with migas, croquetas started out as a practical way to make use of food scraps and leftovers. Traditionally filled with béchamel and jamón, this deep-fried delight can be found all over Spain—and with a huge variety of fillings.
Chains like Croqueta y Presumida offer vegetarian options like mushroom or goat cheese and raisins, as well as gastronomic delights such as chipirón en su tinta (squid in its own ink). You can even get them in the grocery store and take them home to fry them yourself (though, speaking from experience, this is harder than you think).
Pintxos & Tapas
Tapas may be the most famous Spanish dish you'll hear about on your travels. Traditionally some small snack served on a piece of bread, they're called "tapas" ("tops") because they were used to cover the mouths of glasses to keep flies and bugs from getting in. Appropriately, then, in most of Andalusia, you'll get a free tapa with every drink. It's a great way to get a free dinner while you barhop.
Pintxos are in many ways similar to tapas. They're small, bite-sized snacks eaten as you move from bar to bar, especially at dinner time. However, this northern take on the tapa tends to be much more elaborate. Chefs take pride in the delicious and frankly beautiful concoctions they can come up with. Pintxos are not to be missed, wherever you can find them.
Let's get one thing out of the way first: just about every corner of Spain guarantees some of the best seafood you'll ever eat. From mussels to monkfish, octopus to 3+ kinds of squid, you'll find the freshest catches straight from the sea even as far inland as Granada or Madrid.
But merluza, by golly, is the best. When I first looked it up in my Spanish-English dictionary it translated to "hake"—something I had never heard of. It's a type of fish whose various species can be found all over the world, though are less common along the coasts of North America.
This white fish is fresh, light, flaky, and some of the juiciest fish I've ever had. I get it wherever and whenever I can when I'm in Spain. And somehow, just about every restaurant I've been to prepares it well. This is either a testament to the incredible cooking talents of the Spanish, or to the fish itself.
This scrumptious dessert is typical of Segovia and not to be missed whenever you're nearby. This dense cake is made with flour, eggs, and sugar and covered with a layer of marzapan, an almond-based sweet typical of Spain, especially of Toledo. The treat was popularized by Frutos García Martín in the 1920s.
Salmorejo and Gazpacho
Spain is known for serving up not one, but two cold soups—and it stands to reason why. In the scorching summers of Andalusia, gazpacho and salmorejo offer up the perfect relief from the heat. Families will even bring them along in thermoses on beach days.
Gazpacho is the more famous of the two, and contains a blend of olive oil (Spanish-grown and -made, of course), vinegar, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, garlic, and onion. Salmorejo, though, is just as delicious (if not better) and offers up a less acidic alternative.
Chorizo, Txistorra, and Other Local Sausages
Local sausages are a specialty throughout Spain, especially in the north. Try as many varieties as you can while you're visiting, including the delicately spiced chorizo and txistorra (alternatively spelled "chistorra").
You can grab one of the latter wrapped in a talo (we'll get to what those are in a minute) during Semana Grande, San Sebastian's biggest festival of the year. If you can, find a plate with txistorra marinated in sidra (cider), which is typical of Basque Country, the same region from which the sausage originates. It's an incredibly flavorful combination, and can be found in bars throughout the northeast.
Other options include longaniza (similar to a hot dog in some cases) and arbiello, typical of Aragón.
View this post on Instagram
#Talos are traditional #Basque corn pancakes similar to Mexican tortillas. Watch how they're made at #semanagrande in #sansebastian this week. Just head to the Parte Vieja to order one with #txistorra, bacon, cheese, chocolate -- or all of the above! #basquefood @bculinary @sansebastiantourism @basque.country @bascomania @go.basque @hellabasque #foodie #foodiegram @buzzfeedfood
A post shared by Let's Travel Spain (@letstravelspain) on
Talos are not unlike the traditional corn tortillas found in Mexico, but they're in fact a food typical to Basque Country that comes out a little thicker and more sturdy than a Mexican tortilla. They're cooked on warm metal burners and eaten with a variety of toppings, from savory regional sausages to chocolate.
When I recommend morcilla to people, I usually suggest they try a bite before I tell them what it is. Since I don't have that luxury here, I'll simply insist that morcilla (a type of blood sausage—there, I said it) is the first thing I order on any menu. It's spiced, savory, and complex.
The variety of morcilla from Burgos comes packed with onions, rice, and lots of deliciousness. Types of morcilla that you find in more southern areas such as Extremadura or La Mancha are more creamy, with onions rather than rice, and perhaps more similar to the UK's black pudding. Some types even include pine nuts and almonds. With all that variety to explore, no wonder I order it wherever I go.
View this post on Instagram
Fresh bacalao (cod) and a personal grill! Finished off with a salad shot. One of the best #pintxos in San Sebastián is at Zeruko #sansebastian #donostia @foodspiration_official @sansebastiantourism @sansebastiantourism @mrpintxoeuskadi @napolifoodporn @tapasmagazine #donostia #spanishfood #spain #visitspain #summerinspain @zerukobarcelona @bculinary @foodandcuisines @foodieinbarcelona @tapas_spanishtaste #foodporn #foodies
A post shared by Let's Travel Spain (@letstravelspain) on
More than almost any other Spanish foods, bacalao (salted cod) tells a story. As one of the first fishes to be salted for preservation, it was also one of the first types of seafood that people who lived in inland Europe had access to, greatly improving nutrition and health throughout Spain and broader Europe.
The fish was tracked far and wide by Basque sailors, who are believed by some to have reached the Americas (especially what is now Canada) around 500 years before Columbus.
Today, bacalao is a delicacy of Basque and Spanish chefs, who seek to bring out its unique, fresh, and subtle flavor through a variety of fascinating techniques.
If you'd like to learn more about how bacalao, in fact, has changed world history in more ways than one, I highly recommend reading The Basque History of the World or Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World—both incredible and fascinating books by Mark Kurlansky.
Escalivada is a traditional Catalan salad of grilled vegetables. It's shown above with romescu sauce, a Catalan concoction similar to aioli, at Jai Ca restaurant in the Barceloneta neighborhood of Barcelona.
This neighborhood is also famous for being the home of round, deep-fried, croqueta-like snacks known as "bombas." Make sure to pick up both of these local treats while you're there.
Churros can be found throughout much of the Spanish-speaking world, and there are a million varieties — just as there are a million opinions about which style is best. Americans may be most familiar with churros rolled in cinnamon and sugar. You won't find the cinnamon here but you may just find the sugar coating. Make sure to order dipping chocolate, which is an essential component but usually won't come with your churros automatically.
If you're in Madrid, churros at the Chocolatería San Gines is a must. It's a century old and has even been featured in some iconic Spanish literature, such as the play Luces de Bohemia (Bohemian Lights) by esteemed early–20th-century novelist, poet, and dramaturg Ramón del Valle-Inclán.
It may not be pretty, but it sure is delicious. Cochinillo asado, or roast suckling pig, is typical of Castille and especially of Segovia, where many restaurants feature it proudly on their menu.
If you've had octopus before and found it rubbery and bland, I get that. But if you haven't had it in Spain, try it again.
For some miraculous reason, you can find beautifully cooked octopus, or pulpo, everywhere in Spain. Perhaps because so much of the food here is as fresh as possible, perhaps because it's so often lightly dusted with local paprika and sauteed in local olive oil, the pulpo in Spain is a good addition to every dish from a pintxo to a paella.
Caldos & Guisos (Broths & Stews)
Found especially in the north, stews and broths filled with hearty alubias beans and other local legumes alongside sausages, meats, and vegetables make for a hearty and comforting food. If you're in the south, you might be sweating too much to eat one of these, unless it's wintertime. But take the opportunity to eat one if you can. Just make sure to come hungry—you'll leave ready for a very long nap next to the fire.
Carcamusa is a stew-like dish typical of Toledo. It's a tomato-based sauce filled with pork and vegetables, and it's another perfect comfort food for chillier days. Toledans are particularly proud of this dish and it's a must-have during your visit. Luckily, Toledo has enough hills that you should be able to walk off the post-carcamusa sleepiness pretty quickly.
While you're in Toledo, don't miss the marzipan, either. This sweet almond confectionary is a local specialty, and there are shops everywhere. The almonds, of course, are grown in Spain.
It would be an absolute shame to visit Spain without stopping by at least one market. (Particularly enchanting are the small-town affairs with all-local producers.) And it would be a shame to visit a Spanish market without sampling—and subsequently buying huge blocks of—one of the most delicious of all Spanish foods: local cheese.
Asturias and Basque Country are particularly known for their varieties of blue cheese, which can range from mild to incredibly pungent (for the bold). Cow's, sheep's, and goat's cheese are all on wide display throughout the country, and if you're lucky, the market vendor will actually be able to point out the nearby mountain where he makes it.
The most famous of Spanish foods: the Tortilla
If you love Mexican food (and who doesn't), you may think you have an idea of what a tortilla is. Throw that out the window when you visit Spain. The typical tortilla here is an inch-thick concoction of eggs and potatoes. It's a simple dish and a fundamental part of Spanish cuisine. You'll find it at almost every bar, and you can even find it served on a sandwich.
The tortilla is a great option for vegetarians visiting Spain. If you're looking for something even simpler, try the tortilla francesa, which lacks the potatoes. Why is it called the "French tortilla," as the translation reads? The story goes that during the siege of Cadiz and San Fernando by Spain in 1810, people suffered hunger and weren't able to acquire potatoes—so had to make their tortillas in a different way.
No trip to Spain is complete without enjoying the incredible breadth of Spanish cuisine. The food is locally sourced, fabulously fresh, and made with pride. There's no better place to travel for foodies.