S panish cuisine traces its origins back to before the Romans. The Celts, in the north and interior of the Iberian Peninsula, dined on fish and meat pies. The Phoenicians introduced sauces to the menu while establishing trading posts along the coast between 1200 & 800BC. The Greeks brought their olives, the oil from which is used in so many recipes. And the name “Iber” for the Ebro River, giving us – Iberia & Iberian – for the peninsula and its coastal people. The Carthaginians, followed by the Romans, it was nonstop foreign influence on the Hispanic diet, as locals were exposed to foods from the far reaches of empires.
The arrival of the Berbers and Arabs (commonly known collectively as the Moors) saw the introduction of dishes which today are considered quintessentially Spanish. Gazpacho, the saffron and rice for paella, all have their roots in the Muslim kingdom of Al-Andalus. Meanwhile, the Sephardi Jewish community’s need to remain kosher and avoid most seafood can be found in the stuffed fish dishes found on many menus. A universal love of jamón, however, would not become a point of national pride, until the reconquest in 1492 and the Spanish Inquisition, because of the three major religions, only Christians ate pork.
Columbus’s discovery of the Americans brought la patata (potato) used in the famous tortilla and a plethora of fruits, nuts, vegetables and spices. Cooks in Galicia, Murcia, La Mancha and other regions, added these exotic ingredients to local produce and livestock, creating new meals for the family and villagers, which we still eat in the 21st century.
Despite this long culinary tradition, Spanish cuisine refuses to recycle recipes from the past. Chefs such as Ferrán Adriá challenge our very concept of what food is, with puffed Rice Krispies becoming ”Kellogg’s paella”, and gazpacho soup transforming into a garlic and tomato flavored ice cream. He’s far from the only one. It seems in every Spanish city, there is a chef who is taking ingredients and recipes from the world, only to then deconstruct and reconstruct the food, into something uniquely Spanish.
One such gastronomic maestro is Basque Chef, Juan Mari Arzak, who can explain the mosaic of smells and flavors, better than we can.
The subtitles help, don’t they? But they won’t be there in real life, unless you can afford an interpreter. Spain isn’t its former colony, the Netherlands. English isn’t most people’s second language, even on the streets of Madrid or bars in Barcelona. Which is why to make the most of your visit to the country, you’d better learn some useful Spanish phrases, especially if you want to taste the end results of its long and textured gastronomic history.