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