I could write several blog posts (probably a whole book) on Spanish food and what to eat in Spain. That’s what makes it so hard to summarize all the famous Spanish food in a single blog post.
Each region has its specialty, its own distinctive flavors.
The coasts have all the fresh seafood you could ever dream of. In the interior of the country, pigs feasting on acorns produce the famous jamón ibérico. The rice fields along the Valencian coast gave the world paella. Down in Andalusia, variations on gazpacho had probably been served since at least the Roman times (though tomatoes from the empire in the Americas created the dish we recognize today).
See how history, geography and culture all inform any discussion of Spanish food? This is why people write huge books on the topic.
I’ll keep it shorter than that. Here are my picks for the 9 famous Spanish foods you should try when you visit.
Famous Spanish Food to Eat in Spain
Understanding the various types of jamón — which just means dry-cured ham — in Spain is a bit like getting a crash course in French wines. There are all kinds of varieties and designations, with strict rules governing which is which.
The easiest way to understand jamón is to break it into its two biggest categories.
The first is jamón ibérico. This designation specifically applies to jamón made from native Iberian pigs. These animals are often selectively bred, with their whole lineages registered, to ensure the purity and quality of the jamón.
You’ll sometimes hear top-quality jamón ibérico called “pata negra.” This is made from free-roaming purebred ibérico pigs who spend most of their lives eating acorns in the forest. The official label for pata negra is “100% ibérico de bellota.”
Note: International demand for pata negra far outstrips supply or export capacity, so there is a lot of fake pata negra getting sold outside of Spain. If your local butcher can’t verify the provenance of their jamón ibérico, you’re better off just coming to Spain to try the real stuff.
The second type of jamón is jamón serrano. This pretty much refers to all the jamón made from non-ibérico pigs.
Top-grade jamón serrano is every bit as good as top-grade jamón ibérico; it just doesn’t have the prestige or the associated imagery of purebred pigs roaming the forest in search of acorns.
Tip: If you’re in a city or town with a market, go to the butcher there to order your jamón. Part of the experience is watching someone shave the ham slices directly off the cured pork leg.
2. Tortilla de Patatas
The same care that goes into maintaining the lineage of purebred Iberian pigs goes into a homemade tortilla.
I’m not kidding. Even though a tortilla is pretty much just potatoes, eggs, maybe onions and olive oil baked into pie form, there is a universe of difference between good tortilla and bad tortilla.
Bad tortilla is dry. You won’t struggle to find bars in towns and cities across the country offering pinchos de tortilla (a slice of tortilla on top of a slise of baguette), and most of them serve bad tortilla. Bad tortilla means you’ll have eaten a week’s worth of carbs and then still need two beers just to chase it down.
The best tortilla is homemade. If you don’t get that opportunity, then your next best bet is to look for tapas and pinchos bars that specialize in tortillas. They’ll usually have several varieties on display, some with onions, some with cured meats.
Tip: Inspect the cross-section of any tortilla you’d like to try. If you can see a careful stacking of the potato slices and a little glistening from the olive oil and the egg, then you’re looking at the good stuff.
Paella is without a doubt one of the most famous Spanish dishes.
It is a regional rice-based dish, native to the Valencian Community. It’s typically made either with traditional ingredients (rabbit, chicken, snails, saffron, rosemary — I have a recipe here) or with seafood.
In Madrid, and in Barcelona, and in Sevilla, and on the Costa Brava, and everywhere else in Spain you’ll be able to find a restaurant somewhere that will claim to serve paella. Most of the time, that means they will microwave you some pre-packaged rice dish and put a prawn on top or something, and you’ll leave feeling deeply underwhelmed.
If Valencia is on your travel itinerary, save your paella day for then. I have a list of the best places to eat paella in Valencia. If it isn’t on your itinerary and you still want paella, thoroughly vet any paella restaurant on TripAdvisor, El Tenedor or Google Reviews to make sure its kitchen serves real, authentic paella.
Tip: No restaurant worth its salt will serve paella for dinner. It’s strictly a lunchtime meal. And you will probably want to book in advance because the kitchen will need time to prep a real paella.
4. Morcilla de Burgos
Morcilla means “blood sausage” in Spanish, which is probably important information for anyone who’s squeamish about that sort of thing.
Of all the morcillas in Spain, the one from Burgos, a city about three hours north of Madrid, is the most famous. The European Union even recognized it with a geographical identification in 2018.
Morcilla de Burgos is a relatively simple food. It’s almost half onion, plus rice, lard, blood and spices all rolled up into a sausage. It’s then sliced and fried, and you can eat it as a tapa or as part of a sandwich.
Tip: In Valencia’s Cabanyal neighborhood, there used to be this corner bar called La Maceta that served the absolute best morcilla de Burgos. The kitchen would slice it, fry the pieces, then serve them each with a dollop of strawberry jam on top. That fatty-sweet combination sounds suspicious, but it tasted amazing. Try yours with a sweet jam if you get the chance!
When you are baking under the 40-degree Andalusian sun, there’s no better meal than a bowl of gazpacho, a tomato-y soup that’s always served cold.
Gazpacho is as simple as it is refreshing. The traditional recipe calls for tomatoes, green peppers, cucumber, onion, garlic, olive oil, a knot of baguette and a little vinegar (plus salt and pepper). Chop, smash or blend the ingredients to whatever consistency you prefer, then eat with a spoon.
Tip: Cucumbers and tomatoes are available year-round in Spain, but they’re freshest from late spring through the end of summer. Stick to gazpachos served then.
6. Fabada Asturiana
When you think about places in Europe where life can be hard and the labor back-breaking, you don’t tend to think of Spain. The mining towns of Wallonia and Cornwall, sure. Fishing villages in Iceland, definitely.
But, traditional life in the Principality of Asturias was every bit as harsh as those places.
For centuries, the Asturians fished the rugged Atlantic coast and herded livestock up and down the jagged hills. You need a lot of energy to sustain that kind of lifestyle, which is why Asturian cuisine is famous for hearty stews (and strong cider). The most famous is fabada asturiana, a white-bean stew with chunks of chorizo, morcilla and pancetta.
You won’t find a better ratio of calories per spoonful, which is helpful if your trip to Spain will involve hiking, climbing, biking or any other endurance activities.
Tip: Fabada is traditionally served as a starter. I’ve never understood how people can eat a main after such a heavy first course, but I’ve never spent 12 hours fishing or in a mine, either. Enjoy your fabada with cider or red wine.
7. Pan con Tomate
Here’s the dirty secret about all this famous Spanish food: It’s all incredibly simple fare. Just look at the list above — ham, omelet, arroz con cosas, onion and blood in a sausage casing, chopped vegetables, pork and beans.
You get the feeling Spain is playing this big, elaborate prank on the world when it bills itself as a gastronomy capital, and then you actually get here and the food is so … simple.
And then, to top it off, breakfast rolls around and someone brings you a slice of toasted baguette and smashed tomato pulp. Which is exactly what pan con tomate is.
Yet this is what people on the Mediterranean coast of Spain order for breakfast every single day. And they love it!
As with all simple dishes, the key is in the quality of ingredients.
Matt Goulding, a Barcelona-based journalist and author of “Grape, Olive, Pig,” one of the best English-language books you’ll find on Spanish cuisine, describes the dish as something just sort of spiritual when made with the right bread and the right tomatoes:
“When my wife makes it, serves it alongside a few slices of acorn-fed jamón and a leftover wedge of my father-in-law’s heroic tortilla, I would be perfectly happy if it were my last meal as well.”
Simple foods, divine flavors. That’s what Spanish food boils down to.
Tip: Pan con tomate is an easy dish to make at home. Just go to the market and get yourself a fat, ripe Spanish tomato. Go home, grate your tomato into a bowl, then spoon it onto a slice of toasted bread. Top with olive oil and sea salt.
8. Crema Catalana
We’ll stay in the realm of Catalan cuisine for the first dessert course, crema catalana, which looks a whole lot like crème brûlée. That’s because the dishes are pretty much the same.
Crema catalana is still custard with a crust of burnt, caramelized sugar on top. The primary difference between the dishes is crema catalana contains cinnamon and lemon zest, whereas crème brûlée is flavored with vanilla.
Tip: Don’t worry about looking for somewhere that serves the best or most authentic crema catalana. Any restaurant or cafe with good desserts will be able to make a good crema catalana if it’s on the menu.
9. Chocolate con Churros
It’s hard to imagine what Spanish cuisine would have looked like before the Transatlantic Exchange:
- The tortilla needs potatoes (native to the Americas).
- The gazpacho and pan con tomate need tomatoes (also native to the Americas).
- The crema catalana needs sugar (not widely available in Europe before Caribbean slave plantations).
- This dish calls for chocolate (also native to the Americas).
In Madrid, chocolate con churros is a perfectly acceptable breakfast food, or you can eat it for merienda, the Spanish meal that falls between lunch and dinner because why not.
The two parts of the dish are simple: A long, fried piece of sugar-coated bread, and a cup of chocolate to dunk it in.
Specify how many churros you’d like when you order, then sit back and enjoy.
There are all kinds of fried sweet breads throughout Spain. Churros happen to be the most famous. There are also pestiños, popular in Andalusia, and buñuelos, which, like churros, are also popular in Latin America.
Tip: A place that specializes in churros is called a churrería and you can find them in all major cities and many smaller towns as well.
If You Want to Learn More About Famous Spanish Food
Then you’ll need to come explore the individual regions.
This list is far from exhaustive, and friends in the Balearic Islands will be mad at me for not including local specialties like sobrassada or ensaïmada. And that’s to say nothing of all the great cooking that goes on up in the Basque Country.
So, narrow your focus to the regions you plan to visit, and go from there. These articles can help you get started:
- The Best Time to Visit Spain
- Things to Know Before Traveling to Spain
- What to See and Do in Madrid – Tips From a Local Tour Guide
- Is Mallorca Worth Visiting?
- Things to Do in Valencia
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