Spain’s Food Etiquette: 8 Do’s and Don’ts
Growing up with a chef as a father has made me appreciate every meal and has taught me so much about the world. People don’t just eat to survive anymore, food has become an experience. A global phenomenon, really. Food tells us so much about a culture, and for me, Spanish food has left a huge imprint on me after traveling through Andalucia just over two years ago.
Relating back to my father, his job wasn’t just to cook, it was to introduce the world to us through a variety of recipes and meals! The true purpose was always to bring people together!
I grew up eating our so-called “secret” family recipes passed down generation to generation. I also enjoyed seeing him so passionate about creating new ones with different ingredients and spices in the kitchen. I was always there watching and waiting to try out the new dishes he was creating from scratch for the various restaurants he owned. And throughout my childhood, he always would say, “You can’t say you don’t like something unless you try it, because you could be missing out”.
Although my sassy 11-year-old self-refused to try steamers until I was about 18 years old, he was right! So, from there, I made a promise to myself to always try new things when traveling.
When it comes to food, if there is something unique I’ve never seen before on a menu, I’ll order it. Yes, I am THAT person who asks the servers or bartenders what they suggest when I go out to eat. It blows my mind that some people think this is annoying. I’m a server still and I think its brilliant since we know the food we serve and what’s the best! When I lived abroad I sent my dad more food pictures and descriptions of menus so we could make it and perfect it at home.
And when I travel the first thing I do is research what the locals eat, where the food markets are, and what their culture primarily eats. And while I’m there, I always chat with the locals to ask them where I should eat next. They always have the best tips! Plus, they will tell you what tourist traps to avoid.
Anyway, let’s dive into where I traveled and what I learned while in Spain!
First of all, Spain’s culture is one we should all be jealous of! They don’t do the typical 9-5pm workday, eat at your desk, and then go home, sit down, eat your food and watch TV….eating to them is an EXPERIENCE…and that’s the way it should be!
I’ve been fortunate enough to have gone to Barcelona, Madrid, Toledo, Granada, Seville, Costa Del Sol, Ibiza, and some small towns along the way, and Spain’s food culture is one of the world’s best! Through my experience (and all the food along the way) I summed up these 8 Do’s and Don’ts of Spain’s food etiquette.
DO expect to eat late: Everything in Spain is late. When I visited my friend abroad they didn’t go out to the bars until 1 AM. And eating is no exception. Lunch typically isn’t until after 2 PM and dinner isn’t until after 9 PM. That’s just the way it is….
DO go to the local markets: Whenever you travel you should always go to local markets. Unlike the local markets in the U.S. where it is mostly fruits, vegetables, and jam, in Spain, they step it up a notch by offering fresh seafood, meats, homemade pasta, nuts, olive oils, chocolate, wines, sangria, beer, and authentic Spanish specialties. My favorite Market is Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid. The market was originally built in 1916 then renovated in 2003, has 33 vendors inside and from the outside looks like an industrial glass greenhouse! It has welcoming long rustic beer hall tables and stools so you can sit down and enjoy the various food and drinks with others from all over the world. My point being….always go to the market in Spain.
While inside, I highly suggest trying Jamon Iberico ( cured ham) or Gambas ( shrimp in garlic infused olive oil) . The Mozheart was one of my favorite stands not only for the clever name. It is a mozzarella bar offering up different mozzarella ball tapas and toppings. You can also try fried seafood and even sea urchin if you are feeling adventurous at El Senor Martin.
DO go to Granada or Salamanca where the free tapas tradition is going strong: Yes, this is a real thing. It’s simple …you order a beer called cerveza (ser-ve-sah) or red wine called (el vino tinto) and will receive free tapas. Tapas are small plates of food. The more drinks you get the more tapas you get. Tapas are not peanuts or a bag of chips either. It can consist of things like croquetas fried bites with cheese, seafood, or potatoes on the inside. You could also get Manchego a hard cheese with Jamon (ham) or Pan con Tomate (bread with an olive oil and tomato spread). My personal favorite is the papas bravas (fried potatoes with a spiced sauced on the side). Long story short, Granada & Salamanca are the two best places to go for free tapas.
You might be asking: Why do you get free food with a drink? The answer is an old wives’ tale that the Spanish King wanted to avoid people from getting too drunk at his parties….or maybe it was so you couldn’t tell if he was drunk. Either way, It is also a tradition that has stayed true to Spain based on the idea that small shared plates encourage discussion among friends so they can enjoy one another’s company. Perhaps that is the real reason!
DO as the locals do and get churros with your hot chocolate: The hot chocolate in Spain is not like it is here. It’s very thick, creamy, and tastes more like a melted candy bar. Locals do not drink it alone. Instead, they order churros (a fried dough pastry) and dunk it their hot chocolate. SO GOOD! Try it!
DON’T ask for a to-go bag – They won’t know what this is and if you ask for a doggy bag you will get an even weirder look. No one takes their food to go with them. Eating is a social experience, not one to be taken on the road or to be eaten on the street or even in your car on your way to work. Europe, in general, has smaller plates of food than the US so I don’t think anyone will have a problem clearing the plates. Just remember not to order too much!
DON’T mix up these two words in Spanish when ordering: Chicken (pollo) and penis (polla)…although it would be the perfect prank to do on your friend to have them order dick for dinner. Just be careful since it’s an easy mix-up!
DON’T ask for butter - Olive oil has been flavoring Spanish cuisine for over 3,000 years. It’s so good you won’t miss the butter. Trust me on that one!
DO or DON’T go to a bullfight: This is somewhat of a hot button issue in Spain these days….I see both the pros and cons. However, don’t expect to see one when you are in Spain, per se. Both Barcelona and the Canary Islands have banned the sport and tradition of bullfighting, as it is not as glorious as you might assume.
Madrid still has bullfights currently at the Las Ventas Bullring, which has been open since 1931 with a 23,000 seat capacity, making it the largest arena in Spain! But, they do not have as many fights as you might expect. When I was traveling through Madrid there happened to be a bullfight, so my friend and I decided to check it out. The tickets were cheap at five euro, so of course, we were going to go.
However, I am a big animal lover, so being there to see this was hard. The reason I went was so I could learn more about this deeply rooted Spanish tradition instead of just judging it. A standard bullfight consists of six bulls, but I only stayed for two. It has been a part of their culture for a while, although it is not a fair fight for the bull. The matches are certainly rigged in the favor of the Matador de Toros (killer of bulls).
At the end of the fight, the bulls die, and they send it to a slaughterhouse so the meat can be sold. At this arena in Madrid, there is an eatery called Casa Toribio. They have a stew after the fight called “Rabo de toro de Lidia” its made from the tails of the fighting bulls or at least some of them. I did not try it, but for those who would be interested, you can. Just know that everywhere you go there are different traditions and it’s up to you to partake or not!
Now, who’s hungry and ready to go to Spain?!