Spain is full of surprises. One of the biggest surprise for many first-time visitors is just how diverse Spanish cuisine is. There’s definitely so much more besides just paella and tapas. With Spain producing a lot of Europe’s fruit, vegetables, ham, grain, and wine… there’s a lot to choose from on the menu! But, what’s always been interesting to me is the way Spaniards eat… not just what they eat.
After spending years on the ground as a food tour guide in Madrid, here are some interesting Spanish food facts and observations that I picked up along the way. ¡Buen provecho!
Interesting Spanish Food Fact #1: Pork is king
Let’s start with the one fact about Spanish food that you’ll learn almost immediately. In Spain, pork is king. You will find pork everywhere: chopped and sprinkled over artichokes, tomatoes, and green beans; hanging in juicy, red sausage form on kitchen walls everywhere; in practically every dish that would otherwise have been vegetarian (sorry, vegetarians). In Spain, it’s hard to get away from pork.
But — do you know why? It turns out this love for pig dates back hundreds of years: to 1492 when Ferdinand and Isabel demanded the Jews and Muslims of Spain either give up their faith or get out of the country. Those who chose to stay had to take careful measures to prove their religious conversion, and eating pork — conspicuously — was an easy way for both groups to do so. Some even believe that paella, which traditionally didn’t have either shellfish or chorizo in it, today often contains both ingredients for this very same reason.
Interesting Spanish Food Fact #2: Spicy is generally NOT a thing here
When people come to visit me, they’re often surprised by how mild Spanish flavors are. Of course, if you’re from the U.S., land of hot sauce and spicy wings, this seems odd. But Spaniards — generally speaking, of course — are much more likely to opt for sweet or smoked pimentón (paprika) and use the spicy one only sparingly. Why?
Well, legend has it that the first conquistadores who returned to Spain — laden down with goodies from the newly-discovered Americas such as chocolate, potatoes, and of course, peppers — neglected to mention to their king that the pepper he was about to take a greedy mouthful of was — ¡cuidado! — spicy as all hell. You can imagine how well that must have gone over in the royal court. The king’s mouth and dignity aflame, spicy peppers were instantly persona non grata in Spain. And so it has continued.
The reality? Well, there’s a lot of different possible answers. The most likely real reason is that as time went on, the peppers adapted to the Spanish climate and were slowly cultivated over the years to be milder and milder (less a chili and more of a bell pepper). And nowadays, Spaniards are so accustomed to their non-picante cuisine that even a hefty dose of black pepper will have them crying, ¡pica, pica! (“It’s so spicy!”)
Having said this, I would be remiss not to mention that there are a good number of naturally spicy Spanish dishes: among them, patatas bravas, though most bars serve the mildest of versions; the fun game of pimientos de Padrón (one out of every 30 or so being quite spicy); and of course, gambas al ajillo (see our recipe here).
Interesting Spanish Food Fact #3: Home cooking saves waistlines
Often, Spaniards’ slim waistlines confuse tourists. “If they’re out every day, eating patatas bravas and chorizo and fried eggs over potatoes… why isn’t everyone fat?!”
Here’s the thing. The tapas you see out and about? No one’s eating those daily. In fact, I would say going out for tapas is now — especially in the post-Covid-world — the least common way of eating for Spaniards. Friends and couples are now more likely to go out for a sit-down meal, and international cuisine is on the rise: it might be Japanese, Mexican, burgers. Also, Spaniards are big home cooks, and I would say that most people eat dinner at home at least 4-5 nights a week.
So, what are they cooking at home? Despite generally splurging for “fancy” dishes like fresh seafood and beautiful pork or beef cuts when they go out, most Spaniards eat a very veg- and legume-heavy diet at home. For example, one typical dish for a cold winter night might be pisto, or roasted peppers with tuna.
Things you would never find on a dinner table include paella or cocido (too heavy!) or pasta (too many carbs!). So that’s the key: balance. You can have smokey stewed lentils at home, and fried chorizo only when out on a Friday night.
Curious about more things forbidden on the dinner table? Scroll down…
Interesting Spanish Food Fact #4: There are rules!
Coming from the USA, and more specifically from New York City, I thought that everything should be available whenever I want. Any time of day or night. And while Madrid is still definitely not a 24-hour city (except for the discos!), for me, the hardest thing to get used to was not being allowed to eat and drink what I want… when I want.
New York City is so very “the city that never sleeps” that basically, anything goes. Pizza at 11 AM? Why not. Espresso at midnight? Go for it. Spain, on the other hand, has rules.
Here are the most important things to remember if you don’t want to get laughed out of your local cafetería…
- Chocolate and churros are breakfast — not dessert!
- Vermouth is always an aperitif, never a digestif.
- If you expect eggs for breakfast, you’ll be sorely disappointed. They’re a lunch or dinner dish here: either huevos rotos with jamón or other pork product or poached on top of garden-fresh veg like peas or artichokes.
- It is totally socially acceptable for a restaurant to serve you a pre-packaged ice cream still in the individual plastic container with the supermarket’s name on it. (Scroll down for more dessert surprises…)
One caveat that my Italophile friend insists I include: unlike Bella Italia, Spaniards won’t judge you for ordering your coffee with milk after lunch. It’s a free-for-all here! People are as likely to order a café con leche as they are a cortado or a descafeinado in the evening hours.
Interesting Spanish Food Fact #5: Spain has some terrible desserts
Spain is a food-lover’s paradise. From mountain cuisines like root vegetables and game meats to a jaw-dropping plethora of seafood freshly plucked from the Atlantic, Mediterranean, or Bay of Biscay, Spain truly covers it all. But when dinner plates have been cleared, and it’s time for sweets and liqueurs and gin & tonics? …Skip the traditional desserts. Because Spain, much as I love it, is terrible at desserts.
First of all, they all taste the same. Flan? Natillas? Cuajada? Arroz con leche? All cinnamon, all the time. If it’s not cinnamon, it’s almond (looking at you, tarta de Santiago and turrón). Desserts and baked goods are definitely on the up-and-up in Madrid in the last several years, and while there are genuinely some fabulous cakes and cookies out there now, none of them are at all Spanish in origin.
And just to be fair (because you know I do love Spain!), I will say this: Spain may not have many of its own traditional cakes, but pastries? Oh yes, Spain does dang good pastries! Traditionalists will usually eat these more as breakfast of afternoon snacks, though.
When you’re next in Madrid, do us the favor of visiting La Mallorquina and order anything (and everything).
Puerta del Sol, 8
Open 7 days a week, 8:30 AM – 9 PM
And, of course…
I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the one thing everything seems to know about eating in Spain before they arrive– prepare to eat well past your normal dinnertime!
It’s no secret that Spaniards dine pretty late by most of our standards. Dinner could start anywhere between 9p-11p and end well after midnight. But many people don’t seem to know why that is…
Well the story goes that back during the Franco dictatorship, Franco moved Spain to from Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) to Central European Time (CET) to align with Nazi Germany. But while the clocks moved forward, many people’s eating habits didn’t. Most ate the same time they normally would, but now it was technically later in the day!
This move one hour forward also meant that the sun rose and set later, especially in the summer time. So children spent more time outside playing, further dictating later dinner hours. Years later, nothing much changed, especially considering Spain’s long sunny days help drive the country’s tourism industry!
Did I Miss Something?
So there you have it! I hope you enjoyed this short list of interesting Spanish food facts. Let me know which one you were most surprised by…. or did you know them all already? Here’s a quick recap for you:
5 Interesting Spanish Food Facts
- Spain’s obsession with great jamón actually dates back hundreds of years and has its roots in religious persecution!
- Spanish food is generally NOT spicy. Legend says that one king’s sensitive palette ensured spicy foods would not be welcome at any real Spaniard’s table.
- Eating tapas out everyday is actually not a thing. The Spanish actually prefer good home-cooked meals.
- Spaniards follow a lot of rules when it comes to dining. Eating churros as a dessert? WRONG. Eating eggs for breakfast? VERY WRONG.
- Desserts in Spain actually aren’t that great… yes I said it!
If you have a fun fact to share, I’d love to hear from you and expand on this list. You can find me on Instagram @joyofmadrid.