How Does Spanish Food Vary Around the Country?
Spain is so rich with regional diversity that each city can feel like you’re in a different country. And this applies especially to food.
Regional specialities vary wildly around Spain. And even the eating culture can be quite different, especially with the region or city’s approach to tapas.
How Does Spanish Cuisine Vary Around the Country?
Spain has a lot of coastline, but also a lot of cities that are nowhere near the sea. Until rail (and later air travel) brought express fish deliveries to Madrid, central Spain’s cuisine was dominated by meat, not seafood.
Even among seafood, you have a big difference between the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts. Fish from the warmer Med is best deep fried, while cold water fish in the north of the country tend to be cooked ‘a la plancha’, on the hot plate.
And it’s not just the use of fish and meat that varies around Spain. The east coast of Spain is most famous for its rice dishes (not just paella), the Basque Country is known for its inventive pintxos and steaks while Andalusia has a whole host of local specialities, such as gazpacho and migas.
To tapear or not to tapear?
Tapas is as intrinsic to the world’s perception of Spanish culture and flamenco and bullfighting. But tapas varies hugely throughout the country: in some cities, it is virtually unheard of, while in others it has risen to a gourmet high art and in a select few you get given food for free!
Over the next few pages you’ll find my advice on what – and how – to eat in each of Spain’s most popular cities
Catalan Cuisine in Barcelona
Barcelona is a, shall we say, difficult place to eat in, particularly for a visitor to the city. Many of the best places have closed down over the years to be replaced by tourist joints that aim to make a quick buck at the expense of good quality, knowing you’ll likely never come back.
But if you do find a good traditional restaurant in Barcelona, such as La Cova Fumada in Barceloneta, what should you eat?
What is traditional Catalan as opposed to Spanish cuisine?
Traditional Catalan Dishes
Pan con tomate (tomato-covered bread),calçots (a type of spring onion or scallion) and sausages (cured and not cured) are all popular in Catalonia.
In the picture above you see a few popular dishes: esqueixada (salted cod), artichokes, botifarra (more like sausage meat as you might have in the UK or Germany than the cured chorizo you expect in Spanish cuisine) and squid in the background, all washed down with vermouth!
Taking its cue from French cooking, Catalan cuisine also has a strong emphasis on sauces.
Tapas Culture in Barcelona
Barcelona doesn’t really have a tapas culture in the truest sense of the word: a very small serving of food to be eaten with your drink.
However, raciones, basically large tapas intended to be shared, are common and, if you’re eating in a group, indistinguishable from the classic small bites idea. The good tapas tours in Barcelona (such as Food Lovers Company), are really offering you raciones.
But that’s fine: in fact, it’s better than you’ll eat at most centrally located tapas bars that cater for tourists and mass tour groups and are avoided by the locals.
See also: Spanish Ham (Jamón) Tasting in Barcelona
So What’s Eating in Barcelona Like?
Despite what the tiresomely parochial Catalan nationalists claim, there isn’t any difference between how the Catalans and the Spanish eat. It tends to be raciones and menus del dia like in the rest of the Spain, with a lower emphasis on tapas.
Whatever you order, don’t forget to get a portion of pan con tomate with it!
See also: Learn to Make Paella in Barcelona
Man vs Food in Madrid
Use to navigate.
As with most capital cities, it’s possible to find almost any kind of cuisine in Madrid.
Traditional Madrid Dishes
What you should go for is anything with ‘Madrileña’ or ‘Madrileño’ in the name. Callos a la Madrileña is one, but it’s tripe. I’m not trying to be insulting, it actually is pig intestines.
Alternatively, Cocido Madrileño is the ultimate man vs food challenge. It’s a silly amount of food.
The picture above, at Malacatin in La Latina, is for one person. (Don’t worry, any waste is given to a local charity).
Another dish to seek out is the bocadillo de calamares, which is fried calamari squid rings served in a baguette. The most famous place to get it is at El Brillante in front of Atocha train station.
What’s Tapas Like in Madrid?
Madrid has a tapas culture that, though not as ubiquitous as in Seville or San Sebastian, is very strong. This means that while there are lots and lots of good tapas bars, you can’t walk into just any restaurant and expect to get tapas. Many restaurants are more about menus del dia at lunch time and raciones at night.
How to Eat in Madrid
Try the full gamut of Spanish food in the capital! This means going for menus del dia at lunch time and tapas or sit-down meals with shared raciones in the evening. You could head to a paella restaurant, you could try Asturian food and cider, or whatever takes your fancy.
In Madrid, the world is your oyster! (And there are good oysters too.)
Modern Tapas Culture in Seville
Welcome to the land of tapas!
What is Tapas Like in Seville?
Seville is full of fantastic tapas bars where the culture of grabbing a small bite over a glass of wine or beer and then moving on to the next bar is at its strongest.
Tapas bars in Seville vary greatly. In some, the tapas comes a close close to those of San Sebastian and Logroño in terms of flamboyance and intricacy of preparation. In others, the dishes are classic peasant food like grandma used to make.
It’s all about the tapas!
Order a dish at a time and stand at the bar for the best experience (some places won’t let you sit down unless you’re ordering full meals). Unlike in Granada, you’re not obliged to get a drink with every tapa – you pay for your tapas individually.
To truly tapear (go for tapas), don’t stay in one place but bar hop instead.
Note that a menu of ‘montaditos’ means that the dish is a filled small bread roll. These will often be slightly cheaper and more filling than normal tapas, but you’re really just stuffing yourself with bread.
Where are the Best Tapas Bars in Seville?
There are tapas bars throughout the city, but to get the best experience, head for one of the streets or plazas with a large number of tapas bars. Paseo de Catalina de Ribera and Plaza los Terceros are my favorite two tapas spots in Seville.
Traditional Seville Dishes
Seville food is classic Andalusian fare.
So expect gazpacho and its thicker cousin, salmorejo, particularly in the summer, as well as lots of fried fish. Solomillo, a cut of pork steak, is very common, particularly covered in a sauce of whiskey or roquefort.
Paella and Other Rice Dishes in Valencia and Alicante
Sample Spain’s most famous rice dish at its birthplace – but try the others too!
Paella and other Rice Dishes in Valencia
There is a whole world of rice dishes in Spain, particularly on the east coast, of which paella is the most famous.
My advice is to go for paella valenciana, the original meat-and-vegetables paella (I bet you thought seafood was the original, right?)
But there is a lot more to rice dishes in Spain than simply paella.
There are also ‘sticky’ and ‘soupy’ versions (meloso and caldoso) variants too.
Where to Eat Paella in Valencia
Paella is available all over Valencia and Alicante. There are countless lists of the best paella in each city. I’ve tried a few restaurants from those lists and can’t say there’s a big difference between those that have the marketing power to appear on them and those which don’t.
Hotel Hospes Palau de la Mar came second in an international paella competition, so that’s one that’s worth trying. Also, the numerous restaurants around the central market can be depended on to make consistently good paellas with ingredients bought fresh every day.
Tapas in Valencia
There is virtually no tapas culture in Valencia at all.