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Everyone knows that one of the best parts of studying abroad is the food. Whether you’re sampling chocolates in Belgium, spreading fresh pesto in Italy, or sipping wine at a vineyard in France, you can’t complain about the opportunity to try new cuisines. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to spend this semester in Córdoba, Spain to study at the university and reside with a host family. My host mom cooks 2 extensive meals a day – lunch and dinner – using family recipes and local ingredients. I’ve also had the opportunity to travel around the country to Zuheros, Madrid, Seville, Barcenola, Nerja, and Salamanca, all while experiencing some of the restaurants’ most famous recipes. After narrowing down the enormous list of incredible food I’ve eaten so far, here are the top ten must-try meals of Spain:
I would hope this goes without saying, but local Spanish paella is perfection in a dish. Paella is essentially stir-fried saffron rice with seafood (often clams, shrimp, etc.), chicken and vegetables and available at almost every restaurant. If you’re looking to eat out of the house, make sure to ask a local or business-owner for the restaurant with the best paella – often it’s the place you’d least expect that will make it fresh and with the most flavor.
Contrary to popular belief, the Spanish tortilla is nothing like the Mexican tortilla and requires none of the same ingredients. Spanish tortillas are essentially a thick, French (egg) omelet with sliced potatoes and whatever else you might be craving, like vegetables or any kind of meat. My favorite so far was made at home with fresh sweet onions, red and green bell peppers, and chopped up chorizo sausage.
That being said, I’d also be doing you a huge disservice if I didn’t mention chorizo as a meal on its own. The meat in Spain is incredible – tender, thick, and full of flavor – and is best purchased at a local carnicería (meat packing store) or market. Many restaurants will serve chorizo as a tapa (appetizer) for lunch or dinner, cooked any number of ways based on your preference. Personally, I recommend it grilled or pan-seared.
Pisto, the best vegetarian option I’ve tried, is a Spanish ratatouille made with tomatoes, onions, peppers, garlic, zucchini, salt and pepper, and olive oil. Obviously, recipes are flexible based on vegetable preferences. Many families and restaurants will also mix in a chopped-up poached egg for added protein and flavor after cooking. Though I usually detest anything remotely runny, I was pleasantly surprised by – and highly suggest – this unique addition.
5. Croquetas (croquettes)
My mouth is watering as I write this because these are just…fantastic. Croquetas are small, lightly-breaded and fried fritters, packed with various kinds of cheesy or meaty filling. They can be served as an appetizer, merienda (snack), or meal depending on their quantity, and are usually accompanied by some variation on mayonnaise for dipping. My favorites have been made with ham, but they can also be a delicious snack for vegetarians if made with spinach and manchego.
I include Salmorejo in this list not because I enjoy it, but because everyone else in the Andalucían region of Spain does. Salmorejo is a Córdoba-born dish of pureed bread, tomatoes, garlic, vinegar, salt and olive oil – sort of a variation on gazpacho, as it is also served cold. Chefs and families will often add ham or eggs for garnish and flavor, and many local restaurants will add it free with a drink or meal. Perfect for a summer lunch on the patio.
7. Tinto de Verano
Okay, so this one isn’t technically something you “eat,” but it’s an Andalucian treasure and a must-have while in Spain. Tinto de Verano is a mixed drink of red wine and lemon-lime fanta (or whatever other lemon/lime beverage you prefer), and can be ordered in glasses, jars, or jugs for the table. It’s also worth noting that it’s generally cheaper – and tastier – than soda or bottled water. Just take care that you don’t get distracted by it’s fruity flavor and forget that it’s alcoholic.
7.5. Churros y Chocolate
Believe it or not, this is actually eaten as a breakfast dish or snack in many parts of Spain. The churros can be found fresh-baked at most bakeries and cafes, and are served with hot chocolate (literally liquid chocolate in a cup) for dipping. I prefer it as a snack, but it’s honestly one of the yummiest treats I’ve ever tried. Delicious, not-quite-nutritious, and great for a mid-afternoon date.
8. Jamón Ibérico
Literally translated as “Iberian ham,” this cured meat is produced almost exclusively in Spain. So you literally have to try it here, or probably never try it at all. Spaniards put this bacon look-alike in sandwiches, pastas, soups, and appetizers, if they’re not just eating it plain with cheese and olive oil. It’s fantastic on (or off) everything.
9. Patatas Bravas
Patatas bravas are the Spanish equivalent of home fries, but are cooked in olive oil and served with a spicy paprika sauce. You can find them at virtually every restaurant, café, and bar – though they tend to be exclusively served as a “tapa” – and are definitely a favorite for young people while enjoying a beer.
Flan places number ten because it’s a dessert, not because it’s any less incredible than the aforementioned must-tries. For those of you who don’t know, flan is sweet custard flavored with vanilla and caramel. Make sure to order “con nata” (with whipped cream), and don’t underestimate the size of these things; many restaurants offer full-sized flan for two, rather than the usual assumed one-person desserts in the United States.