Navigating Spain as a Vegetarian
Given veganism and vegetarianism are movements that have been becoming more popular world-wide in recent years, I never imagined to find myself immersed in a culture where both are relatively nonexistent practices. I had heard the phrase “good luck” from others more than once before arriving here when I told them that I was a vegetarian who was going to live a semester in Spain; in all honesty, I never really believed what others said until I starting interacting with locals here, observing the gastronomy of the country (mostly the regional gastronomy of Extremadura, my province). I am yet to encounter another vegetarian here, and most people are genuinely surprised when I tell them that I don’t eat meat.
Coming from the Silicon Valley where almost every restaurant has at least three vegan dishes or offers the option to “veganize” your selected meal, I was seriously shocked and honestly quite offended when people would made comments about my vegetarian status. Phrases such as “pero solo comes verduras y legumbres?” (“but do you only eat vegetables and legumes?”) and “es una pena que no comas carne, especialmente jamón” (“it’s a pity you don’t eat meat, especially ham”) are thrown at me on the regular. I used to get quite annoyed when told such things, but I’ve grown to accept it as part of the culture here. I know people don’t say these things in a patronizing way, but I cannot describe how puzzled I was to find out these people were genuinely surprised/concerned for me when they found out I didn’t eat meat.
That being said, I’ve discovered that Spain does in fact have a lot to offer when it comes to filling and wholesome options for vegetarians (and vegans alike). From what I’ve observed, here are the most typical ingredients in a Spanish kitchen (or at least Laura’s kitchen!):
Olive Oil: Without a doubt, Spain has the richest olive oil to boast. Even the smell of the oil is much richer just upon opening the bottle. Fresh pressed oil is often expensive, and the oil is very liberally used in almost every single savory dish.
Paprika: Pimentón (paprika) is one of the few spices used in Spanish cuisine. This vibrant red powder adds a smokey flavor to any dish, and it’s often added to dishes made in my household.
Olives: I visited a beautiful outdoor market in Roberto’s town Zafra, and I was so amazed by the olive stand. The vendor had over twenty types of olives, each marinated in a different solution (with varying amounts of garlic, lemon, oil, and more).
Tomatoes: People often think of La Tomatina, the rich tomato festival in Buñol, when they think of Spain. True to the stereotype, Spain does boast a wide variety of tomatoes, including some of the biggest tomatoes I’ve ever seen. Tomatoes are widely used in regional dishes such as Salmorejo or Gazpacho (cold tomato soups popular in southern Spain, especially Andalucía).
Oranges: Although oranges are not native to the country, Spain holds a wide variety of the fruit; it is said that the first oranges were planted in the Andalusian region by the Moors over 800 years ago. Many streets here are lined with orange trees that add to the visual aesthetic.
Bread: Almost every meal of the day holds some form of bread component. Fresh bread is beautifully baked everyday in local artisanal bakeries, and there are so many different loafs offered. A popular breakfast option in Spain is tostada con aceite y tomate (toast with olive oil and tomato).
Eggs: Apart from the famous Tortilla Española or Tortilla de Patatas, eggs are heavily used in most Spanish desserts. Fresh eggs are collected from country side farms or campos nationwide.
Garlic: Although most oriental spices rarely find their way into Spanish gastronomy, garlic is abundantly used to enhance flavor in most savory dishes. Many olives are marinated in solutions containing garlic and most savory egg dishes also contain garlic.
These are what I have observed to be the most commonly used ingredients (apart from basics like salt and sugar) when it comes to preparing dishes (from a vegetarian’s point of view) in the Spanish kitchen. In the time I have been here, my family and I have eaten out more than once, each time proving to be a more interesting experience than the last. It still baffles me that most menus don’t even offer vegetarian options. Dishes without meat have to be specially requested, and in the case that the dish was mass prepared, the cook may not be able to remove the meat from your portion only.
The picture above highlights many different meals I’ve eaten over the weeks in many different places. I plan to write a piece solely on the wonders of pastries in Spain, but for now, I’ve included some pictures. The food in the picture are as follows:
Croquetas: Featured under the picture of the olives, croquetas are a type of fried dumpling usually consisting of a meat filling. The croquetas in the picture were special ordered for me during Carnaval in Zafra; these croquetas were filled with squash, lentils, and pumpkin. The croquetas came in a container served with small pieces of fried potatoes (shaped like French Fries).
Huevos revueltos con esparragos: This is probably not a typical dish of Spain, but the top picture in the middle column shows scrambled eggs with asparagus. This was another dish special ordered for me; the original recipe at the restaurant called for ham as well, but this one was made with just eggs, asparagus, olive oil, salt, and scallions. I remember the dish was generously doused with rich olive oil, adding heavily to the flavor.
Flan de chocolate: Pictured on the top right, flan is normally a specialty custard dessert with caramel. Given we went out to eat at a fancy restaurant during Carnaval, we had the option of trying a special flan with added chocolate, making the dessert denser and more spongy like cake as opposed to more creamy like custard.
Tostada con tomate y queso: I enjoyed a lovely toast (pictured beneath the croquetas) with fresh cheese and tomato the morning after the longest night of Carnaval. The toast originally came with ham, but we requested it with only cheese and tomato.
Lengua de chocolate: One of the most uniquely shaped desserts, the lengua de chocolate is a unique puff pastry coated in chocolate and chocolate-covered sprinkles; it’s name is derived from the fact that it is shaped like a tongue (lengua in Spanish). The lengua here is under the flan (right picture in the middle row).
Tarta de galletas: Easily the dessert I had heard the most about, the tarta de galletas is a rich stacked cake formed in part by layers of biscuits along with rich chocolate coatings. I had this tarta de galletas (pictured beneath the scrambled eggs) with a rich hot chocolate at a beautiful cafe situated in the middle of a park in Zafra.
Milhojas: Pictured on the bottom right, milhojas are a type of puff pastry dessert that alternate layers of the puff pastry with layers of whipped cream (nata in spanish). This dessert will always hold a special place in my heart not only because it tastes amazing but also because it is the first dessert I ordered in a Spanish cafe all by myself by conversing with the waitress in Spanish and asking her for a recommendation.
I did not plan to elaborate as much as I did on what I’ve observed so far about Spanish cuisine. My favorite part by far are the pastries, although I do want to write about some of the best dishes that my mom Laura has prepared for me here (tortilla de patatas, migas, salmorejo, etc.). It hasn’t been easy settling in a country where vegetarianism is not a widely practiced concept, but it’s opened my eyes to the diversity of gastronomical practices and wants of specific populations. I really enjoy exploring the culture of Spain through its cuisine, and I hope to learn enough about these dishes to one day recreate them back home for my family and friends.