Paella brimming with shellfish, refreshing gazpacho blended with vine-ripened tomatoes, tortilla Española laced with potatoes and paprika: If you visit Spain today, you’ll find these foods, and so much more. The country’s chefs are incorporating traditional flavors in playful new ways, making Spain one of Europe’s most exciting culinary destinations.
Tapas—the small plates commonly served at bars and restaurants in Spain—are perhaps the country’s biggest culinary export. Legend has it that the tradition began in Andalusia’s winemaking regions as simple slice of ham or cheese perched atop a sherry glass to keep out fruit flies (tapar means “to cover”). Today, Spanish tapas are more than just appetizers—they’re a way of life. Friends and family gather in tapas bars, where lively conversation and a medley of small plates serve as a prelude to the meal (or where enough of them will sometimes become the meal itself). Tapas fall into three major categories: cosas de picar, pinchos and cazuelas.
Cosas de Picar (Nibbles)
The biggest category of tapas are cosas de picar, or finger foods. This might include a bowl of warm marinated olives, a wedge or two of cheese, or slices of sausage. They might also include fritos (fried snacks) like croquettes: a fritter of potatoes and meat that’s been lightly breaded and deep-fried.
Choose your favorite olives for this recipe, in which olives are slowly simmered and served warm to bring out their flavor.
Ubiquitous in tapas bars in Spain, patatas bravas, bite-sized chunks of fried potato, are usually served with a paprika-infused tomato sauce or homemade aioli—or with both. For a different twist, try a version of papas bravas, as they’re also known, with tomato aioli.
|Homemade Quince Paste with Manchego Cheese
Once cooked, quince softens into a sweet, floral accompaniment to roasted meat and cheese. Here, quince is cooked down into a concentrated paste and paired with sharp Spanish Manchego.
The crispy, savory bites known as croquetas are enjoyed as a tapa throughout Spain. They are often made with mashed potatoes and ground or chopped meat (such as the chicken used here), and then lightly breaded and deep-fried.
|Ham and Manchego Croquetas
Croquetas likely originated in Spain as a delicious way to use up leftover meat. Croquetas de jamón are arguably the most popular; this version is stuffed with serrano ham and manchego cheese.
|Kale and Mushroom Croquetas
This less traditional but equally delicious frito is the creation of San Francisco chef Ryan Pollnow. He recommends using mixed wild mushrooms for the best flavor.
|Spicy Marinated Olives with Pickled Vegetables and Garlic
Olives are a bar-top snack almost everywhere in Spain. This memorable version, which features pickled vegetables and blanched garlic, is on offer at the Bar Mendizábal in Barcelona.
|Blistered Padrón Peppers
While padrón peppers tend to be sweet and mild, occasionally you’ll discover one that’s fairly spicy, which only adds to the fun of eating them. Serve a heap of these addictive peppers dusted with sea salt.
All over Spain, tortilla, which means “little cake,” is used to refer to an egg and potato omelet, and squares or bite-sized pieces of tortilla are a common tapa. The key to making it the way the Spaniards do? Make the eggs and potatoes properly tender and creamy by poaching them slowly in olive oil.
Pinchos (Skewered Tapas)
Pinchos (or pintxos in Basque) are a style of tapa that originated in the Basque region and often served on a skewer or toothpick. They’re designed to be eaten any time of day or night.
This pincho is one of the oldest and most iconic in Basque cuisine, and falls under the popular category of a banderilla: pinchos made of pickled vegetables, marinated fish and olives on a toothpick. Its salty-spiciness makes it the perfect kickoff to a meal, and an ideal match for an effervescent Basque white wine like Txakoli.
|Tosta de Boquerones
This dish, a creation of our test kitchen, was inspired by the pinchos of tart quick pickled onions, creamy aioli and meaty boquerones, filleted white anchovies that have been marinated in vinegar, create an unforgettable combination of flavors and textures.
Pincho, or pinchito, the diminutive, translates as ‘little thorn’ or ‘little pointed stick,’ so pincho moruno roughly means Moorish mouthfuls impaled on a thorn or skewer. These kebabs of pork marinated in garlic, olive oil and North African spices like cumin, coriander, turmeric and chili, are typical in the Andalusia region of Spain.
Cazuelas (Earthenware Dishes)
Cazuelas or cazuelitas refer not only to the kiln-fired clay earthenware pots that commonly grace Spanish stovetops and ovens, but also to the dishes that are cooked in those pots. Most of them require utensils for eating.
Albóndigas (meatballs) are also great served as an appetizer or part of a spread of Spanish tapas.
|Gambas al Ajillo
Gambas al ajillo, or “garlic shrimp,” are a popular tapa in Spain. Here, the shrimp are cooked with the heads and tails on for lots of added flavor.
|Gambas al Pil Pil
Another popular seafood cazuelita, these shrimp are cooked with chopped chili peppers.
Griddled or Grilled Spanish Dishes
Whether the ingredient in question is a humble root vegetable or a rarefied piece of seafood, the Spanish love items cooked on a flattop griddle (a la plancha) or foods fresh off an open-flame grill (a la plancha).
|Grilled Green Onions with Romesco
In the region of Catalonia, this dish is known as calçots con salsa romesco and is iconic every spring; in fact, a type of local spring onion known as a calçot is the star of an annual ritual called the calçotada. At this barbecue of sorts, the onions are grilled, wrapped in newspapers to steam, and served with romesco sauce, the nut-thickened pepper purée that is another regional specialty.
|Gambas a la Plancha
Along with paella and grilled fish, griddled shrimp are a fixture on the menu at nearly every beach restaurant up and down the Spanish Mediterranean coast. A plancha, at its most basic, is a metal surface that can be heated from below, preferably over an open fire. It has an important advantage over a conventional grill: the juices from whatever is being cooked are retained and concentrated and never drip into the fire.
|Escalivada (Eggplant Salad with Onions and Peppers)
Although escalivar means “to grill,” many restaurant cooks in Spain roast their vegetables, as it is easier and requires less attention. It’s a traditional dish of smoky grilled vegetables that usually includes eggplant, bell peppers, onions, and tomatoes.
Spanish Breads and Sandwiches
Bread is a staple at most tables in Spain. You might see it as a side to a meal, as the vehicle for ripe and juicy tomatoes, or in the form of a flatbread (coca). Sandwiches are also a staple; look for montaditos (small pieces of bread or mini sandwiches with spread on top of them) or bocadillos (baguette sandwiches).
|Pan con Tomate with Jamón
Whether it’s listed as pan con tomate in Andalusia or pa amp tomàquet in Catalonia, tomato-rubbed bread can be found on just about every Spanish menu. In San Francisco, chef Ryan Pollnow puts his own spin on it, by grilling slices of sourdough bread, rubbing them with garlic, then grating fresh tomato pulp and topping the bread with slices of luxurious jamón Ibérico.
|Flatbread with Chard and Manchego
Spain’s answer to pizza is this crisp flatbread, known as a coca, baked with a variety of sweet and savory toppings. Excellent cut into small wedges and served as an hors d’oeuvre, it also makes a satisfying vegetarian supper served with a salad and a glass of crisp Spanish white wine.
|Bocadillos with Cheese, Anchovies and Peppers
For this bocadillo, look for queso fresco (fresh cheese), a mild, unaged, salty-sour cheese, at Latin American markets, or substitute feta or fresh goat cheese.
|Grilled Serrano Ham and Manchego Sandwich
A ham and cheese sandwich is hard to beat, and this Spanish-inspired version is exceptional. It features the classic pairing of Manchego and membrillo, or quince paste; any Manchego will work, but we recommend a semiaged cheese here.
Spanish Rice Dishes
Rice anchors the Spanish standout dish paella, as well as other dishes, such as the Valencian and Catalonian arroz negro, made with squid ink, or a cazuela de arroz y pollo (rice and chicken casserole).
|Paella a la Valenciana
You might be surprised to hear that paella isn’t found widely across Spain; it’s actually primarily found in the Valencia region. There, classic paella isn’t made with seafood, but rather rabbit or chicken and green beans.
|Paella with Chorizo and Seafood
Chock-full of three kinds of seafood—shrimp, clams and mussels—plus spicy chorizo, this seafood paella will satisfy a hungry crowd.
|Arroz de Bogavante
This lobster and rice dish comes from America’s most famous Spanish culinary ambassador, José Andrés, and is a spin on the giant paella he helped his father make growing up.
Paella is an endlessly customizable one-pot Spanish dish, so feel free to substitute chicken or any seafood you like in place of the clams, shrimp and chorizo in this recipe.
The country has countless other specialty dishes; many will vary from region to region, as some are iconic to the Southern region of Andalusia, while others might be signature to the mountainous region of Castile-Leon. Some are raciones, or shareable portions of food; others are plato principales, and are the equivalent to a main dish. Some are popular home dishes, while others can easily be found at most restaurants.
In Spain, gazpacho—a refreshing Andalusian tomato, garlic and cucumber soup made with olive oil, bread and sherry or sherry vinegar and served chilled—can be served as a starter, a main dish or a tapa.
|Roasted Red Peppers with Oil-Cured Anchovies (Pimientos Riojanos)
Sweet red peppers—jarred, stuffed, or topped—are a hallmark of Basque cooking. In this recipe from chefs Alexandra Raij and Eder Montero, they’re flavored with garlic and served alongside oil-cured anchovies.
|Catalan-Style Stuffed Squid
Along with bell peppers, eggplant and turkey, squid is one of nature’s most obvious candidates for stuffing. The tubular, pocket-like shape of the calamari simply cries out for a tasty filling.
|Escarole Salad with Salt Cod, Anchovies and Olives
This is a take on xató, a Catalan sauce of almond, hazelnut, breadcrumb, vinegar and peppers that’s often served with an endive salad prepared with anchovy, tuna and salted cod.
|Peppers Stuffed with Salt Cod
In this Basque version of salt cod–stuffed peppers, the peppers are bathed in a mild tomato sauce. Poached fresh cod can be used in place of the salt cod.
Fino-Steamed Mussels with Chorizo and White Beans
In this recipe by chef Ryan Pollnow, Spanish chorizo is used to enhance naturally lean mussels.
Although migas (“crumbs”) are the humblest of foods, they’re a favorite of Spaniards. This dish, which is popular for breakfast, was invented by the shepherds who roam the plains of Castile with their flocks, making good use of less-than-fresh bread for a rustic meal cooked over an open fire.
Fricandó, a Catalan braised beef and mushroom stew traditionally made with mousseron mushrooms, will perfume your kitchen with the delightful fragrance of autumn woods and damp earth.
Sopa de ajo—garlic soup—is a classic of Castilian cuisine, and it’s famously restorative, known for warding off colds and flu.
This spinach recipe from chef José Andrés includes diced apples, raisins and pine nuts in the style of how it’s made in Catalonia.
|Artichokes with Almond Sauce
This simple stew, flavored with serrano ham and thickened with blanched almonds and country bread, is yet another way to use artichokes when they’re in abundance. Use the small, tight, pale green ones if you can find them.
|La Rioja-Style Potatoes
Patatas a la riojana, a hearty mixture of potatoes and chorizo, is one of the signature dishes of La Rioja, a wine-growing region in northern Spain, where it is traditionally cooked in an iron pot over an open fire.
Few countries have shops dedicated to dessert the way the Spanish do, from pastelerias (pastry shops) to xurerrias (churro shops!). If you’re making a Spanish-inspired meal, end it on a sweet note with one of these dessert ideas.
|Classic Crema Catalana
Crema catalana is traditionally cooked on the stovetop and thickened with cornstarch.
|Churros with Hot Chocolate
Chocolate con churros, as this dish is known, is a popular breakfast, late-afternoon pick-me-up, or late-night snack in Spain. Thick, rich hot chocolate, with a texture somewhere between a drink and a sauce, accompanies these crisp deep-fried churros, and is perfect for dunking.
Our recipe for crema catalana featured here shows the innovative side of Spanish cuisine. The creamy custard is piped into glasses using a whipper, producing a dessert that is lighter than air.
Spaniards love their drinks as much as their food. In addition to white wines like Verdejo and Txakoli and famous reds such as Rioja and Ribera del Duero, wine-based drinks like sangria and vermouth are popular. And let’s not forget the unofficial cocktail of Spain, the gintonic.
One unexpected drink that’s big in all of Spain? The gin and tonic, which the Spanish refer to as a gintonic. Learn more about what it’s the country’s national drink.
Sangria—a mixture of dry wine, fruit, liquor and sugar—just may be the best “wine cooler” you’ve ever tasted, and it’s fun and festive to serve to friends.
This refreshing sangria combines white wine and passion fruit juice with grapes, pears and litchis, a delicately sweet fruit that originated in China.
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The only thing missing is the obligatory accidentally-posted-on-the-wrong blog political screed.
Spanish tapas are more than just appetizers. They’re a way of life.