Having lived in Spain for eight years, I have developed a lifelong love affair with Spanish cuisine. Today my friend Chad Emery of Langoly has kindly offered to share a list of popular Spanish foods and traditional Spanish tapas with us.
Spanish cuisine is one of the most vibrant and diverse foods in the world. From the paella to gazpacho and all kinds of cure meat, traditional Spanish dishes are gaining fame in the global culinary scene.
Social and political influences have also transformed Spanish cuisine and culture throughout history. Today, Spanish is one of the most widely-spoken languages in the world, and Spanish culture is becoming renown beyond the borders. Spain embraces its past and shows its beauty through its various dishes.
To share what I love about Spain with you, I have put together a detailed guide on Spanish cuisine, including the most popular food in Spain, traditional Spanish tapas, and where to have them in Spain. Check out my recipes from Spain if you’d like to cook them yourself!
Typical Spanish Breakfasts
Tostada con Tomate (Tomato Toast)
One of the most traditional Spanish breakfast dishes is a tostada, basically a slice of toasted baguette bread. The Spanish usually eat their tostada with olive oil or grated tomato (and topped with Spanish ham if they’re fancy!). We made this at home almost everyday when we lived in Spain. Originally from Catalonia, the tostada is called Pa amb tomàquet in Barcelona, Valencia and the Balearic islands.
Churros (Dough Fritters)
Possibly one of the most famous Spanish foods worldwide, churros are commonly eaten for breakfast. These fried dough fritters are usually dipped in thick hot chocolate and taste like heaven! The best place in Spain to try churros is the famous Chocolatería San Ginés in Madrid, that is usually open 24 hours!
Like many other Europeans, the Spanish like to start their day with sweet foods. The napolitana (chocolate filled pastry) is a popular Spanish breakfast item enjoyed in cafes and at home. Another popular breakfast item in Spain is the ensaimada (a sweet pastry from Mallorca often stuffed with pumpkin or other sweet goodness).
Traditional Spanish Tapas
Spanish tapas are renown around the world for good reason. These bite-size appetizers pack in all the goodness of fresh Spanish ingredients. They are simple and unpretentious, and are a perfect representation of Spanish cuisine. In some Spanish cities (such as Granada where we lived), most bars serve free tapas when you order a drink. You can often have a full meal with a combination of 3 or 4 tapas. Read my collection of Spanish recipes to make them yourself at home!
This simple fruit is central to Spanish cuisine, whether in the form of the beloved all-purpose ingredient, olive oil, or in its original state. You’ll often get a small bowl of olives (for free) before a meal or to accompany a drink — but if you want to sample the best of the best, you’ll find them in a local Spanish market.
Jamón Serrano (Cured Ham)
Jamón, or ham, is produced around the entire country of Spain, and cured ham is considered one of the prized gourmet foods in the country. In fact, Spain is the biggest producer and consumer of cured ham in the world!
Jamón serrano, or mountain ham, comes from all over Spain and is made from different breeds of white pigs. It’s cured for up to 16 months. Jamón iberico (Iberian ham), on the other hand, is specific to the Southwestern region of Spain. These pigs eat typical feed, but also freely graze on acorns. This gives the meat a distinct flavor. Jamón iberico is cured for up to 36 months.
Tortilla Española (Spanish Omelette)
Spanish Omelette is definitely one of the most popular Spanish tapas among both locals and tourists. The dish actually goes by a few different names, including tortilla de patatas or tortilla de papas (potato omelette).
Spanish Omelette is an egg and potato dish that is cooked in a skillet. It might sound pretty basic and simple to make, but making a good Spanish Omelette isn’t quite as easy as you think. The best ones are crispy on the outside and runny on the inside.
Boquerones en Vinagre (Anchovies in Vinegar)
Boquerones are Spanish anchovies that are bigger than the anchovies we know, and commonly found throughout Spain. Freshly plucked from the Atlantic Ocean and filleted by hand, these anchovies are marinated in extra virgin olive oil and white wine vinegar, with sliced garlic and parsley. You usually eat them on a crisp bread sprinkled with red pepper flakes. You can easily buy these anchovies in a can from the supermarket and garnish it yourself.
Pimientos de Padrón (Spicy Peppers from Galicia)
Eating pimientos de Padrón (peppers from the municipality of Padrón) is like a game of Russian roulette. These small, bright green peppers are usually fried in olive oil until the skin starts to blister, then sprinkled with salt.
Most of the peppers are mild and even have a hint of sweetness. However, about 10% of the peppers develop a spicy flavor. There’s no way to tell which peppers are spicy and which are mild, so eating pimientos de Padrón can add some excitement to any meal!
Every Spaniard swears that their mother makes the best croquettes. These creamy fritters are a staple of the Spanish tapas scene, and you’ll find them offered throughout the country. They come with different fillings, but the most popular ones are croquetas de jamón (cured ham croquettes). These are small, lightly breaded and fried bechamel fritters that have tiny bits of delicious Spanish cured ham in them.
Berenjena Con Miel (Fried Eggplant with Honey)
This fried eggplant with honey recipe is a popular Spanish tapas throughout Andalusia in southern Spain. What I love most about it is that it is both sweet and savory. If done right, the eggplant will not be too heavy and oily and it should be fluffy and crispy. A generous portion of miel de caña (sugarcane molasses) is drizzled over the deep-fried eggplant to give it that oomph.
Spanish Seafood Dishes
Because of the coastline surrounding Spain, seafood is a staple in Spanish cuisine. Spain definitely has some of the freshest seafood in Europe. And besides fish and shrimp, there is a wide variety of sea creatures that are incorporated into the Spanish cuisine. Here are some of the most popular seafood dishes from Spain.
Paella de Mariscos (Seafood Paella)
Mention Spanish cuisine and most people would think of paella. The national dish of Spain is well known all over the world, and is definitely the number one most popular Spanish food.
Seafood paella is one variation of this famous dish, and it is one of the most delicious one on this list of traditional Spanish dishes. The most common seafoods used in paella are prawns, mussels, and clams. Some places also add in a bit of chorizo. This dish is originally from Valencia, but is popular over the country these days.
Pescado Frito (Fried Fish)
A good deep-fried fish platter or ‘pescaíto frito’ (as the Andalusians say) is one of those guilty pleasures that reminds you that you don’t need to spend a fortune in a Michelin-starred restaurant to afford good authentic Spanish food.
Pescado frito is basically made using fresh fish (usually a mixture of anchovies, cod fish, and sardines), coating them in flour and deep-frying them. These days, small seafood stands have popped out all over Spain selling pescado frito wrapped in big cones.
Pulpo a la Gallega (Octopus)
Octopus (pulpo) prepared in the Galician style (a la gallega) is one of the most famous Spanish dishes. The octopus is boiled and cut into small pieces, then sprinkled with salt and a lot of paprika. Because it’s so easy to prepare and eat, this dish is a go-to for large parties and gatherings. Of course the best place you can go to try this is in Galicia, northern Spain.
Bacalao Pil Pil (Salted Cod)
A popular Spanish food from the Basque Country in Spain, bacalao pil pil is a dish centered around salted cod. The true art of preparing this dish is the “pil pil” dance the cod performs in the pan. This involves moving the cod quickly around the pan. When it’s done correctly, a frothy liquid is created that resembles mayonnaise.
Once the cod is thoroughly cooked and ready to serve, the froth is drizzled over the top, along with some garlic and paprika.
Espetos (Grilled Sardines)
One of my favorite Spanish foods to eat in summer is the espeto. The history of this dish dates back to the 19th century. When fishermen had too many fish leftover, they used to grill the extra fish on the beaches. The modern way of preparing espetos usually puts about 6 sardines on a skewer and grilling them.
The sardines are seasoned with sea salt and grilled over olive wood, which gives them a savory taste. Espetos are usually paired with beer, soft drinks, or tinto de verano (a Spanish red wine drink).
Spanish Meat Dishes
Meat is taken very seriously in Spain, and it is often used as the main course at celebrations and fiestas throughout the year. Usually cooked slowly over a fire and mixed with fresh herbs and spices, Spanish meat dishes are always full of flavor. Meat is almost always found in the most popular Spanish foods.
Here are some of the most common meat dishes in Spain.
Rabo de Toro (Ox Tail Stew)
One of the most common Spanish main courses found in restaurants is the Rabo de Toro or bull’s tail stew. Rabo de toro was originally developed so as not to waste any part of the bull killed in the bullfighting ring – hence the dish being more common in southern Spain, which is the home of bullfighting. Its garlicky sauce is rich and thick, usually incorporating red or white wine, sherry or brandy.
Cocido (Meat Stew)
Cocidos, or stews, are a longstanding tradition in Spain and are especially eaten in winter. Each region in Spain produces its own version of the cocido, but the most popular version is the cocido madrileño. The dish originated in Madrid, and grew in popularity during the 19th and 20th centuries. Since the main ingredient — chickpeas — were relatively cheap and easy to acquire, it was often on the menu in taverns and small restaurants. Nowadays, it’s a household staple.
Migas Con Chorizo (Breadcrumbs With Meat)
This is my Spanish husband’s absolute favorite dish in the world! Migas, or seasoned breadcrumbs, are mixed with other ingredients to make this traditional Spanish dish. Migas started as a breakfast food in Spain, but these days it has become the first course during lunch or dinner. Originally peasant food, some of the best restaurants throughout Spain now include migas on their menus. Most traditional Spanish recipes will include pork ribs, chorizo (Spanish sausage), morcilla (bloody sausage) and bacon in migas.
Cochinillo (Roasted Suckling Pig)
Cochinillo is a traditional Spanish dish originally from Segovia, a popular place to visit on a day trip from Madrid. The suckling pig is roasted to golden crispness. The meat is so tender that it practically falls apart when cooked properly. These piglets are roasted in large, open-faced brick ovens and then cut with plates (to show how tender they are).
Cordero Asado (Roasted Lamb)
A popular main course in Spanish meals, the lamb (cordero) is roasted (asado) over an open fire while the side dishes are prepared. Common side dishes for roasted lamb are roasted potatoes and onions.
Popular around Christmas each year, this dish is hearty, flavorful, and filling. Most traditional Spanish restaurants will have their own version of this popular dish, and no two are alike.
Regional Specialties in Spain
The Spanish cuisine holds a unique spot on the world stage, but the true beauty of foods from Spain lies in the different regional dishes. Spain’s landscape encompasses different climates and environments, and each region’s specialty dishes reflect this. Here are some of Spain’s most popular regional dishes.
Gazpacho & Salmorejo (Tomato Cold Soup from Andalucia)
Gazpacho is a famous dish from Spain’s Andalucía region, where I used to live. It’s a soup made of raw, blended vegetables, like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, onions, and garlic. It is drank cold, and this is a popular dish throughout Spain during the hot summers.
But I personally prefer the salmorejo, a cold tomato soup similar gazpacho but thicker and creamier in texture. Bread is added to it, giving it more body and flavor. The purée is then garnished with diced Jamon Serrano and diced hard-boiled egg.
Cabrales (Cheese from Asturias)
The region of Asturias is known throughout Spain and the rest of the world for its pungent cheeses, especially the kind called cabrales. It’s a bleu cheese made by the dairy farmers in the region, and it has a very strong flavor.
Asturias is known as the land of the cheeses. Some other famous cheeses from the region include beyos, casín, and gamonéu.
Fabadas Asturiana (Bean Stew from Asturias)
Originally from Asturias in northern Spain, this classic stew is a pork lover’s dream, packed with chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage) and pork belly. The base of this Spanish stew consists of white beans and a hint of pimentón. Most people use bread to mop up all the juices. It is very heavy, and I would recommend eating it for lunch instead of dinner.
Cargols a la Llauna (Snails from Catalonia)
This is a simple Spanish dish of land snails cooked on a grill or in a tin pan (llauna). You would then drizzle aioli (a combination of mayo and garlic) or vinaigrette over the snails to add more flavor. Although the sound of snails might not be enticing to everybody, this dish is definitely worth a try. You may surprise yourself and enjoy it.
You can actually find snails in other parts of Spain, but cooked in different ways. For instance in Cordoba, snails are usually cooked with a tomato based sauce punctured with spices.
Tonyina a l’Evissenca (Tuna from the Balearic Islands)
This dish translates to “tuna from Ibiza”, a popular Spanish dish in the Balearic islands. Tuna are plentiful in the Mediterranean sea, so it makes sense that this is a common dish. Besides the amazing food, there’s so much to do in the Balearic islands, especially on the biggest island, Mallorca.
The tuna fish is cooked in a tomato sauce made of pine nuts, eggs and white wine to form a kind of stew. This delicacy is full of flavor, and it’s also very healthy! For me, this dish encapsulates the soul of Balearic islands.
Traditional Spanish Desserts
Enjoying a traditional Spanish dessert is the best way to top off any Spanish meal, and there are a lot of delectable dishes to choose from. Here are some of the best Spanish desserts:
Flan (Custard Pudding)
Flan is a popular dessert not only throughout Spain, but also throughout Central and South America. It’s a simple egg custard mixed with vanilla and topped with a delicious, sticky caramel sauce.
With a caramelized sugar crust and a soft, smooth base, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t enjoy flan. It’s a light dessert, so it’s also the perfect choice to have after a heavy meal.
Arroz con Leche (Rice with Milk)
This is Spain’s version of rice pudding, which is a common dessert around the world. Unlike other versions though, the Spanish arroz con leche is served cold. Risotto or or paella rice are used as the base, and this gives the dessert a nice, chewy texture.
To add Mediterranean flare, the Spanish top arroz con leche with cinnamon and lemon peel.
Membrillo con Queso (Jam with Cheese)
Membrillo is a candied jam made from quince fruit. Quince fruit is similar to apples and pears, but it has a somewhat tart flavor. Because of its flavor, the Spanish pair this jam with cheese. This is a common dessert in Spain’s Basque Country, and the best cheese to use is Manchego.
Buñuelos de Viento (Wind Fritters)
These bite-size fritters are a perfect afternoon treat or after-dinner dessert. They’re filled with egg custard, marmalade, or pastry cream, then lightly fried. Dusted with powdered sugar, these snacks are easy to prepare and are sure to please any sweet tooth!
Turrón (Almond Nougat)
A traditional Spanish treat during the Christmas holidays, turrón is usually made exclusively with crushed almonds and honey. Nowadays, rice cereal and different types of chocolate are thrown into the mix to add another layer of sugary goodness. Any chocolate lover will enjoy this snack!
Where to Eat in Barcelona
Barcelona is the cultural capital of Spain, it’s easy to see why. With a unique architectural landscape and a thriving art community, the creativity in Barcelona is also apparent in its food scene. Read more on best wine and tapas spots in Barcelona.
We recommend trying the following restaurants and bars on a weekend in Barcelona.
Bodega Biarritz 1881
Long considered one of the best tapas restaurants in Barcelona, Bodega Biarritz 1881 is definitely worth a try during a trip to Barcelona. Tapas are one of the best ways to try a lot of different Spanish dishes at once, and Bodega Biarritz 1881 offers a wide variety of them. It’s cash-only though, so be sure to make a stop at the ATM beforehand. Here’s the TripAdvisor review.
For a traditional Spanish-style steakhouse, Pampero is the best choice. This restaurant is known for its fine cuts of meat and it’s tasty beef empanadas. It’s not the most central location in Barcelona, but it’s definitely worth the extra steps! Read the TripAdvisor review.
Lokal Bar is a low-key tapas restaurant with an expansive list of cocktails and wines. It has a really creative menu for adventurous people, but also has more traditional steaks and pastas. The service is the best aspect of this restaurant, and the wait staff really adds to the welcoming atmosphere. Read the TripAdvisor review.
Where to Eat in Madrid
Madrid is Spain’s business and financial capital, but Spanish culture can easily be found in the city’s thousands of restaurants. Here are some of the best places to eat in Madrid.
Meson Restaurante La Mi Venta
This restaurant has a whole host of traditional Spanish dishes, like tapas, roasted lamb, grilled hake, and even Padrón peppers. The restaurant was created to share some of Spain’s most famous dishes with an elaborate twist. This is also a great spot to try jamón iberico! Here’s the TripAdvisor review.
Taberna Mas Al Sur
The atmosphere at Taberna Mas Al Sur is that of a typical Spanish tavern. Their menu doesn’t have a wide variety of dishes, but the dishes they do have are absolutely delicious. The staff has a talent for pairing wines with each dish, and this helps patrons have a true Spanish experience. Read the TripAdvisor review.
Los Montes de Galicia
Los Montes de Galicia aspires to provide a complete dining experience, complete with fine Spanish wines and a unique interpretation of classic and modern Spanish delicacies. The restaurant has an elegant atmosphere, so it’s the perfect opportunity to start a night out in Madrid. Read the TripAdvisor review.
How To Read the Spanish Menu
Learning how to speak Spanish before traveling can help you navigate Spain more easily, but it’s still pretty easy to get around without knowing the language. Since food can make or break a trip, it’s important to at least know some basic phrases to use in Spanish restaurants. Here are some words and phrases to know when you’re dining out in Spain.
Popular Spanish Main Dishes
Chicken – Pollo
Pork – Cerdo
Beef – Carne
Steak – Bistek
Fish – Pez
Shrimp – Gambas
Lamb – Cordero
Peppers – Pimientos
Carrots – Zanahorias
Lettuce – Lechuga
Onion – Cebolla
Corn – Maíz
Potato – Patata
Tomato – Tomate
Popular Drinks in Spanish
Water – Agua
Beer – Cerveza
Small Beer – Caña
Red/White Wine – Vino tinto/blanco
Refresco – Soft drink
Tea – Té
Coffee – Café
Helpful Restaurant Phrases in Spanish
I would like – Me gustaria…
Can I have the check, please? – La cuenta, por favor.
Where is the bathroom? – Dónde está el baño?
A table for two, please. – Una mesa para dos, por favor.
Appetizer – Entrada
Main Dish – Entrada
Dessert – Postre
To learn more useful words and phrases, there are a lot of excellent language learning apps you can use to build up your vocabulary. Most restaurant staff, especially in Barcelona and Madrid, do speak some basic English though. Knowing these dishes and some helpful Spanish phrases beforehand can go a long way when you venture into the world of Spanish cuisine.
Spain has a lot more to offer than food, but the Spanish cuisine will definitely add a few surprises to any trip. It’s always a good idea to enjoy the local cuisine when you’re traveling, so make sure to try these traditional Spanish dishes during your next visit.
What is your favorite traditional Spanish dish? Did we miss out any other popular Spanish food? Leave a comment below to let us know!
About the Author: Chad Emery
Chad Emery is passionate about traveling the globe and is a self-proclaimed language enthusiast. He started Langoly to help people learn and teach languages more effectively, and loves connecting with people from around the world. To join the global language community, you can follow Langoly on Twitter and Facebook.
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