5 Typical Spanish dishes you might never have heard of
OK, let’s forget about the paella, churros, gazpacho, and tortilla. I personally never touch any of these unless they’re homemade. I want to inform you about other interesting and standard dishes you’ll find on a menu in Spain, most of which will be unfamiliar to you. We’re going to experience the real Spanish gastronomy and you’ll get a glimpse of what´s cooking in Spain´s kitchen.
Just a slight warning, some of the dishes might be shocking or considered disgusting for some but are a delicacy for others.
For those vegetarians … sorry but there aren’t any vegetarian options for the dishes I’m about to mention.
This is one of my favorite dishes! After I describe it I’m not sure if you´ll want to order it, but believe me, it’s really exquisite.
The carrillera is a typical stew that some people have known since they were little. The stew is made just like any other, with red wine, broth, onion, paprika, and carrot. The meat however, is the cheek of the pork. These are mainly the fatty parts found on both sides of the face between the snout and the ear.
The meat is usually served on a plate, bathed in the sauce from the stew, along with mashed potatoes. You know that you have a decent “carrillera” when the meat just falls apart because of its tenderness.
This dish is now used a lot in the creative kitchen where the meat is used as a pulled pork, mixed with anything that comes into the chef’s mind.
Give it a try, you’ll likely really love it!
Fun fact! If pork cheek is not your thing, the oxtail (or bull tail) is made the same way. So if you see “rabo de toro” on the menu, you´ll get three pieces sliced from the tail with the meat around the bone. It’s really recommendable, especially if you are in Cordoba where they claim to have the best.
This dish is best known in Madrid as “Cocido Madrileño”. There is a very similar version in the community north of Madrid called Castilla y León (Morañego or Maragato), and the southern region of the Sierra Nevada called Alpujarras, where the dish is named Plato Alpujarreño.
The word “Cocido” in English can be translated to cooked, boiled or stewed -here it means stewed. Another stew? Yes, another stew with meat, however, this one is completely different.
I do have to say that this dish is normally only consumed in the colder winter months due to the calories it contains.
The dish is really simple and there are many versions of it. The most typical is putting chorizo sausage, black pudding, ham (preferably with a bone), a large piece of bacon, and chicken legs in a big pot. This will boil for a few hours, and halfway through, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, and most importantly, half a kilo at least of chickpeas will be added.
As you can imagine, it is not a dish you would romantically serve to your partner, the biggest reason being the amount of fat it contains. Mainly, this dish is eaten with the family on a Sunday, or on Wednesday’s when served as lunch in most restaurants.
This dish is served in three stages, called vuelcos, which literally translates as roll or fall over. Maybe it comes from those falling from their chairs after finishing.
The first stage is the broth, which is served with noodles. A light starter to turn on your system before it goes on to full speed. The second vuelco is the other starter, a plate with the chickpeas, carrots and potatoes; on some occasions these are served together with the meat. The third “tip over” is no surprise, the meat. A plate with various parts of the pig that have been stewed for a few hours.
I´ve had this meal many times and in some places, they actually serve you around a kilo of vegetables and meat. In these cases, it’s best to ask for a doggy bag.
Tip: As mentioned, when you´ve ordered this meal in a restaurant: make sure you have sweatpants on, or at least are able to unbutton that top button of your pants.
Fun fact! In Madrid there is a similar dish called “Callos”, normally served as a tapa. This is a different stew made almost in the same manner, however, the main ingredient is tripe. In some places, it is very good, but I have tried some that were really quite disgusting. This is something to try for the diehards.
This dish, which used to be made only by the poor, and in those days consisted of breadcrumbs and fat, has turned out to be a beloved dish all over Spain. Sometimes served as tapas, or on a menu as a starter, this dish has 101 variations. The two main ingredients are still breadcrumbs and fat, however, each province has its own version.
The recipe I´ve seen most is when they put bacon fat and chorizo in a pan, add garlic and paprika powder and let it simmer. A baguette from the previous day is broken into pieces the size of croutons. This is added to the mix and stir-fried for 30 minutes.
Once again a simple dish, but some restaurants can really make awesome migas, especially when served as a tapa with your beer before a night out.
Oreja is a very simple dish, served only as a tapa while sipping on a cold beer. This is actually a pig’s ear ( Yes, another part of the pig).
Personally, I´ve never liked any pigs-ear recipes that I’ve tried. I’ve had them deep-fried, stir-fried, boiled, with lime juice, and I never liked any of them. It is not the taste, but the texture. Half bone, half meat that is chewy, … sometimes there are those things you just don’t get used to. Though this doesn’t mean that you won’t like it, so give it a try.
There is something quite similar commonly served as well, called torreznos, which is a layer of pork skin, fat, and meat, marinated with paprika; it’s then cured and fried. Some bars actually show off by saying they have the best torreznos in town. I personally believe that one bite equals as many calories as a deep-fried Mars bar.
Enough of the pork meat. Now let’s focus on shellfish. Shellfish is eaten everywhere in Spain, especially on the coast where you find marisquerias, restaurants specializing in shellfish.
Each corner of Spain, whether it be Galicia, Barcelona, Murcia, Málaga or Huelva, will have their local specialty. They come in all sizes and shapes, percebes (gooseneck barnacles), navajas (razor clams), vieiras (large scallop), zamuriñas (small scallop), almejas (clams), ostras (oysters), mejillones (mussels) erizos de mar (sea urchins), cangrejo (crab), and centolla (king crab), just to name a few.
Then there’s the shrimp family, which is a whole other story. There’s camarón, carabinero, gamba blanca, gamba roja, langostino, and langosta, the last one being the lobster.
Since almost all of the shellfish are quite expensive to buy, they are not usually served as a tapa. These are ordered as a portion when eating out with friends, with the shrimp being by far the most popular in all of Spain.
I do want to go back to the first one I mentioned, the gooseneck barnacles, percebes in Spanish. The shellfish looks like anything besides a gooseneck, more like a claw, or a tiny elephant foot. They sell for around € 150,- ($ 180,-) per kilo because they cannot be farmed, and are extremely hard to catch. Percebeiros, the person who catches them, is lowered by a rope along the steep cliffs of Galicia in northern Spain during low tide, and with a sharp knife, they cut a piece of rock to which the percebe is stuck. This can only be done when the water is calm, which is most of the time in Galicia. Maybe a career change – dangling on a rope across a cliff, cutting away tiny elephant feet with a sharp knife?
To eat them, they must be boiled in seawater for just two minutes. With your nails, you break off the top, which looks like its toes. After the top is broken off, a jelly-like substance comes out which you eat, which you slurp into your mouth.
But, come to think of it, eating shellfish will always be something weird. You´re eating an entire animal in one or two bites. A gamba, you twist its head off, and in Spain, the tradition goes to suck out the brains.
These are five dishes you can find on a Spanish menu, and now you know what they are, how they are prepared, and most importantly whether you want to try one of them. I specifically didn’t include the stereotypical bull testicles; you´ll never see them on a menu as the Spanish do not eat them. The rest of the delightful dishes I’ve stated are quite easy to find, so I wish you a bon provecho!