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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Spain

Culinary Influences

Spanish Food - Fruit market
Fruit market

Spain's present diet is the result of multiple influences, most particularly from their spice trade with both the Moors and as a world leader and trading partner during the 1400 and 1500s. Prior to these outside influences though the country is fairly large and the locally available ingredients varied slightly from one region to the next. The northern part of Spain, particularly the northwestern corner relied more on animal meats, fats, and dairy products than the rest of the country. The rest of the region originally relied more on fresh produce as their long growing seasons provided various foods during different seasons.

The first outside influence to vastly alter the food in Spain came by sea from the Greeks and Romans. These people introduced grapes, olives, and wheat among others. They also encouraged new foods or vast production of others as the Romans favored Spanish hams, which then grew in popularity.

The next great influence came with the Moors from Northern Africa. The Moors brought with them lemons, nuts, rice, and honey, but their greatest and most lasting contribution came in the form of spices. These spices, including cinnamon and saffron, were primarily from the Middle East and have become necessary for many Spanish dishes today.

In the 1400s and 1500s, Spain became a powerful nation as they secured numerous trading routes and imported numerous ingredients and spices from their overseas colonies. Their spice trade continued as they imported more spices from Asia, but they also added a large number of new ingredients from the Americas including potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, chocolate, and corn. Even today, Spain's cuisine is unique to Europe, primarily due to the fact that they allowed these outside influences to become such an integral aspect of their cuisine.

Staple Foods

Various parts of Spain have various staples or more commonly used foods. Generally speaking, meats or fish and vegetables are common in most dishes as are dairy products, such as cheese. Olive oil and garlic are also common ingredients, however the only true staples are:
Bread: generally served with meals or before meals
Rice: brought with the Moors, rice is now an essential ingredient in multiple dishes

Regional Variations & Specialties

Central Spain: meats and stews are common
Gazpacho: cold tomato soup; more common in southern Spain
Northern Spain: lots of fish and sauces
Paella: rice dish typically made with seafood (or with sausage and other meats), vegetables and saffron; served as a stew or as a dry dish
Pyrenees: vegetables dominate, particularly peppers, tomatoes, and onions
Tapas: small dishes served so everyone can sample various items

Dining Etiquette

Spanish Food - Paella
Paella

A meal with the Spanish can be an event that includes eating, drinking, dancing, and entertainment so be prepared for a number of festivities and don't make plans for the rest of the evening. If you get invited into a local's home be sure to bring a gift, like chocolates, cake, or wine.

Once you arrive 15-30 minutes late, get past the gift giving, shake everyone's hand (including women and children), and you're shown your seat most of the formalities are done. The purpose of dining is to socialize so focus on this as many of the dining rules are similar to the rest of Europe. These similarities include not eating until your host does, keeping your hands within sight during the meal, and eating in the continental style (knife in the right hand, fork in the left), but when a knife is not needed, many Spaniards will use the fork in the right hand and have bread in the left to push food onto the fork. If you happen to be the guest of honor you may also be asked to give a toast, but let the host lead this.

As you finish your food, eat everything on your plate as leaving anything is somewhat rude and viewed as wasteful. Fortunately, the Spanish are more forgiving of picky eaters than most and turning down a dish that does not appeal to you will generally be accepted. After the meal be prepared for music and dancing; although this isn't a rule, in many restaurants it is common, especially after a late dinner and most dinners in Spain begin between 9:00 and 11:00 pm.

Another thing to remember if you're dining out is that the inviter generally pays for everyone and if you're traveling solo, eating alone in a restaurant for dinner is viewed as very strange so try to make a friend.

Tipping is not common in Spain, although rounding your bill up is generally appreciated and not entirely uncommon among the locals. Unless you are in a tourist restaurant that is used to foreigners, leaving no tip is normal; in restaurants catered to foreigners, the wait staff does expect tips, but again it is not necessary.

Drinks

Spain has a large variety of non-alcoholic drinks including one of the most popular, coffee, but also has soft drinks, tea, juices, and milk. For a more local flavor, try solares, which is very popular, or any of the local carbonated drinks, which include mineral water and citrus sodas.

When it comes to alcohol, Spain is known for its local wines and this tends to be the most commonly drank alcoholic beverage as well. The wines in Spain are served in numerous styles and various settings. Sherry is a strong fortified wine that is to be slowly sipped while sangria is a combination of wine with fruits and sometimes mineral water. Calimocho is wine mixed with Coke and is not as popular, but is interesting and worth a try for the wine and Coke fanatic. Mixed drinks, like the pina colada, and beer are also popular in Spain.

Generally speaking, the tap water is safe to drink in Spain, but check with locals for any particular regional differences. Also, many people may have troubles adjusting to the local tap water, as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to.

This page was last updated: March, 2013