Spain is a gourmet wonderland, and many of the finest foods in Spain need little introduction. But beyond their famous exports, there’s a variety and quality that elevates Spanish food beyond the ordinary.
You don’t need to find Michelin-starred eateries to enjoy the best of Spanish cuisine. Great food can be found in tapas bars, vibrant markets, and small neighbourhood restaurants. To help you find the best, we’ve compiled a guide to the gastronomic delights that showcase the national cuisine.
Spanish tapas classics
Think of Spanish food, and tapas immediately springs to mind. The small plate concept is a culinary phenomenon that has spread far beyond Spain. Yet when it comes to naming the best tapas dishes, opinions rarely align.
One reason why everybody has different favourites is the sheer variety. Any dish can be tapas. The word is derived from “tapar”, meaning cover and the food was once served on lids for pots, aka tapa. Legend tells of illiterate travellers stopping in posadas (inns) and not knowing what to order from the menu. Instead, innkeepers would serve a selection of small plates. A brilliant idea that has stood the test of time.
While it is not uncommon for Spanish bars to serve tapas free to soak up the beer, the concept has taken on its own culinary life. Like the forerunner to tasting menus, without the eyewatering bill.
With that potted history (pun intended) out of the way, let’s look at tapas classics that you can expect to find on every menu.
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In Spain, you’re more likely to hear the term tortilla de patatas, or potato omelette. The prosaic name says it all. The dish is traditionally made with just two ingredients: eggs and potatoes. And a touch of olive oil to sauté the potatoes.
Tortilla Espanola is the epitome of simple yet flavoursome food that Spanish cuisine is renowned for. It is Spain’s national dish. So beloved, it is named after the country.
Onion might appear, although purists would argue they are different tortillas. There are even conflicting camps, with ‘team no-onion’ known as sincebollistas and onion-loving heretics called concebollistas. If you’re looking for a quiet night, avoid picking a side.
Aside from being utterly delicious, one reason the dish is a tapas staple is that it can be served warm or cold. It can sit in the fridge all day and be sliced on request. Successful tapas bars know that it pays to have both varieties available, so everybody is happy.
Potatoes are the star of another fabled Spanish dish, patatas bravas. Fried potatoes doused in a spicy tomato sauce is a constant tapas bar favourite.
Warming, filling, and made for wolfing down with ice-cold cerveza, it is comfort food for a nation.
The base is always fried potato chunks. The sauce is usually a thick salsa of tomatoes and pimentón (smoked paprika).
Bravas translates as brave, which suggests something off the Scoville scale. But the sauce is usually relatively mild.
Unlike the tortilla Espanola, variations are welcome. Aioli (garlic mayonnaise) is often added. And some bars get creative with their tomato sauce. Ironically, there are no heated debates about the right recipe.
You can deep-fry just about anything and make it taste good (deep-fried tarantula, anyone?). But croquetas showcase the best of deep-frying.
Croquetas come in many different styles worldwide. In Spain, they are bite-sized balls of bechamel sauce wrapped in breadcrumbs and fried into a golden, crispy nugget of savoriness.
Different ingredients cater to different tastes, with salted cod (bacalao salado) and chicken popular. But the king of croquetas, and one of the most popular foods in Spain, is croquetas de Jamón, made with Serrano ham (another gastronomic delight on our list).
Here’s a recipe for croquetas de Jamón from the Spanish Chef to whet your appetite. Just be sure to make enough as they are incredibly moreish.
Pimientos de Padrón
Foods in Spain don’t come much plainer than pimientos de Padrón. If you want to get some greens on your table, these spice bombs are on tapas menus across Spain.
Made with small green peppers from Padrón in Galicia, northern Spain, there is nothing but olive oil and salt added. Sauteed and then served in a steaming pile, these mild peppers usually disappear before the steam stops rising.
Sometimes served with a fried egg or fried potatoes, pimientos de Padrón is one of the easiest-to-find vegetarian foods in Spain. If you are craving even more vegetables, look for the equally scrumptious alubias verdes con ajo (green beans and garlic).
Pollo al ajillo
Garlic fans will love pollo al ajillo. Translated as garlic chicken, this is another tapas favourite bursting with flavour. Chicken thighs (sometimes entire chickens) are mixed with generous amounts of garlic, white wine and bay leaves. Coated in flour and pepper, sauteed, and then finished in the broth, the dish smells as good as it tastes.
You’ll find various iterations of pollo al ajillo across Spain. But as the name suggests, garlic is a constant. Full of flavour yet deceptively simple to make (this recipe will show you how), pollo al ajillo is one of the most comforting foods in Spain.
Gambas al ajillo
Garlic elevates another beloved tapas dish, gambas al ajillo. This time prawns (shrimp) are the main ingredient.
Olive oil and garlic are plentiful in this dish. Shell on or off, plump prawns are required to stand up in the rich flavours. Good restaurants don’t hold back on the olive oil, as you want lots of juice to dip bread into. Added to those essential ingredients are dried pepper flakes and a splash of sherry. Chopped parsley is added for a bit of colour. That’s it – uncomplicated, heavenly, and a dish you can smell from a mile away.
One feature of popular foods in Spain is lots of sauce to dip your bread into. Albondigas are mini meatballs — typically pork and beef — swimming in a rich tomato sauce that is made for dipping.
It’s up to the chef what goes into the sauce. Like many foods in Spain, garlic is standard. But the stock, herbs, spices, and even chopped vegetables ensure myriad combinations are possible.
Albondigas is easily upgraded to a main dish with more meatballs and a side of patatas. It is one of the foods in Spain that adults and children can’t get enough of.
Pintxos (or pinchos) are like bite-sized open sandwiches. Often confused with tapas, pintxos are snacks served in bars across the Basque country.
The only common ingredient is a thin slice of bread to make them easy to pop in your mouth. What goes on the bread is only limited by imagination.
Tapas favourites like tortilla, croquetas, and stuffed peppers are common toppings. But you can also expect to find simple ingredients like anchovies and chorizo. And you may even chance upon more sophisticated options in high-end restaurants.
Impaled with a cocktail stick, the tiny morsels are another of those foods in Spain that are perfect for socialising. Often stacked in enticing piles behind the bar, they are a photogenic highlight of holidays in the Basque region. The only challenge is deciding which to eat. And then holding yourself back from ordering every variety!
Spain’s most celebrated dishes
There is far more to Spanish cuisine than tapas. We don’t have the space to reel off all the prominent foods in Spain, but several have an outsized reputation that cannot be ignored.
Paella is arguably the most famous of all Spanish foods. The iconic speciality of Valencia is served across Spain, yet still regarded as a regional dish in a country that takes pride in local specialities.
Paella takes its name from the wide shallow pan used to cook the rice dish. Traditionally, paella is cooked over an open fire using an aromatic mix of orange and pine branches.
The list of ingredients for a classic paella Valenciana is long. Short-grain rice, chicken, rabbit, beans, artichoke, saffron, paprika, tomatoes, and rosemary are standard.
Snails and duck are optional. In the days when meat was out of reach to all but the wealthy, snails were the preferred protein. Today, snails are often absent in tourist restaurants to avoid discouraging customers.
Seafood paella is a popular alternative. Sometimes called preparación barroca (baroque preparation), whatever catch is fresh and available may appear in the dish.
One ingredient you will never find added is chorizo. Even a mention of using this ingredientes prohibidos (forbidden ingredient) can create a social media storm. Just ask the British TV chef, Jamie Oliver.
Due to the high number of expensive ingredients and long cooking time, paella is traditionally a Sunday dinner special. It’s another of those foods in Spain that is made for sharing with friends and family.
Similar dishes from others regions are among the most beloved regional foods in Spain. Such as el arroz negro (black rice) and arròs a banda (a seafood rice dish found in the Alicante region).
If paella is for special occasions, migas is for everyday eating. Once made by shepherds, migas is prepared with stale bread (migas means breadcrumbs) and whatever ingredients are available, often chorizo or pieces of bacon.
Like many understated foods in Spain, garlic, olive oil, and paprika bring the dish to life. Typically served as a first course, migas is easy to convert into a satisfying meal with the addition of fried eggs, meat, or even offal.
Variations of migas can be found in Mexico and Portugal. A breakfast staple in some places, migas is a go-to dish for budget-conscious cooking that does not scrimp on flavour.
Not many soups are globally famous. But this cold confection of raw vegetables has a memorable name and an outsized reputation.
Once made with stale bread (bread is rarely wasted in Spain), the most common version is red gazpacho. But foods in Spain are nothing if not versatile, and there are many variations to be found. Vegetables like avocado and cucumber are common. As is fruit like watermelon and strawberries. Preferably in season. There are even meaty versions made with stock or seafood. The only limit is imagination.
If you want the classic version, look for gazpacho made with tomatoes, cucumber, onions, and peppers. Here’s a gazpacho recipe from the New York Times that demonstrates the ease of making this summer classic.
Conchillo Asado (Tostón asado)
Few foods in Spain excite appetites like Conchillo Asado, roast suckling pig. Roasted until the skin shatters like glass, this dish can trace its roots back through several centuries. First served in Castile, it won admirers in Madrid before becoming popular across Spain.
A communal dish for special occasions, if you can find tostón asado on the menu you’re in for a treat. But the place to find tostón asado is at mercados across Spain, like many fine foods in Spain.
Delicious Spanish snacks
Many of the most popular foods in Spain are uncomplicated creations made with fresh ingredients. It is evident in many tapas favourites, not to mention some of Spain’s favourite snacks.
Empanadas are a popular snack throughout the Hispanic world. Like the language, empanadas originated in Spain. Galicia, to be precise.
A derivation of the word empanar (bread), different fillings are wrapped in dough and then baked or fried. Common fillings include meat, cheese, or tomato. But in the 21st century, there are many variations, including sweet versions.
Empanadas are one of the oldest foods in Spain, earning a mention in the 1520 cookbook, Llibre del Coch by Robert de Nola. Five centuries later, they remain one of the most beloved foods in Spain and beyond.
Pan con tomate (Catalan: Pa amb tomàquet)
Of all the foods in Spain, nothing is less complicated than pan con tomate, aka bread with tomato. The dish is a tapas bar staple in Barcelona and the Catalan region
The name undersells just how appetising this dish is. Like its Italian cousin, bruschetta, pan con tomate only works with ripe tomatoes. Just take a slice of bread (often toasted), drizzle in extra-virgin olive oil and then smear tomatoes all over. A sprinkle of sea salt adds the finishing touch.
Pan con tomate is a messy finger-licking delight served throughout Catalonia and other regions of Spain. You may see it called pan tumaca; you may see it served ready-made or served for self-assembly. Cheap, healthy, and bursting with summer flavours, it is yet another marriage of bold flavours typical of Spanish cuisine.
Tostas de tomate y jamón
A simple riff on pan con tomate, tostas de tomate y jamón adds one game-changing ingredient: succulent serrano ham. Needless to say, it’s a match made in heaven.
Vegetables are back on the menu with pisto, billed as Spain’s answer to ratatouille. Typically served alongside other foods in Spain, pisto is a vegetable stew originally from Murcia and Extremadura.
In common with many other celebrated foods in Spain, tomatoes and olive oil are the backbone of the dish. Added to the mix are courgettes, onions, peppers, and maybe aubergine (eggplant). Unlike gazpacho, pisto is served warm, with chunks of crusty bread to soak up the sauce and your appetite.
Caracoles (aka snails)
France may have the reputation, but plates of snails served with various dressings are enduringly popular foods in Spain. They are especially common in Catalonia.
Sometimes served in tapas bars and often on the menu in traditional Spanish restaurants, there are myriad ways of cooking caracoles. Although only one messy technique for eating them.
Caracoles a la Andaluza (Andalusian) is one of the leading versions, with the little hard-shelled critters served in a rich tomato sauce. If you like garlic with your snails, look for dishes like cargols a la llauna and cargolade, both Catalonian specialities.
A bocadillo is simply a sandwich. But what a sandwich it can be!
Bocadillos are near-iconic foods in Spain. Their popularity hinges on using fresh bread and high-quality ingredients. There is no limit to what goes between the slice of bread: from tortilla to hot meats slavered in aioli.
The undisputed king of Spanish sandwiches is bocadillo de Jamón – serrano ham sandwiched between coated in olive oil and/or tomato for added moisture. Delicioso!
Spain’s favourite food ingredients
Some of the most famous foods in Spain are ingredients used widely in local cuisine. They’re foods you can find in street markets across Spain and delis worldwide.
Chorizo is so ubiquitous, it is easy to forget how exotic this cured sausage once was.
What sets chorizo apart from the many iterations of cured pork sausage in Europe is the addition of pimentón, smoked paprika. There are numerous varieties, from smoked to unsmoked, sweet to fiery. There are also different grades of chorizo, from cooking sausages made with cheap cuts to fine chorizo made with high-grade Ibérico pork. You can even find chorizo made with horsemeat at local markets.
Spain’s Iberian neighbour, Portugal, does their own version called chouriço. It is piquant and moreish too, but not the same.
Jamón serrano / Jamón Ibérico (belotta)
Pork is a mainstay of diets in Spain. Cured and thinly sliced upon demand, everyday ham is known as jamón serrano. Made from white pigs and dry-cured for an average of 12 months, jamón serrano is one of the most consumed foods in Spain.
Some regional producers of jamón serrano are accorded protected status (PDO or PGI), so look for the distinctive logo to find the finest quality.
One of the most celebrated gastronomic foods in Spain is Jamón Ibérico. Made exclusively with Black Iberian pigs (or a 50/50 blend of Duroc and Iberian pigs) that are fattened on acorns in pastures they roam freely.
Jamón Ibérico is cured for 12 to 48 months. The finished product is graded white, green, red, or black label. Black label (pata negra) is the finest.
Better known as jamón ibérico de bellota, pata negra is made with 100% pork from free-range pigs that have gorged on bellotta (acorns). Cured for 36 months, jamón ibérico de bellota should melt in the mouth and is one of the most expensive Spanish foods.
Spain’s most famous contribution to the diverse world of European cheeses is Manchego. Hailing from the La Mancha region, the nutty, buttery cheese is made exclusively with milk from Manchega sheep.
PDO-protected, Manchego cheese may be matured for up to 2 years (viejo). More common is semi-curado (matured for 3 weeks to 4 months) and curado (matured for 3-6 months).
Manchego is not the only Spanish cheese, but the one you’re most likely to find in bocadillos and on tapas plates. No surprise, as Manchego cheese is one of the tastiest foods in Spain.
Sweet treats of Spain
Having satisfied your craving for the finest savoury foods in Spain, it is time to conclude our culinary tour with some desserts. Here is a selection of sugary foods in Spain that you’ll want to save your appetite for.
The best Spanish food has a global profile, and churros exemplifies this. The world was powerless to resist sticks of crunchy deep-fried dough coated in sugar, and churros are everywhere these days.
In Spain, churros are still served in cafés along with cups of thick hot chocolate or coffee. You might not notice the difference from churros sold in your home country, but there is something special about trying the dish in an authentic Spanish café.
Turrón is no ordinary nougat. Yes, it is still made with all the key ingredients: egg white, honey, sugar, and almonds. But the Spanish have nailed the process to create a candied confection par excellence.
Soft (blando) and hard (duro) varieties are common, alongside regional interpretations like torró d’Agramunt and torró de Casinos. If you are wondering what foods in Spain would make a great gift, turrón is a surefire winner.
Finding yet another use for stale bread, torrijas is one of the sugary foods in Spain that you often see on breakfast tables. It is a Spanish version of French toast and a firm family favourite across the Iberian Peninsula.
Best served fresh and hot, there is little to distinguish torrijas from the better-known French toast, as this recipe illustrates. But torrijas are so toothsome, we couldn’t leave it off this list.
Crema Catalana is also known as crema cremada (burnt cream). Which sounds a lot like crème brulée. And there is little to distinguish the famous French dessert from the Catalonian version, except crema Catalana is made with milk rather than cream. Vanilla is the key flavour, and the burnt sugar on the crust gives it the caramel notes that make the dessert popular in Spain and France.
Arroz con Leche
We wrap up our guide to the most delectable foods in Spain with a global favourite: rice pudding. The Spanish version is made with just a handful of ingredients (milk, rice, sugar, and cinnamon). But the addition of lemon zest gives the dessert a distinctly Spanish twist.