Learn about Spanish food culture, Spanish meal times, the Mediterranean diet and the famous Spanish siesta.
There is one phrase that you will often hear in Spain pronounced in English in a strong Latin accent which is: “Spain is different”. The longer you live here the more random ways you will discover that this sentence is indeed very true, but perhaps the most immediate curiosity for most tourists are Spanish eating customs and cuisine.
The moment you disembark your plane and make your way through the airport you will be greeted with various Spanish style bars/restaurants. In fact, a 2010 economic study by 'La Caixa' reported that in Spain there is a staggering ratio of one bar and/or restaurant for every 129 Spaniards. What we can deduce from these figures is simple: food and drink are an important part of the Spanish culture.
Spanish Bars and Tapas
One thing to keep clear for the typical foreigner is that in Spain most bars double as restaurants and vice versa. They serve as meeting points, social establishments, places to play games, watch football games, chat, have coffee, drink, eat, party or pretty much any other excuse is a good one, which explains why there are so many. A typical bar will boast an interesting array of “pinchos” or “tapas” (small snack size portions of food) that vary by region and are often discounted or even sometimes included in your drink price. Doubling as restaurants, most bars will also offer daily menus (3 course meal for a fixed price), “platos combinados” (one plate with various items) and rations (large appetizers) which are often shared between the whole group for lunch or dinner. Of course another frequent option is to “ir de pinchos” which consists of going from one bar to the next and enjoying a different “tapa” in each until you have essentially had your meal.
The cuisine you can expect to find can be shocking for some and heaven on earth for others. However, there is one adjective which can safely categorize most of the food; “Mediterranean”. Spaniards are proud of their Mediterranean diet and often brag about how they have the best and most healthy food in the world. Mediterranean cuisine is often characterized by its wide range of ingredients with meals based on fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, an abundance of bread, pasta, rice and other grain foods, “frutos secos” (nuts, sunflower seeds, etc), extra virgin olive oil, garlic, fish, seafood, poultry, various types of meat, cheese and yogurt, and of course wine. This healthy and rich diet, which is traditionally found around the Mediterranean Sea, is considered one of the healthiest in the world.
The next thing that any tourist will quickly discover is that Spaniards have their own dining timeline which is very different from most countries. It is important to keep this in mind as you plan your activities and to take full advantage of the local cuisine.
Breakfast or “desayuno” in the Spanish culture is easily the least important meal of the day, occurring first thing in the morning until about 10:00 am. Many Spaniards skip breakfast but if they do have breakfast it will likely be something light and simple which may consist of coffee, hot chocolate or fresh squeezed orange juice accompanied by a croissant, pastry, or toast with jam. Another common breakfast pastry which you will often see available in bars are “churros”, fried Spanish fritters with sugar.
After such a light breakfast, from around 10:30 to noon, you can expect to find bars full of workers for their morning coffee breaks enjoying a beverage and a small snack to help them survive until lunch time.
Lunch, the most important meal of the day, generally consists of several courses starting with a light first course such as soup or salad, a heavier second course of meat or fish, fruit or a pastry as dessert, followed by coffee or shots of traditional liquor afterwards. The whole meal is accompanied by bread and also wine and water. Lunch and the famous “siesta” (nap) time occur from 2 until 4 pm and it is recommended that anyone visiting Spain plan accordingly since most shops and establishments close during this time to allow for their workers to make their way home to eat. Although this pause still exists, the famous siesta time is rarely used for sleeping but rather transportation as people gradually live farther and farther away from their workplaces.
Due to this midday lunch break, many workers do not get out of work until around 8 pm. Typically, this is when they will have a small snack or “merienda” to get them through until dinner time. Dinner, similar to lunch but usually lighter, is a late affair in Spain which is normally served from 9 to 10:30 pm. In the summer time it is common to see Spaniards sitting down to dine as late as 12 am!
Typical Spanish Dishes
Once you have accustomed yourself to these times and customs, you are ready to discover the diversity of Spanish cuisine. Depending on the region you are visiting, the “typical” dishes can vary, but here are some dining tips:
- Fish: A staple part of the Mediterranean diet. Especially good in coastal regions and large cities with a wide variety to choose from, you can experiment.
- Lamb: Especially popular in Northern Spain.
- Pork and Cured meats: Spain is famous for its ham and pork products such as cured Serrano ham and “chorizo”.
- Shellfish/Seafood: Abundant in many regions and meals such as the world renowned Spanish “paella” rice dish. Also recommended is “pulpo” (octopus) often served with potatoes and paprika and calamari (fried squid).
- Wine: “vino de la casa” (house wine), “vino tinto” (red wine), "vino blanco "(white wine), or "vino rosado" (rosé).
- Cheese: There are hundreds of varieties ranging from light, medium to strong in flavor and made from cow, sheep, or goat milk. The most known cheeses are Manchego and Cabrales.
- Offal: For the brave, Spaniards make use of most parts of the animals they eat. You can try typical dishes such as “callos” (tripe or stomach lining), “jeta” (pig mug), “riñones” (kidneys), “criadillas” (testicles), “lengua” (tongue), “crestas de gallo” (rooster combs), “morcilla” (blood sausage), and the list goes on.