If you regularly follow Wandering Footsteps, you know that food plays a big role in my travels. I think it’s always been that way – I remember relishing eating out of a common bowl in Senegal, learning to cook daal bhaat tarkari with my host family in Nepal, and trying as many different street foods as possible in Thailand.
But it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve become conscious of my travel-for-food mentality. I now write blogs about the foods I discover during our travels – like following the tracks of injira in Ethiopia, finding vegetarian food in Turkey, and understanding food customs in Morocco – and quite honestly, they are among my favourite posts to write.
And so, of course, I was excited to discover Spanish cuisine when I entered the country for the first time last October. I had a very limited conception of what it would involve. I knew about paella, though I’m not sure if I’d ever actually eaten it. I knew about tapas, having frequently enjoyed an awesome tapas restaurant while living in Bangkok.
And, thanks to our Basque friends Josu and Ana, I knew about tortilla, the infamous Spanish omelette. One night in Nairobi, the four of us had sat around our camping table as Josu and Ana sautéed potato and eggplant in half a liter of olive oil, drizzled into the pan bit by bit, before pouring in the raw beaten egg mixture, lowering the heat, and flipping the one-inch-thick omelette for the next thirty minutes. As they cooked, they talked about how every Spaniard had their own preferred tortilla cooking method, usually based on the way their own mother had prepared it. Josu, for instance, loved them a bit soft and runny in the center, while Ana preferred them fully-cooked inside and out.
It seemed tortillas, like so many other food icons from around the world, were a complex affair. I was excited to eat it in Spain!
Had I know that tortilla would quickly become my go-to meal in Spain I might have curbed my excitement.
Despite my obvious love of food culture, I always experience a moment of fear when I’m at the cusp of experiencing it for the first time. I guess I’m intimidated, unsure of how to proceed, and self-conscious about my obvious greenness.
That’s how I felt that first day in Pamplona, as I stood staring at a bunch of small platters on the counter of a sunny bar.
I was in a pinchos (or pintxos) bar. Pamplona was full of them, and now that it was noon, they were hopping. Locals stood around wooden barrels with glasses of red wine and small plates of food, eating, drinking and being totally merry. The snack-sized plates were pinchos, the tapas plates of Spain’s north.
It was obvious that Bruno and I should go up to the bar, point at a plate, grab a glass of wine, and choose a barrel. There was one simple problem. Almost every tiny dish on the bar was either wrapped in jamón (ham) or topped with some kind of fish. As a vegetarian, I think the largest part of the fear when I first encounter a new food culture is related to not knowing whether the dish I’m staring at will be something I can actually eat.
With my incredibly broken Spanish, I mustered up the courage to ask the bartender if there was anything on the counter for me. I think my words went something like this: No como pollo, pescado, y jamón. Que comer? If my brother and his Ecuadorian in-laws are reading this now, I’m sure they’re laughing at my butcher-like efforts.
The bartender, however, refrained from laughing at me, probably because my question was such a serious one. She looked up and down her row of pinchos, winced, sighed, shrugged, and pushed the only dish I could eat my way: a potato tortilla.
I would soon learn this was the typical Spanish response when I’d announce my eating restrictions. Over the coming weeks, I ate more tortilla at more pinchos bars than I’d ever care to eat, and when Bruno and I were asked to share dinner with a Spanish family while we walked the Camino de Santiago, they served their strange vegetarian guest – you guessed it – tortilla.
Nope, it wasn’t proving to be easy to be a vegetarian in Spain. I encounter this challenge in most countries, but Spain was on a whole other level. Jamón was everywhere! It hung on the facades of restaurants and in the aisles of supermarkets, which was both fascinating and incredibly disturbing. Worse, it was tucked into seemingly-innocuous food – I once ordered a vegetable sandwich from a restaurant menu and it came with two thin slices of jamón tucked between the tomatoes and cucumbers.
Still, I wasn’t about to give up hope in the face of this jamón-attack. I’d fought against adversity before and managed to discover wonderful things about countries and their food. Here in Spain, I’d start with the pinchos.
What, really, was a pinchos, anyway? Was it lunch, or just a snack? Was in the northern name for a tapas, or was it something entirely different?
I received muddled, seemingly opposing answers from most people I asked. The most confident and nuanced answer came from Josu and Ana. According to them, a pinchos was almost exactly like a tapas, but not quite. Pinchos served the same purpose as tapas, namely as a snack between the Spaniard’s light breakfast and late lunch; but, unlike tapas, pinchos were generally served on a slice of baguette, like an open sandwich.
The purpose of this mini-meal definitely made sense in context of Spain’s mealtime culture. The flow of the day in Spain is like no other country I’ve ever visited. Spaniards are late-to-rise and late-to-bed, and this affects every aspect of their culture. They take late, long, lunches that leave shops and businesses closed for several hours in the afternoons – from at least 2-4pm, but often later. Lunches are large, involving at the very least three courses and often necessitating – especially in the hot south – an afternoon siesta (nap). Because of this, their dinners don’t begin until 9pm, and on weekends can start as late as 11pm! It’s a good thing their evening meal is light!
This strange rhythm of life was very difficult for Bruno and me to deal with. I’m the type of person that likes to try to adapt to the customs of the place I’m in; Bruno, on the other hand, works according to the rhythm of the sun – up early, eats when hungry, to bed early, repeat – and doesn’t give a rat’s-ass about doing “like the locals.” I can’t tell you how many times we found ourselves in Spain wanting to shop or wander the streets exactly when all the shops were closed.
Worse yet, we fought about how and when to eat. One day, early on in Spain, we found ourselves in Estella at noon. We’d spent the morning visiting the town’s church and quaint alleyways, and Bruno had worked up quite the appetite. Truth be told, I was hungry too, but my desire to do like the locals was greater than my desire to eat. Not the case for Bruno. He wanted lunch and he wanted it now. I remember arguing about it in the town square before he sat down at a fast-food restaurant and devoured a pizza, me watching on with a mixture of disgust and pizza-envy. An hour later I caved and grabbed a tortilla at a pinchos bar.
Eventually, Bruno and I came to a consensus. If we ate a noontime lunch of pinchos, we could be like the locals while being true to the rhythm of our own tummies. The key, however, was bar-hopping. We would walk into a bar, grab a pincho and a drink, then find another bar and another pincho, until we were satisfied.
The bar-hopping part was my idea. Bruno could have very easily eaten three pinchos in bar #1, but I could almost never find more than one vegetarian option. Once I became too sick of tortilla to stomach another one, this process became even more time-consuming. I’d sometimes have to visit three or four bars before finding a vegetarian pinchos, and each time had to go through the uncomfortable process of asking the bartender to point out a dish I could eat. I got more strange looks in those bars than in my entire vegetarian life up to this point!
It was worth the effort though, because when I’d find a veggie pinchos, I’d feel the deep satisfaction of uncovering a layer of gastronomic understanding that I find so key to appreciating a country. And I found a few delicious surprises, especially in towns like Bilbao and Pamplona, which are renowned for their pinchos innovation (pinchosovation?). My favourite was a layered open sandwich of goat’s cheese, sweet membrillo (quince paste), roasted vegetables, and walnut. Total yum.
I refrained from writing this post until our return to Spain the following March because I’d hoped my second visit to the country would unlock something for me about its food culture. It’s obvious that with only a few pinchos and a lot of tortilla under my belt, I didn’t feel I had much of a story.
I expected to return to Spain feeling excited to delve deeper into Spanish cuisine. I was wrong.
What I felt was fatigue. I didn’t feel like digging so hard to find foods that would appeal to me. I didn’t want to watch people revel in their jamón while I stood nearby with my umpteenth tortilla. It appeared that I was giving up on Spanish food before even giving it a second change!
During the four weeks Bruno and I were in the south of Spain, I mostly avoided restaurants (which seemed frustratingly expensive after Morocco, anyway). When we did eat out, I chose non-Spanish dishes like lasagne and couscous.
But one evening in Cartagena, feeling perhaps inspired by the Semana Santa procession we’d just witnessed, I turned into a tapas bar. Some may have chosen it for its hopping atmosphere or its central location in the main square, but I chose it for its extensive list of tapas menu items, of which at least a few seemed edible: garlic soup, battered cheese, stuffed artichoke, patatas bravas (potato wedges), and vegetable quiche.
From our table, I had a clear view of a bartender whose sole job it was to shave paper-thin strips of ham off a pig leg wedged onto some heavy-duty holding device. He didn’t stop for a moment my entire meal – in fact, he finished the giant pig leg and started shaving a second one! Jamón Iberico was obviously a best-selling item on their menu.
As our tapas items arrived one by one, it was a comedy of errors. My quiche had a giant shrimp for garnish and my garlic soup was sprinkled with jamón. Even my stuffed artichoke looked so much like a chicken drumstick that, in my communication struggle with the server, I almost sent it back thinking it was, in fact, that.
That meal was my Final Supper in Spain, and was a sort of metaphor for my entire experience of its food culture. I have to pick off, give away, or second-guess almost everything I want to eat in Spain.
There is a happy ending to this misadventure, however. As with every country whose cuisine I’ve had time to explore, I’ll take a few recipes and food items home with me. They may seem old-news to some – artichoke hearts drizzled with olive oil and vinegar, jars of red roasted pimentos that I can add to almost anything for a douse of flavour, and the coolest non-spicy green chilis ever, pan-roasted until dark brown and popped into the mouth. Those last ones are a much-beloved tapas, and one of my new favourite appetizers.
I also learned to make paella. Right after we finished walking our Camino, Bruno and I spent an overnight with Javi and Jasmine, the Canadian-Basque couple we’d connected with through our overlander friends Phil and Angie and with whom we’d stored Totoyaya while on our pilgrimage. That evening, Javi taught me the secrets of paella – the short-grain rice, the paste of saffron and garlic, the laissez-faire attitude one needs to adopt while the rice simmers in tomatoey juices.
That night, we’d shared authentic home-made paella, which was so generous of them that I cheated and ate it despite the seafood. Later, I used Javi’s cooking tips to try my own vegetarian paella; it was – honestly! – just as delicious.
More than the meal ideas I’ll take home is a deeper grasp of a country’s culture through the all-important lens of food. I’ve long loved the idea of tapas/pinchos – the fact that you get to try loads of different foods in one meal – but now I understand its place in the rhythm of Spanish life.
And if I think that Spain is a little too reliant on animal products and deep-frying, and that maybe – maybe – it’s time they adjust their cuisine to meet 21st century ideals and needs, well that’s just the opinion of a new-world, tree-hugging, almost-vegan Canadian. In response, the proud and traditional Spaniard will likely raise his glass of Rioja, dig into a plate of jamón Serrano and boisterously offer me a consolation prize of – you guessed it – tortilla.