Spain Explained

Homely and sophisticated – the food in Spain

Last updated on February 19th, 2020 at 01:27 am.

From the homely tapas to the sophisticated Michelin starred restaurant, the food in Spain has something for everyone.

If you think of Spanish food, what are the first images that come to mind? It might be garlic, paella, tapas, or the display of hams and cured meats at the market. Spanish food is often simple, colourful and made for sharing. Its simplicity perhaps derives from the poverty of the pueblo, requiring a resourcefulness and creativity that’s proving equally useful now.

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A potted history of Spanish food

Spain has always been a country that has attracted people from other nations. And with them came their cooking. As far back as the Romans, foreigners were influencing what was grown and eaten here. The Romans had a love of Spanish olive oil, figs, grapes, wine and fish. They brought to Spain their own recipe of ‘cocido’, a meat and bean stew which some now believe to be the national dish of Spain.

The Moors set about irrigating the land with the results that previously dry and barren areas became good for growing. They introduced the cultivation of rice, sugar cane and many new fruits and vegetables. The use of saffron, fruits and almonds with savoury dishes can be traced back to the Moors. Some say that it’s this additional flavouring that makes Spanish cuisine so distinct.

As Spain launched itself into the Americas it wasn’t just gold that they found. There was a whole new world of different fresh foods to bring back to the mother land. Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, beans, squash, avocados, corn and chocolate came from America to Spain and out to the rest of Europe. Although ‘gazpacho’ could be traced back to the Moors, it wouldn’t be what it is today without the addition of tomatoes from America.

Homely and affordable

Spanish food can be unpretentious, down-to-earth and affordable. Fresh seafood is usually readily available and needs no more than a sprinkling of lemon added to it on the griddle to make a delicious meal. Here we pick on two other ways in which you can eat cheaply in Spain.

Menú del día

Even the non-Spanish speaker knows the meaning of ‘menú del día’. This cheap midday meal (albeit 2.00pm – 3.00pm for the Spanish) has become increasingly popular as a way of fitting in three courses at a one course price. Language skills do not usually extend to the evening meal however. The ‘menú de la noche’ is often wrongly written as ‘menú del noche’ as ‘noche’ is feminine unlike the masculine ‘día’. Spelling problems aside, this is a popular way of enjoying Spanish food and keeping the cost down.


The idea of tapas is sharing. These aren’t meals to hover over yourself, but to encourage others to taste and enjoy too. There are many variations of what might be offered but some of the most common ones include: Serrano ham (jamón Serrano), prawns (gambas), squid (calamares), sausage (chorizo), spicy potatoes (patatas bravas) meatballs (albondigas).

There are many stories to explain the origin of the tapas (meaning ‘lids’ in Spanish). One is that during a trip to Cádiz the Spanish King Alfonso ordered a glass of wine at an inn. A wind blew up and to stop sand blowing into the King’s drink the innkeeper grabbed a little plate of ham and put if over the top of the glass. The King ate the ham, removed the plate, drank the wine and asked for another glass with tapa. True or not, it’s a nice idea.

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Homely, yes,but sophisticated too. Increasing numbers of Spanish restaurants are finding their way into the restaurant critics’ guides. There were nine Michelin 3 star restaurants in Spain in 2017 and three Spanish restaurants made it into the top ten of the World’s Top 50.

These restaurants might not be accessible to all of us, either in terms of location or affordability, but behind them are thousands of others that are jostling for position. Could it be your favourite local restaurant’s menú del día that’s next up for an award?

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