Traditional and unique food in Spain


Updated on Jul 31 • 9 minute read

Food's the one force that unites everyone in Spain. Almost all social gatherings take place over a meal and there’s even a name for sitting around the table and chatting for hours after a meal's over – Sobremesa. Spanish people’s love for food's also seen in the 5-6 meals they’ve in a day – breakfast, mid-morning snack, lunch, merienda (evening snack), tapas, or dinner.

To help you navigate the Spanish way of eating throughout the day, we’re sharing all you need to know about food in Spain. We’ll share the national dish(es) of Spain, traditional Spanish dishes, tapa dishes, traditional desserts, and what’s in a typical Spanish breakfast, lunch and dinner. For the adventurous, we’ll also share some unique or strange dishes from different regions of Spain.

What is the national dish of Spain?

You might think Paella's the national dish of Spain. But there’s just so much geographical, historical, and cultural diversity across Spain’s 17 autonomous regions that each region has its own culinary tradition and speciality dishes.

Since some have gained nationwide popularity, we’ll share 5 dishes that are found all over the country and represent the true identity of Spain.

1. Paella

Paella's a typical lunch dish that originated in Valencia. It was brought to Spain in the 10th century when the Moors from Africa conquered Spain and found Valencia’s climate perfect to grow the short-grained rice.

The word paella itself refers to a dish cooked in a shallow pan and was originally a dish made by farmers. The original paella consists of saffron, beans, vegetables, and a mixture of snails, rabbit, chicken, and duck. Nowadays, paella's also made with seafood as it’s abundant in Spain.

Don’t forget to have the socarrat, the slightly burnt and crispy rice around the dish.

2. Tortilla de patatas

Tortilla de patatas, also known as the Spanish omelette or tortilla Española is a filling omelette that’s made with potatoes. Additional ingredients can include onions, chorizo, peppers, etc. You can have this as it's or as a filling in a sandwich.

3. Gazpacho

Gazpacho's a cold and refreshing tomato soup from the hot and dry Andalusia region. It's made with fresh vegetables and may be served with bread and oil or vinegar.

4. Jamón

Jamón's a top-quality cured ham that's produced in several regions of Spain. Most Spanish households have jamón regularly, whether in a sandwich, as a tapa dish, or with a meal. In fact, Spain's the biggest producer and consumer of cured ham in the world!

Spain produces 2 types of cured jamón’s – jamón iberico and jamón serrano. Both are considered gourmet food because of the high quality of meat, its unique taste, and the craft used to produce them.

Jamón Iberico's produced in southern Spain and the meat's cured for 14-36 months. Jamón Serrano has a saltier taste and is cured for 12-16 months.

5. Olives

Spain has one of the best climates for growing olives and happens to be the biggest olive and olive oil producer in the world.

Usually, olives are eaten any time of the day and can even be stuffed with ingredients such as anchovies, almonds, cheese, pimiento, etc. Some olive varieties you can try include manzanilla, gordal, arbequina, hojiblanca, malagueña, or Aragón.

Top 21 traditional food in Spain

Aside from the national dishes of Spain, there’re plenty of traditional dishes that define Spain’s culinary scene. No matter which dishes you try, your gastronomical senses are guaranteed to explode with flavour.

  1. Paella

  2. Gazpacho

  3. Jamón

  4. Tortilla de patatas

  1. Patatas Bravas- fresh potato cut into tiny squares, deep-fried, and topped with spicy tomato relish.

  2. Croquetas- Croquetas are coated with bread crumbs and stuffed with a mixture of bechamel sauce and some type of seafood, meat, or vegetable. Jamón or salt cod croquetas are common varieties.

  3. Calamares- deep-fried squid rings with a squeeze of lemon. These make for a perfect tapa dish.

  1. Pan con Tomate- A simple but classic dish. Pan con Tomate's toasted or grilled bread rubbed with garlic, topped with tomato relish, and drizzled with olive oil and salt.

  2. Pimientos de Padrón- Tiny green peppers from Galicia that are fried with their stem and covered in salt. Eating these's like playing roulette because while most of them are bitter and mild, a few are spicy.

  3. Albondigas- Meatballs covered in tomato sauce that makes for a good tapa dish.

  4. Bocadillo- Cheap but filling baguette like sandwiches that can have any number of toppings from cold cuts, fish, cheese, or vegetables.

  5. Fabada- A one-pot bean stew dish from the Asturias region that includes a mixture of pork such as bacon, chorizo, or morcilla– Spanish blood sausage.

  6. Bacalao- Salted dry codfish from the Basque country. It’s typically served with pil-pil sauce. Other popular ways of serving it include making stews (bacalao a la vizcaina), baking it, or frying it (croquetas).

  7. Pulpo a Feira- A boiled octopus dish from Galicia drizzled with olive oil, bell pepper powder and salt.

  1. Cocido montañés- A hearty bean stew from the Cantabria region of Spain. Typical also includes chorizo, morcilla, pepper, garlic, onion, and green leafy vegetables.

  2. Cordero al chilindrón- A lamb stew from Navarra that’s particularly popular in winter and made of tomato, onion, garlic, peppers, and white wine.

  3. Patatas a la Riojana- A dish that originates in La Rioja of the Basque region. The potatoes are fried with onion and chorizo and later simmered with sweet bell peppers.

  4. Gambas al ajilo- a very popular dish originating from Andalusia and featuring prawns with garlic, olive oil, and chillies. If you’re Malaga, you’ve to try this!

  5. Boquerones fritos- Fried anchovies make for a classic tapa dish and are popular all over Spain.

  6. Empanadas- A filled doughy delight that can be sweet or savoury and is deep-fried until golden. Typical fillings include meat, vegetables or cheese.

  7. Migas extremeñas- A humble dish from Extremadura. Stale or dry bread is made into breadcrumbs, soaked in water, and then fried with flavourful ingredients such as onion, garlic, bacon, chorizo, or bell peppers. Sometimes it’s also served with a side of grapes.

Traditional tapas dishes or Merienda dishes

Besides the 3 main meals of the day, the Spanish have 2 additional mid meals called Merienda and Tapas.

Merienda is the optional sweet or savoury snack eaten around 5:00 - 6:30 P.M. Tapas takes place around 8:00 - 10:00 P.M and is a time to enjoy appetizers before dinner.

Here’re some popular dishes that work well for tapas or merienda.

  1. Croquetas

  2. Bocadillo

  3. Patatas bravas

  4. Olives

  5. Pimientos de Padrón

  6. Calamares

  7. Chorizo

  8. Jamón

  9. Tortilla

  10. Empanadas

  11. Boquerones fritos

  12. Pan con Tomate

  1. Torrijas- A classic twist to the French toast, torrijas are topped with cinnamon or honey.

  2. Buñuelo- Buñuelo’s are made by mixing milk, egg, flour, and butter into a round dough and then deep-frying them till golden brown. You’re likely to find them during Spanish festivities, such as All Saints Day or during the Christmas season.

  3. Pintxo- Pintxos or Pinchos are tiny baguettes slices topped with meat, seafood, or cheese and assembled with a toothpick or skewer.

  4. Espetos- Grilles sardines are popular in the Andalusian region. The best period to try them is from July to September.

  5. Ensalada Rusa- The Spanish potato salad takes inspiration from the Russian salad and is made up of potatoes, boiled eggs, mayonnaise, tuna, carrot, and peas.

  6. Queso Manchego- A popular semi-hard cheese that's made from the milk of Manchega sheep.

Traditional Drinks in Spain

  1. Zumo de Naranja- Valencia's known for its sweet oranges and their orange juice or Zumo de Naranja is a perfect breakfast drink all across Spain.

  2. Sangria- Traditional Spanish sangria's made with red wine mixed with fresh fruits, orange juice, brandy, and optionally sparkling water.

  3. Sherry- A dessert wine from Andalusia that's made of white grapes.

  4. Tinto de Verano- A perfect summer refreshing drink made with red wine and lemon soda.

  5. Cava- The drink with which you ring in the Spanish new year! Cava's similar to champagne but tends to be cheaper.

What is a typical breakfast in Spain?

Although breakfast's (el desayuno) a light affair in Spain, you’ll notice that Spaniards enjoy two breakfasts. The first breakfast's light and usually had at home. The second breakfast or is called Almuerzo and is typically had at 10:30 A.M.

A traditional breakfast in Spain includes café con Leche (espresso with warm milk) with a small bite such as:

  • Tostada con mantequilla y mermelada (toast with butter and jam)
  • Tostada con tomate y aceite de oliva (toast topped with grated tomato, olive oil and salt)
  • Tortilla de patatas (omelette with potatoes)
  • Churros
  • Croissant or other puff pastries
  • Bocadillo (sandwich) with omelette, cold cuts, fish, cheese, vegetables, etc.
  • Magdalenas (tiny lemon muffins)
  • A slice of bizocho (a sponge cake)
  • Torrijas (Spanish french toast)
  • Fresh orange juice

What is a typical lunch in Spain?

Lunch (la comida) is the heaviest meal of the day in Spain and includes multiple courses.

In major Spanish cities, lunch tends to be 1 hour long as people don’t travel back home. But in the suburbs, people may travel back home or shut down for siesta, making their lunch break last 3-4 hours long.

Traditional lunches in Spain include:

  • Bread with some appetizers like cheese or cured meat
  • Soup (gazpacho in summer or a type of bean or seafood soup in winter)
  • Main dish (seafood, fish, meat, stew, vegetables)
  • Green salad
  • Dessert, such as fruits, cheese, flan, ice cream, or pastry
  • Coffee or an alcoholic beverage

Traditional Spanish dinner

Dinner (le cena) is a light meal and usually had between 9:00 - 12:00 P.M.

A typical Spanish dinner will have a main dish, such as a seafood dish, vegetarian dish, or roasted meat. This's either stuffed in a sandwich or served with a portion of rice. Common sides include a green salad, omelette, fried potatoes, grilled vegetables, cold cuts, or cheese. The dinner may be finished with a light dessert.

Traditional desserts from Spain

  1. Churros- long, crunchy sticks made of fried dough. These are doused in sugar and dipped in thick hot chocolate or dulce de leche.

  2. Flan- Also known as caramel custard or crème caramel in other parts of the world. It’s light yet decadent!

  3. Crema Catalan- Crema Catalan has a hard caramel coating like a creme brûlée. But instead of a custard taste, it’s infused with orange, lemon, or cinnamon.

  4. Buñuelo de Viento- Buñuelo de Viento or nun’s puff is a baked or fried pastry that’s as light as air. They come in a flower-like shape or are made into balls.

  5. Turrón- Turrón or nougat is especially popular during the holiday season. They’ve got a sweet nutty flavour and can be hard, chewy, or soft. Traditionally, turron's made with almonds, honey, and egg white.

  6. Leche Frita- Literally translated, Leche Frita means fried milk. Milk, flour, and egg yolks are combined to form a dough and then fried. It’s topped with cinnamon or sugar and can be eaten warm or cold.

  7. Polvorones- A type of shortbread or a crumbly cookie that is topped with powdered sugar. It’s popular in Spain during the holiday season.

  1. Pantxineta- A dessert so simple, you’d want to make it at home. Simply add some pastry cream between puff pastry sheets and top it up with almonds and powdered sugar.

  2. Goxua- Love tiramisu? You’ve got to try Goxua! Goxua comes from the Basque region and is a layered dish– the bottom layer is liquor-soaked ladyfingers, the middle layer has custard, and the top layer's made with burnt sugar.

  3. Pestiños- These deep-fried pastries are popular during Christmas in the Andalusian region. The dough's flavoured with anise, cinnamon, orange, and cloves. The dough's then deep-fried and coated with honey, sugar or cinnamon.

  4. Natillas de Leche- A true comfort dessert that brings back fond memories. Natillas de Leche's a sweet and creamy egg custard that uses vanilla, cinnamon and lemon for an interesting flavour.

  5. Horchata with Fartons- Perfect for hot days, horchata de chufa's a cool drink that is served with farton, a sweet sponge bread in the shape of a cigar. This's typically found in Valencia.

  6. Leche Merengada- If a milkshake and a sorbet had a child, you’d have the leche merengada. You’ll find this drink dessert in all ice-cream shops in Spain.

  7. Tarta de Manzana- A Spanish version of an apple pie. The centre's made of apples, cinnamon and apricot jam. The crust's crunchy and chewy; it’s made using a mix of pecan nuts, walnuts, dates and cinnamon.

Unique food in Spain

If you’re daring enough and love local delicacies, try out these unique dishes in Spain.

  1. Percebes- Percebes refer to Goose barnacles and are an expensive delicacy in Basque and Galicia.

  2. Caracoles- Snails or caracoles are particularly in season during May-June and popular in Seville. Try them with garlic, oil and cognac or tomato sauce, vinegar, and whiskey.

  3. Manias de cerdo- This refers to pig’s feet or trotters. They’re often boiled with pepper, garlic, saffron, and bay leaves for flavour.

  4. Rabo de toro- Oxtail or beef’s tail stew's particularly popular in Córboda. It’s cooked with tomatoes, red wine, peppers, onion, garlic, etc.

  5. Criadillas- Even the bulls testicles aren’t wasted. Criadillas are usually coated with breadcrumbs and deep-fried.

  6. Oreja a la plancha- Pig’s ears are a delicacy in Spain. They are boiled with spices and herbs and then marinated with spices such as cumin or bell pepper powder. Later they’re friend until crispy.

  1. Cap I pota- A Catalonian stew usually eaten in winters. It’s made using beef head and trotters. It’s typically flavoured with chickpeas, serrano ham, bell peppers, wine, olive oil, herbs, etc.

  2. Morcilla- Also known as blood sausage or black pudding, morcilla is essentially congealed pig blood in the form of a sausage. It’s popular all over Spain.

  3. Kokotxas- Cod cheeks that are cooked until soft.

  4. Ortiguillas fritas- Sea anemones fried using bread crumbs. They resemble the taste of tentacles and have a fishy taste.

  5. Angulas- An expensive delicacy from the Basque region, angulas refers to baby eels sauteed with garlic, herbs, oil, chilli pepper and white wine.

  6. Lamprey- A eel-like fish that is jawless and sucks the blood of other fish. They’re typically caught in rivers in Galicia in March and hence tend to be very expensive.

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