The Foods of Spain

by Gray Cargill on September 5, 2011

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One of the joys of traveling is trying new foods, the local specialties. Some people, of course, are more adventurous than others. You won’t catch me eating bugs or fried rats just because that’s the local specialty. But I do like to experiment a bit with the local cuisine. Which of Spain’s specialties did I try?


Churros are basically long, thick pieces of fried bread, crispy on the outside, that kind of look like giant french fries. I tried churros my first morning of arrival in Madrid. It was poor timing on my part, because I hadn’t slept all night and was feeling out of sorts. The idea of rich, thick chocolate made me feel a little nauseated, so I got the churros without the chocolate. Big mistake. If you’re going to try churros, do so with the chocolate. Otherwise, there’s not a lot of flavor to them. I’m not a big fan of fried bread, anyway. I didn’t care for beignets in New Orleans, I don’t eat fried dough at the county fair, and I won’t even try beaver tails in Canada. So you can imagine what I thought of the churros. It kept my stomach from growling, that was about it.

remains of paella

Forgot to take a picture of my paella until it was almost gone


Paella is a rice-based skillet dish. The rice tends to soak up the flavors of the other ingredients, which can include seafood, chicken, vegetables, beans, and spices, like saffron (which turns the rice a yellow color). I found a restaurant in Madrid near Plaza Mayor that served individual skillets of paella, which thrilled me. I had been afraid I would not be able to try paella because of the usual size of it (I’m a light eater). I ordered the mixed paella, meaning it came with both seafood and chicken.

This would have been a thoroughly delicious and enjoyable meal if it weren’t for one little thing: The shrimp in the paella were whole–meaning the heads and tails were still on them. I was a little disconcerted by this, but told myself it was okay, I’d just cut the heads and tails off myself. It would be fine. And it was, until I felt something round and hard in my mouth and thought it was a caper, only to realize it was a SHRIMP EYEBALL. GAH! It was all I could do to keep from spitting it across the table. I found myself flailing around, wondering how I could delicately extract it with my fingers without people at neighboring tables seeing me do so or whether it would be okay to spit it into my cloth napkin–both of which seemed rather low-class. But there was no way in hell I was swallowing a shrimp eyeball. Note to self: Never, ever, ever eat anything that still has the face on it.

Still, I managed to eat almost all of the paella, so regardless of the shrimp eyeball, it was very good.

Ensalada mixta

Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t order vegetables in Spain. Ensalada mixta, or “mixed salad,” became my go-to meal of choice when I wanted something healthy that included vegetables. This is a great salad that usually includes a pile of tuna in the center, along with black olives, greens, tomatoes, artichoke hearts, peppers, etc., tossed in a light vinaigrette. This is not a starter, this is a full meal. Every time I ordered this, it filled an entire plate. The thing that made it stand out to me was the tuna. I’m not usually a big fan of tuna, nor do I tend to see it in salads here in the US. But I really liked this salad.


I’ve already written about my quest for tapas–small plates of food–in Spain, without really describing the food itself. It was a mixed bag, to be frank, and completely depended on what I ordered. Without a doubt, the worst tapas choices I made all occurred during my last dinner in Barcelona. I ordered a plate of mini-chorizos (spicy sausage slices), which were presented in a very oily sauce, and portobello mushrooms with garlic and parsley. The mushrooms were very interesting at first; they’d clearly been broiled crispy and were covered in garlic, salt and parsley. Unfortunately, after the first few bites, I realized they had way too much salt on them. Between the salt and the greasy sausages, my cardiovascular system was about to stage a revolution on me. I felt terrible about not finishing my food, because I know it’s terribly rude to leave food on your plate, but I just couldn’t eat them.


A tapas dinner of calamari, Spanish omelet, and bruschetta

Spanish Omelet

The Spanish omelet is made with potato, egg, and onion. It doesn’t sound very fancy, but it’s a good, solid meal. I had the small plate Spanish omelet as one of 3 tapas items one night and almost couldn’t finish it all, because really, Spanish omelets are so dense they fill you up more than you think they will–even a small slice.

Cafe Con Leche

Cafe Con Leche means literally “coffee with milk.” But it’s not the same as simply putting a teaspoonful of cold milk in your coffee the way we do in the US.  Basically they fill half the cup with espresso and the other half with steaming milk. Mmm. Nice, creamy coffee. I’ve had this before, in Puerto Rico, and I’m a fan. Thumbs up to the cafe con leche, Spain.

Spanish beers

Naturally, I also had to try the local brews. (In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I am by no means a beer aficionado, and when I drink beer, it’s generally a light beer.) There are two prominent Spanish beers you will see in Madrid and Barcelona: San Miguel and Estrella. First I tried the San Miguel on draft at Dubliners, an Irish pub in Madrid. I liked it very much. (Much more than the disgustingly oversalted chicken curry I ordered there.) The next beer I tried was the Estrella Damm, a pilsner which was okay, but didn’t knock my socks off. It tasted very weak to me. So far, the San Miguel was winning the Spanish beer throwdown. But wait–Estrella made a comeback. Back in Madrid, I tried the Estrella Galicia–a pale lager, and a sure winner for me. I don’t think I can choose whether the San Miguel or the Estrella Galicia is the better beer, but I would gladly drink either of them again.

What didn’t I try? I’m really surprised I didn’t try ham anywhere. I think it was just an oversight on my part. It’s not like you can’t find a ham shop or a ham restaurant on pretty much every street corner in Spain. In fact, there’s a very popular ham restaurant in Madrid called Museo del Jamon, or “the Museum of Ham”. Spaniards do love their pork products.

Museo del Jamon

Museo del Jamon

Have you tried one of Spain’s specialty foods? What is your favorite and least favorite?



Gray September 24, 2011 at 11:13 am

I know what you mean, Christine. I have been to places where I thought: Am I ever going to find food I actually like here??? I imagine it must be more difficult for you to find food in various countries, being a vegetarian.

GRRRL TRAVELER September 24, 2011 at 8:38 am

After Madrid and my inability to find a tasty paella, salad that didn’t consist of more than 3 vegetables that weren’t drenched in olive oil or good tapas bar, I’m really not a big fan of Spanish food. After hitting bad order after bad order, I wasn’t too persistent. Barcelona redeemed Madrid but only because they had vegetarian and middle eastern restaurants.

Normally I like tapas though and this is a nice breakdown of the foods there.

Gray September 22, 2011 at 10:06 am

Terrific. Where in Spain are you going?

Angela September 22, 2011 at 6:19 am

Spanish food is delicious, I’ve been to Spain many years ago and absolutely loved it. I’m planning another trip soon, I can’t wait.

kma September 14, 2011 at 6:34 pm

Thanks, everyone for the great advice! Love the idea of the tapas wine tour- would be a great way to meet people and enjoy the evening as well.

Gray Cargill September 14, 2011 at 12:09 pm

@Sam – Oh, yes, Mercado San Miguel is a really pretty little market. Fun to wander around and it seemed to have lots of seating for dining. Depends on how busy it is, I suppose. I was there 1st thing in the am, so I wasn’t hungry yet. I wanted to take the tapas tour, but the one I was looking at didn’t work out (they didn’t offer it every day). But that’s a great idea.

@Mack – It’s a little confusing, no? It looks like this company is Grupo Mahou-San Miguel, founded in Madrid in 1890. I’ve had chorizo sausages before (in Puerto Rico) and they weren’t greasy, which is why this time out, it really surprised me. I think it was just the way they were prepared that I didn’t like.

Mack Reynolds September 14, 2011 at 10:44 am

This is interesting; I always thought San Miguel was a Filipino beer, but know well and good that Spain occupied the Philippines for many years. So now I’m all kinds of confused.

As for me, my favorite dish from Spain, aside from Paella was chorizo, which you didn’t particularly like. When I was little in Spain my dad bought me this bowl of chorizo soup. It was many years ago and that’s one of my biggest memories from living in Spain.

Sam September 14, 2011 at 8:09 am

@kma: Gray gave you great suggestions–I’d say if you can venture off the main spots for tapas in almost any district (esp. La Latina). Grab a bar spot and it’s perfect for a single. The Mercado San Miguel would also be on my must see list (and a great spot for food on the go)-it can be a bit packed w/tourists and may feel intimidating to try to get food but it is great to see if nothing else (I love markets though, but this is quite gourmet).

I don’t know if the timing would work out, but one of the highlights of our visit was the old Madrid Tapas and Wine Tour (go to and could be perfect for you–there was a small group w/us, all English speaking and we made some quick friends. The host loves wine and knows the city and its gems…highly recommended!

If you like art, the Prado, Reina Sofia and Thyssen are wonderful…but in 24 hours, you might be better served doing what Gray mentioned and wouldn’t want to miss out on walking the neighborhoods. You could spend a lot of time and feel pretty overwhelmed trying to pack in the museums.

We should be back there for a month in a few months, so I could tell you a lot more then but it won’t help you for now;-) Have fun!!!

Gray September 14, 2011 at 6:15 am

If you’re braver than me and speak some Spanish, you might try a tapas bar in the La Latina quarter. There are a number of restaurants off Plaza Mayor with outdoor dining (pricey, of course). I liked Cafeteria Europa, just off Puerta del Sol, next to Hotel Europa. But I don’t think I discovered any “great” places to dine in Madrid. My “must see” list with only 24 hours would be the Royal Palace, Templo de Debod, and just walking along the streets of the city. There are a number of pretty outdoor plazas–Puerta del Sol, Plaza Oriente, Plaza Mayor, Plaza Cibeles, etc. Pray for nice weather. 🙂

kma September 13, 2011 at 11:26 pm

Amazing timing. I am heading for Spain this week-San Sebastian with friends for the weekend, followed by 24 hours in Madrid on my own. Would love some suggestions of a great place to dine solo and any “must see” spots if anyone has suggestions. I basically have only one full day and night there- welcom any ideas. Am salivating now as I read about the tapas!

Gray September 12, 2011 at 4:21 pm

My goodness, that’s a lot of information, Sam! Thanks!

Renee – Oh, but you know you just have to try the beignets at Cafe du Monde, even if you know you won’t like them. It’s part of the New Orleans experience. 🙂

Renee September 12, 2011 at 10:58 am

Oh, god Gray….we have such similar gastronomic tastes. I can’t eat anything with a head or tail still on it. I wince thinking about a whole hog’s head in my local grocery’s freezer. The thing would have been staring straight at me if it still had eyes. Yuck! Also, I think Cafe du Monde in Nawlins is the biggest ripoff ever. I’m embarrassed to say that I stood in a long line in the hot summer heat to get a piece of fried (yet gummy) dough sprinkled with powdered sugar. Yes, I’m a sucker. I think you did the right thing by not eating something that would disagree with you…..if you got sick, would they really care?

Sam September 7, 2011 at 3:26 pm

Thanks for a post that has def. made me hungry! I forgot one more comment…there are lots of great veggies too and great markets with fresh foods (to help counteract the fried issue), but yes the food is so tempting you have to adopt the walking culture to help burn some of it off:-)

I forgot to attach my link in case anyone gets hungry to read more Spanish food posts: (here is one especially: And I highly rec. trying the wines! You can get a good bottle in the store for a couple Euro (no, really….tasty!) but there are as many varieties and price points as with the food.

Thanks for a great post!

Sam September 7, 2011 at 3:13 pm

Oh-you have to try the jamon (iberico bellota)-I never eat pork at home but it is the dish/obsession of Spain. Also a great country for seafood and yes, the shrimp will almost always be heads on (I’m not super adventurous but believe me the juice from the head is YUM!). They’d probably find it strange that we serve beheaded shrimp.

Also, beware of touristy paella-it’s really a Valencian dish and outside of that region isn’t always all it can be.

Other great dishes: garlic prawns (gambas ajillo), pulpo (octopus, done various ways), albondigos, cheeses such as manchego and cabra (goat) and on and on…there are so many different regions with specialties to say nothing of the modern chefs w new takes.

Can you tell I’m passionate about this?? You can see a # of food related posts on my blog too as well as attempts at finding (&making) close imitations outside of Spain.

Gray September 6, 2011 at 9:30 pm

Aww, thank you for the compliment, Bess

Bess September 6, 2011 at 1:43 pm

Hi, I’m a sort of new follower from Denver. I’ve tried a lot of those foods, but here in the States at Mexican (churros) and Spanish restaurants. I really like paella and I LOVE spanish omelets. So yummy. On another note, I just posted a “What Kind of Travel Writer” quiz I made up, and you strike me as the Writer and/or Magazine Editor. I enjoy reading your posts!

Abby September 6, 2011 at 11:07 am

Haha in Costa Rica, the kids would fight over who got to eat the different eye balls! Andalucian tapas are my weakness…

Gray Cargill September 6, 2011 at 1:22 pm

LOL. I suppose it depends on your culture. But the eyeball thing totally grossed me out.

Abhijit September 6, 2011 at 2:22 am

I am going to Spain in 3 weeks! Will definitely try this all out! 🙂

Gray Cargill September 6, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Oh, I think you’ll love Spain. Have fun!

Alouise September 5, 2011 at 9:37 pm

I love paella, but luckily I’ve never had into a problem with a shrimp eyeball… that would definitely freak me out. Still I’d love to go to Spain and try the rest of these foods.

Gray Cargill September 6, 2011 at 1:24 pm

You should, Alouise. Spain is a beautiful country even without the food, but the food definitely adds to its charm. 🙂

Lisa @chickybus September 5, 2011 at 7:53 pm

I like this post…it brought back memories of my time in Spain and all the food I ate there! I gained weight when I lived in Barcelona, by the way–which many find surprising. Part of the reason is that quite a few tapas were fried and as a teacher, I worked late. Not a good combo.

Although some of the food was yummy (my favorite on the list is the Spanish omelet), I liked it even more in Andalucia and in Basque Country. I definitely liked the paella (in Valencia), but….as you mentioned, seeing the entire shrimp can make it a little less appealing. Ick to the eyeball…yikes! 🙂

PS: Yeah, chocolate is a must with those churros! 🙂

Gray Cargill September 6, 2011 at 1:26 pm

That was my big concern with the tapas, too, Lisa. Much of it is fried, so you really have to pick and choose carefully if you want to eat healthy. I didn’t always choose wisely.

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