Contrary to what many people believe, Paella is not the national dish of Spain. Some say it is the Cocido. Others argue that there is no one overwhelming national dish to speak of. Who’s to say which is the true national dish of Spain? And does it really matter if there is none?
The Spanish people are very proud of the particular region they belong to not only in terms of their language but also in their food. In Spain, their cuisine, much like their dialects, change along with the climate and the geography. As expected, in colder areas of Spain where you have mountain ranges, the dishes tend to be heartier. In areas of Spain that lie where the temperatures are hotter the dishes tend to be lighter. You will know where you are in Spain by the cuisine that is laid in front of you at the dining table. Dining in Spain is serious business so if you are travelling there anytime soon, it is best for you to get to know a little about the Spanish regional cuisine.
Green Spain, The Basque Country
The northern region of Spain is often referred to as Green Spain.
• In the Basque region, fish and seafood may reign supreme because it lies along the Atlantic Ocean and the Cantabrian Seas. However, different types of meats are also quite popular in the area. The Spanish bacalao (salted cod) is enjoyed here side by side with meaty stews and fresh vegetables.
• In Asturias, fish (especially tuna and sardines) and vegetables feature in their dishes all the time. But they also use pork as evidenced in their famous bean stew, Fabada Asturiana, which is made of white beans and pork.
• When you head to Galicia, local vegetables and high quality meats share the spotlight with fresh local seafood. Artisan cheeses are also popular and enjoyed as much as their tasty hams and local cold meats.
• A visit to Aragon will leave you stuffed with pork and lamb dishes. Roast pork and cured hams are accompanied with garlic soup, potatoes, rice or beans. Sweet Spanish treats like turrones, marzipans and different desserts are quite popular in this region.
• Navarra and La Rioja are known for their wines. In Navarra, expect dishes using tender lamb and suckling pig. Plump white asparagus and pimiento piquillo (spicy pointed peppers) are popular vegetables from Navarra that are canned and marketed not only in Spain but in other countries as well. Enjoy La Rioja’s spicy chorizo and hams together with fresh vegetables, poultry and other meats that are abundant in the area. Cod and white beans are popular ingredients locals enjoy, too.
The Birthplace of Paella: Eastern Spain
The eastern section of Spain is famous for its Mediterranean cuisine. Local fresh fish, seafood, excellent olive oil and a cornucopia of fresh vegetables and fruits are available to diners.
• Valencia grows excellent oranges, lemons, clementines, and almonds. But what they are most well known for all over the world is their Paella! There are many versions of Paella not only in Spain but in other countries, too. The main ingredients of Paella are rice, saffron and protein in the form of hare, pork, poultry, beef, seafood or snails.
• Tasty sausages are available in Catalonia. The Butifarra sausage comes in a white and a black version. If you find yourself there, ask the locals what’s the difference between the two. Mató is their famous local cheese. Dishes with classic sauces such as the spicy Romanesco are popular in here.
• The fertile lands of Murcia produce lots of tomatoes, garlic, beans, oranges, lemons, dates and other fruits and vegetables. The local goat cheese called Cabra is a favorite. Local candied fruits, sweets and cakes are available.
Southern Spain, Where Atlantis Might Be Found
In March 2011, scientists from the USA, Canada and Spain said they might have found Atlantis, the long lost city of the ancient world in Southern Spain. It will take years to prove or disprove this claim. In the meantime, enjoy the bounties of the flat plains. Food in Southern Spain was influenced by the Moors (who once ruled this region).
• In Andalucia, you will find fields of olive trees plus farms producing various fruits, vegetables and spices. Andalucia is one of the world’s largest olive oil exporter. Have some Gazpacho and Jamon Serrano, different artisan cheeses and the local sherry vinegar. Octopus, squid, sardines and other gifts from Poseidon share the table with stews made of ox tripe and chickpeas. Tocino del cielo, a combination of custard and caramel, is a wonderful way to end any meal in Southern Spain.
Central Spain, A Place of Windmills and Saffron
• La Mancha, Don Quixote’s turf, is where azafrán or saffron is the best. Introduced by the Moors to Spain many moons ago, this stigma of the purple autumn crocus flower is the most expensive spice in the world. Azafrán adds a golden color and a wonderful aroma to many wonderful dishes. Manchego cheese is the pride of La Mancha made from ewe’s milk.
• Madrid is the melting pot of Spanish foods. This cosmopolitan city is where you can sample the different dishes from all the regions in Spain. Their best-known dish is the Cocido Madrileño. It is slow cooking at its best with beef, pork belly, ham, chicken, chorizo, morcilla, chickpeas and cabbage. Callos, a tripe dish, is also popular.
• Game is used as the base for local dishes in Extremadura. Wild boar, hare, pheasant and partridge are available in this area and make their way into hearty stews. Chorizo, cured hams, and cold meats are also regular fare.
• Agriculture is big in Castilla y León. Beans, chickpeas, lentils and other pulses and legumes are readily available. Most dishes in this area are one-pot dishes using these ingredients. They are also known for the many types of local cheeses.
Spanish Islands, The International Playground
The Balearic Islands produce a wide variety of cuisines.
• Menorca produces excellent local cheeses. Mallorca is known for its Ensaimada (type of sweet pastry) and its spicy Sobrassada sausage.
• In the Canary Islands, tropical fruits are abundant and so are fresh fish and seafood. You can enjoy Malvasia wine, flavored liqueurs and rum from this area of Spain.
Finding one Spanish dish to represent the country may not be possible at all. Each region will surely stand up for its own local cuisine. Don’t even bother trying to decipher which dish should reign supreme. Just enjoy the variety that Spain offers your palate.