The History of Spanish Food

The History of Spanish Food

The history of Spanish food has 100% to do with its geographical position on the Iberian Peninsula.  Firstly, being almost entirely surrounded by water ensures ample supply of fresh fish and seafood.  Secondly, the diversity of the rest of Spain’s landmass allows for cultivation of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as grazing land for cattle, pigs, other animals.  Thirdly, this desirable location has encouraged a succession of cultures in the form of invasion, settlement, and visitation from many of the surrounding countries and empires; thus, much of what is considered “typical Spanish cuisine” wouldn’t have existed without the external influences from Africa and Europe.  Lastly, the Spanish began bringing back new discoveries from their colonization efforts in the Americas around 1520, and these new foods and ingredients were fused, over time, into the existing cuisine.  But no other culture had quite the influence as did the Moors, or Arabs, who occupied the majority of Spain for some 700 years.

Arab Influence

Much of the current cuisine of Spain is a reminder of the Muslim tradition, an empire that occupied up to 70% of the country at some point and lasted from 711 to 1492, the year that Spain was unified and the Americas were discovered.  Called the “Al-Andalus” gastronomy, this inheritance is especially prevalent in the southern region of Andalusia, where gazpachos and other cold soups originated.The tradition of Al-Andalus gastronomy is very rich and varied. They had less prohibitions than Jews, in fact mainly pork and fermented drinks were forbidden, however these religious restrictions were not always followed 100% in Muslim Spain.  One of the main cooking techniques that the Arabs brought to Spain was pickling, especially fish in vinegar solutions.

Today, you will find that pickled anchovies and sardines are commonly served on a piece of bread and eaten as a tapa. Other foodstuffs the Arabs introduced to Spain include rice, eggplant, sugar cane, spinach, apricots and other citric fruits.  Olives had been cultivated in Spain from pre-historic times, but the olive culture expanded greatly under the Al-Andalus empire. The Arabs introduced superior irrigation ditches, cisterns and draining systems, which contributed not only to an increase in the olive production but also in all kinds of crops. The meats that the Arabs preferred were lamb and poultry. The meats would be marinated overnight in milk or vinegar and then seasoned with vegetables such as onion, garlic, fennel and olives and spiced with cinnamon and coriander.  

The Al-Andalus diet was very healthy, especially compared to those typical from other regions of Spain with little or no Arab influence. It was also from the Arabs that the Spanish learned how to use stills for distilling alcohol. The Arabs didn’t drink alcohol for religious purposes but they had developed stills to create alcohols for medicinal purposes instead.  But the Spanish used them to make alcohols that could be consumed such as liquor de “orujo”, which is made from grape must. The Arab occupation in Spain also contributed to the Spanish vocabulary.   Many of the Moorish dishes and ingredients that made it into the Spanish language begin with the letter ‘a’, such as the culinary words like albóndiga (meatballs), aceite (oil), aceituna (olives), arroz (rice), etc., are all from the Moors.  The Moors brought sugarcane to Spain and taught the Spanish how to refine it to make desserts. This helped to revolutionize Spanish cakes and other sweets which had generally been made in a similar fashion to bread and then sweetened with honey.

Sephardic (Jewish) Influence

Prior to 1492, Jews, Muslims and Christians lived together in relative harmony in Spain.  But the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, wanted the whole Iberian Peninsula to be Christian and thus expelled the Muslims and Jews around the same time.  The Sephardic Jews left behind some of their gastronomic traditions, which shocked people from other religions and social stratums.  For example, the practice of preparing separately and never mixing milk and meat.

Some of the most common dishes in Sephardic gastronomy were breaded and fried zucchini and eggplant, a pie made with diverse types of cheese, egg and spices, and tzaziki, among many others, as well as a countless variety of salads that included beetroot, zucchini, eggplant, cabbage, and cauliflower. The consumption of fish is also related to the Sephardic gastronomy. The wealthy Al-Andalus classes did not particularly like seafood, as they considered it unhealthy, but the Jews frequently ate fish on the Sabbath. This extended to the Christian tradition as well, and fish would become the Sunday meal.  Other typically Sephardic dishes included gazpachos, manchegos, prepared with unleavened bread, as are the different “ollas” (stews prepared overnight or for many hours in clay pots).  These were prepared for the Jewish sabbath, where it was forbidden to prepare food, so the stews would be prepared the day before and heated up on the sabbath.

Christian Influence

Christian influence in the Spanish gastronomy is an important one. Today, most of Spain is Catholic, but many centuries ago that wasn’t exactly the case as the Jews had lived in Spain for centuries.  In the year 638 they began to be persecuted, but were saved after 710 when the Muslims invaded Spain and occupied a large part of the peninsula.  Jews were accepted, and for many centuries, the three religions lived peacefully together.  This cultural exchange meant a change in the culinary customs of all three religions, and we can safely say that Spanish gastronomy wouldn’t be the same without one of them. The process to produce the delicious Spanish ham was developed by Christians, since the meat was forbidden for both Jews and Muslims.

When it came to pork, Christians took advantage of the whole animal, nothing would be wasted, and for many years all those parts of the pig that were frowned upon by the rich, fed the poor.  The legacy of the famous Spanish hams can be found throughout Spain in the markets, bars and restaurants. There were also specific dishes for certain Christian religious events and occasions. For example, dishes especially prepared for lent and Sundays, which led to the creation of many fish and shellfish dishes, vegetable stews and myriad desserts made without the use of animal fat.

During Easter, garlic soup and cod were normally consumed, as well as “croquetas” and fritters. There is a legend that Marzipan was created in Toledo in the 11th century, invented by the nuns of the Convent San Clemente.  There was no wheat in their storerooms, but they did have plenty of sugar and almonds, and so using a bit of their initiative, they invented marzipan.  Nuns invented many other desserts and cakes and many of those convents still make and sell the same desserts, such as “suspiro de monja” (nun’s sigh), wine rolls and many other tasty treats.  There are some desserts that even today can only be found in convents.

New World Ingredients

Spanish history and Spanish gastronomy would take a huge turn when a new continent was discovered, by mistake, in 1492.  Although there was great resistance at first to adopting these New World ingredients, many were not only introduced into the Spanish diet but also became the basis for a lot of the modern Spanish diet and, in some cases, actually saved Europe in time of famine!  These are tomatoes, potatoes, all kinds of peppers, and cocoa.

The potato was discovered by the Spanish in Peru in 1532, and most likely was introduced into Europe through Galicia, where it was first cultivated.   Today potatoes in Spain are one of the main ingredients of some of the most emblematic dishes in Spanish cuisine: tortilla de patatas, patatas bravas, papas arrugadas from the Canary Island and many others. Tomatoes were discovered in Mexico as it was a staple in the Aztec diet.  In Spain, it was initially believed to be unfit for consumption, so it was given medicinal and ornamental uses.  

Today it’s a key ingredient in many Spanish dishes, including pantumaca, gazpacho, salmorejo and many other dishes. During the 17th and 18th centuries chocolate became a favorite dish of the Spanish court.  The Aztecs in Mexico had made a chocolate that was very bitter, directly from cocoa and occasionally mixed with flour. The Spaniards began mixing it with sugar and it became the most popular drink among the wealthier classes. Also imported to Spain from the New World was paprika, which has since become one of the Spanish’s favorite spices.  Paprika is used in many dishes in Spanish cooking and is the key ingredient for transforming chorizo sausages into its characteristic red color. Before this, chorizo was generally a black or brown color. It was in the 17th century that they began to combine the sausage with paprika, thus changing the image of the sausage forever.

Tapas Tradition

The Spanish ritual of going out for tapas, or “tapear”, is said to have begun in Sevilla, where bartenders would cover, or “tapar” wine glasses with a small plate to protect the drink from flies.  Later they began placing a slice of ham on top of this plate.  Appreciating the opportunity to attract more customers, the bars began offering more variety of foods to better compete with the other bars.  Thus, the national tradition of tapas was born and continues in full force today throughout the country.

There are plenty of sit down restaurants in Spain, but when you see a sign that says “bar”, you know that it is a gathering place for family and friends, who will stand at the bar and share a few different tapas, of course with a glass of wine or beer, called “una caña”.  And don’t make the mistake of staying at one bar and NEVER load up a big plate with a smorgasbord of tapas as this is a big violation of protocol!  

Rather you pick a new bar, with different tapas, and repeat the process.  You can appreciate, especially in very warm weather, when the thought of sitting down to a hot meal isn’t quite as appealing, how this ritual of sampling small, delicious cold dishes, together with a lively conversation with friends and family and a good glass of wine or cold “caña” can be very appealing!

Tapas and tapas menus vary from region to region, so feel free to ask the local recommendation in each bar.  Also take a look at the chalk board menu if they have one, as they usually list hot specialties that are not sitting out on the bar.  They may offer them in “porciones”, or portions, which are a bit larger than typical tapas, and they may also refer to the small tapas as “pinchos” (or “pintxos” in the Basque country).  Incidentally, the pintxos or tapas in the Basque region, San Sebastian and its surroundings, are especially elaborate and very delicious, with plenty of seafood combinations and creative options.  

Again, don’t accept a large plate as it’s not a buffet, rather keep moving to other bars as the Spanish do! Some of the typical Spanish seafood dishes are “calamares” (fried squid), cod fritters, “gambas pil-pil” (prawns in hot, garlic oil), and “boquerones” (anchovies).  Other typical non-seafood options include “chorizo” (sausage), “paella” (rice dish), a variety of casserole stews, “callos” (tripe with chickpeas), “jamón serrano” (cured ham), “albóndigas” (meatballs) and the classic “tortilla española” (Spanish potato omelet).

Spanish Wine

Although Spain has always rivaled France and Italy as one of the world’s largest wine producers, the history of Spanish wines has had its ups and downs.  Spain’s wine heritage goes back three thousand years to the Sherry region planted by the Phoenicians around 1,100 BC.  Other wines grown along the Mediterranean and the Atlantic coasts were traded and consumed by the Romans.  But the Islamic Moors’ invasion in 711 AD put an end to Spanish wine commerce until the Moors were forced off of the peninsula in 1492.

Free to produce and sell wine again, the Spanish industry enjoyed centuries of growth. But the international awareness was limited mostly to the Rioja region until the late twentieth century.  Wealthy producers such as the Marqués de Riscal, Marqués de Murrieta and Vega Sicilia began producing wines that grabbed international attention, but the industry still looked mostly inward, given that Spain was under the Franco military dictatorship until the mid–1970s. With the emergence of democracy, Spain began investing heavily in the wine industry, securing sophisticated techniques both in the vineyards and the wineries, and has become recognized worldwide – together with the global exposure of Spanish foods, especially tapas – as a producer of fine wines.  

The growth in Spanish wine production and distribution has been unprecedented over the past couple decades. Below are the Spanish wine classifications established in 2003: Vino de Mesa (table wine) Vino de la Tierra, VT or VdT (“wine of the country”) The quality level just above Vino de Mesa, this designation emulates France’s Vins de Pays. Vinos de Calidad con Indicación Geográfica (VCIG or VC) In 2003, this category was created to serve as a way station between those areas that were stuck at the Vino de la Tierra level and underneath the DO status. After five years as a VCIG, the region can apply to be promoted to a DO. Denominación de Origen, or DO This was the top rung on Spain’s very short ladder until 1988. The term is comparable to France’s AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), and all DOs have regulatory bodies, Consejos Reguladores, that are responsible for creating the definition of each DO. Denominación de Origen Calificada, or DOC This category was created in 1988, following Spain’s entry into the EEC.

The national committee determines which DOs are deserving of DOC status. For the first 15 years, only Rioja earned that title. Vino de Pago, or VP The most important change in 2003, however, was the creation of DO Pago. Pago means vineyard, so the simple explanation of what constitutes a DO Pago is that it is a single estate wine. The more significant judgment rendered by DO Pago status is that the estate is perceived to be one of the great estates in Spain and that it can exist outside of an established DO.

Spanish Beer

Although perhaps better known for being wine drinkers, the Spanish do drink a lot of beer.  A small beer called “una caña” is a great accompaniment to a tapa, as the beer is light and refreshing.  And obviously with very warm weather in the central and southern parts of the country, a cold beer is most welcome. Most bars in Spain will only have one beer on tap and beer, overall, is sold in very small glasses.  But this is because the Spanish like their beer very cold, so you might even be served a glass that has been kept in a freezer!

Most beer in Spain is between 4% and 5.5%, and although some could be stronger, there are typically none weaker except for non-alcoholic beer. Most cities in Spain will now have a craft beer bar, and many cafes will have a small selection of local bottled beers.  But it’s not unusual to see a bar with only two taps, and one of the beers will be non-alcoholic.  Typically Estrella Galicia is served in the north, Estrella Damm in Barcelona, or Mahou Clasica in Madrid.  And in the south the beer served will typically be Cruzcampo.

Beer Sizes in Spain


Invariably the smallest beer that a bar sells. Could be a wine glass, could be something resembling a brandy glass, or a bit smaller than a half pint glass.


A tall thin glass. About 10oz.

Botella de cerveza

A 10oz bottle of beer.

Botelín de cerveza

A smaller, 6oz bottle of beer. Not available in all bars.

Jarra or Tanque

Usually the largest glass they’ll have, normally about a pint. Confusingly, a ‘jarra’ might mean a jug which is served with glasses and shared.


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