We think one of the best ways to experience a country and connect with the locals is by eating! From patatas bravas to Padrón peppers and turrón to churros with chocolate, Spain knows how to pull out all the stops when it comes to delicious cuisine. Spanish food is simple and uses fresh, local ingredients, so it's no wonder dishes like paella and tapas have rightfully put the country on the world foodie map. Here's our guide to some traditional foods to try on your trip to Spain.
What is tapas?
Tapas is woven into the fabric of Spanish culture and is one of the main reasons Spanish cuisine is so famous around the world. But what is it exactly? A tapa is basically a small plate of food eaten as a snack or appetizer. It could be anything from a board of olives, cured meats and bread, garlic prawns or fried octopus. Socializing starts and ends late in Spain, so locals often order a few tapas dishes to keep going until the main meal. Sharing tapas and a few drinks with friends is also a popular way to socialize. We encourage you to order lots of tapas in Spain, as it's a fantastic way to sample as many Spanish dishes as possible, thanks to the small portion size.
Paella is probably Spain's most well-known food. This delectable, safron-flavoured rice dish originated in Valencia hundreds of years ago when hungry servants would combine rice with leftovers from Moorish kings' lavish banquets. There are different takes on the dish throughout Spain, but the mixed version with chorizo, mussels and prawns is the most popular internationally. But, if we had to recommend just one type, it’s got to be the original Valencian version with rabbit, chicken and butter beans.
A tortilla, or Spanish omelette, is one of the simplest and most authentic Spanish foods. It's similar to a regular omelette made with eggs, except it also has potato and extra virgin olive oil. A plain tortilla is delicious, but you may also like to add chorizo, cherry tomatoes, peppers or other vegetables. Tortilla is often served as part of a tapas spread and is a great option for vegetarians wanting something hearty.
3. Patatas bravas
Every country seems to have a signature potato dish of some kind, and Spain's is patatas bravas. This crowd-pleasing tapa consists of crispy, shallow fried potatoes topped with a spicy sauce made from olive oil, garlic, tomato and smoked paprika. You may also like to top it with chorizo, fried fish or aioli, because why not?
Spain's jamón, or cured ham, is pretty legendary. Much like how prosciutto is ubiquitous when you travel to Italy, you’ll see legs of salty jamón hanging at market stalls and on restaurant and bar menus all across Spain. There are two types of jamón –serrano from white mountain pigs and Ibérico (the finest and most expensive ham) from black Iberian pigs. You can eat slices of plain jamón on fresh bread as a snack or as part of a cheese board washed down with a glass of sherry.
Croquettes are another tapas favourite, especially for vegetarian travellers. These delightful fried balls are comprised of bechamel sauce enclosed in breadcrumbs with a number of fillings from beef, salted cod, ham, broccoli and goat’s cheese. They’re best enjoyed as finger food with a cold cerveza.
This comforting dish of meatballs swimming in a spicy tomato sauce always hits the spot. Typically made from a combination of veal and pork mince, albondigas are simple to make and even easier to eat, particularly when accompanied by a glass of Rioja.
7. Calamares a la Romana
There's nothing better than picking at a bowl of calamari at a beach-side bar. Made by frying tender squid rings in batter and seasoning with salt, pepper and a splash of lemon juice, it's a great dish to eat on its own or in a tapas mix.
If you can't get on board with the idea of chilled soup, just wait until you've tried gazpacho. A bowl of gazpacho is a cool solution to Spain’s intense summer heat, made by blending raw tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, onions, garlic and olive oil. Mop it up with some crusty bread drizzled in more olive oil and you've got the perfect summer meal.
Churros are Spain’s answer to doughnuts. If you’re in need of a sugar hit, you can’t go wrong with these deep-fried dough sticks. They're usually eaten for breakfast or as a sweet afternoon snack dipped in a cup of hot chocolate. Find them at open-air food stalls, bars and cafes – don’t worry about using Google Maps; the sweet aroma of fried dough will guide you in the right direction.
This delightful treat is famous throughout Spain, especially during the festive season. Each region has their own spin, but the basic turrón recipe includes toasted nuts (usually almonds, but pistachios are also common), sugar (lots of it!), honey and eggs. It can either be squishy and chewy or firm and brittle.
Does Spain have good vegetarian and plant-based options?
Vegetarians certainly won’t go hungry in Spain. And while vegans might need to do a little detective work in small towns and villages, there’s still a lot on offer if you know where to look.
You'll find vegetarian food in most bars, restaurants, cafes and markets. Major cities like Madrid and Barcelona are packed with vegan-friendly (and just straight-up vegan) restaurants. It can be a bit trickier to find vegan options outside of the big cities, so the safest option is to make the local market your first port of call in each place you visit to stock up on fresh fruit, vegetables and bread. Your local leader will be happy to help you navigate menus and find the best plant-based dining options.
When looking at local menus, keep an eye out for gazpacho, crema de verduras (vegetable soup) and basic ensaladas (salads), which are likely to be vegan. To be sure they won’t come served with meat on top (which can happen even when it isn’t listed as an ingredient), tell the waiter you want to order your dish ‘sin jamon y sin huevo’ – with no ham or eggs.