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My Experience With Spanish Food and Culinary Traditions

Traveling and living in Spain for a couple of years, I experienced many things new and different to me. Some were funny and some weren't.

food-differences-in-spain

Eating Out in Spain

Unlike the United States, most restaurants in Spain put samples of their main dishes in the window. Not photos of them—but the actual dishes themselves. The one that impressed me most was the roast piglet. It was an impressive display for the window but I thought it was too awful to eat such a cute little piglet. Winnie the Pooh came to mind and I couldn’t bring myself to enter that restaurant.

Another big difference was the time. At about 6 p.m. my husband looked at each other and said, let’s go to that restaurant we both like. So off we went. When we got there the place was empty. But it was open and five waiters converged on us and showed us to a table. At first, I thought there must be something wrong with this place if no one eats here. But the service was wonderful and attentive with white clothes hanging over their arms and everything. Very impressive. So we ordered and our food came in no time. It was all very wonderful, tasty, and well presented. Why wasn’t anyone in this place? At about 8ish we were ready to go, fat and happy. That’s when people began arriving. Suddenly the waiters we monopolized were very busy. Within a few minutes, the place was becoming crowded. We had come too early. The Spaniards eat late because they have a four-hour siesta in the middle of the day. I never thought of that.

This is a Spanish tortilla.

This is a Spanish tortilla.

The Tortilla Incident

We are from California. We know and understand tortillas. We’ve had many of them over the years and we love them.

One day we went to a restaurant for breakfast because we were traveling. We noticed tortillas listed on the menu. My husband said, “Look, tortillas. Let’s order a dozen and take them with us.” I agreed, so we ordered a small breakfast and 12 tortillas. We wondered why the waiter gave us such a funny look. He just shrugged and left to get our food.

When the food began arriving they had to set up two more tables to accommodate them. There were 12 large plates of the largest stuffed omelets I have ever seen. Apparently, "tortilla" in California is not the same as "tortilla" in Spain. A Spanish tortilla is about six eggs whipped and stuffed with potatoes, onions, and assorted vegetables. And we had ordered 12 of them! Were we ever surprised. I ate part of one and loved it but couldn’t even finish it. Spain doesn’t offer doggie bags, either, so we had to leave the tortillas behind. We had quite the laugh over that gaffe.

food-differences-in-spain

Sopa Pescado

As I learned more Spanish I became confident in ordering my own food instead of just pointing at the menu. One day I read sopa pescado on the menu. Fish soup. That sounded good so I ordered it. It was tasty but not exactly fish soup. A better name would have been the whole ocean soup. The bowl contained squid, octopus, mussels, clams, and assorted meat I couldn't begin to identify. There were even clamshells at the bottom of the bowl. I was tempted to take one home as a souvenir but decided that would be tacky.

Butcher Shop

Butcher Shop

The Butcher Shop

I loved shopping in the little “mom and pop shops” in Spain. The carnicería (butcher store) was just a few hundred feet from my apartment and I decided it would be good to shop like all the other Spaniards and not rely on shipped meat from the U.S. at the base BX.

One day I decided I wanted some hamburger to make a spaghetti sauce, and armed with my bag and money, I went to the carnicería. Waiting for my turn and stepped up to the counter but I didn’t see any hamburger in the window. I pulled out my Spanish/English dictionary and looked up "hamburger," but it wasn’t listed. Oh, I know, I thought, it’s ground beef. But that wasn’t listed either. So I looked up "ground" and then "beef." By the time the man waited on me, I asked for what I had looked up: "dirt meat." He had no idea what I was talking about.

Soon I was using grinding motions with my hands and slipping into English. One of the ladies behind me figured out what I wanted and told him but I was so embarrassed again. I wondered why there was no hamburger listed in the dictionary. Today I know I should have asked for came picada, but back then I was lost. I did eventually get what I needed, though.

Cakes

I was pregnant while in Spain, and I gained a lot of weight during that pregnancy. My doctor advised me to avoid gaining so much weight, but it was hard. I felt like I was hungry all the time, but I gave it a noble effort.

One day at one of the little shops I liked to frequent, a girl in an apron (obviously working there) was going around and giving away samples of cake. It looked good, but I knew I'd better not. When she got to me I said “no thank you” in Spanish and she was surprised. She asked, “No le gusta,” which means “you don’t like it?” I wanted to tell her I love cake but I needed to watch my weight—but I couldn’t think of a single phrase among the ones I had learned to explain that. I made gestures and then gave up and said “No me gusta.” I don’t like it. What I didn’t like was having to turn down free cake. I needed to brush up on my Spanish phrases some more!

My ex feeding our first daughter in Spain.

My ex feeding our first daughter in Spain.

Final Thoughts

Just visiting a country is easier than living there. You find so many things that you are not familiar with when you live in a country for a while. The food, the language, the technology, the people. Embracing those differences really tests your metal.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Comments

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 10, 2020:

Mary Norton,

I always felt that the climate was very much like California. So It made so much more sense to me that so many Spaniards settled here in California back in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is fairy warm if rainy. I think you will love it. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on November 09, 2020:

I am now brushing up on my Spanish for a future stay there in Spain. I love the place and would love to winter there. You have some interesting experiences there.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 09, 2020:

William Kovacic,

Well, I was constantly surprised by things but it was a good experience. I was incredibly lucky to be able to see all those things. It has made me appreciate the USA so much more! Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 09, 2020:

Devika Primić,

I admire you as a world traveler. I am lucky to have seen and experienced what little I did. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 09, 2020:

James C Moore,

In answer to your question, I think maybe it is. The Spanish spend at least 4 hours during siesta and even the school kids come home for siesta and go back to school after 5 till 8 pm. Isn't that strange? Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 09, 2020:

Linda Crampton,

It was funny. Who wouldn't fall for that if they didn't know that a tortilla meant something else in Spain? Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 09, 2020:

Ivana Divac,

I do laugh about that tortilla incident every time I think about it. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 08, 2020:

Kalpana Iyer,

I have to admit that I do get hungry again about bedtime but I usually ignore it or only have something small like a couple of crackers. When do you have lunch if you don't eat dinner until 8-9? Just wondering. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 08, 2020:

Linda Lum,

Your welcome for the phrases. I found them interesting too. It's a cultural thing. I have a friend who is getting a master's degree in literature. Right now she is taking a class on hermeneutics, the study of the contextual meanings in literature. It is like studying fairy tales from different lands. If I say that is built like the three pigs straw house, you know what I mean because you heard of the fairy tale. But what if someone never heard of that tale? Then they wouldn't be able to understand the context. I think culture is like that too. No wonder languages are so hard. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 08, 2020:

Treathyl FOX,

You make me very happy. I'm glad you like my Hubs. I don't drink so I didn't really go to the bars but once. My husband said that each one had a different specialty to eat. But I'm not into squid or octopus either so I didn't like the experience there. I say out of bars if I can help it. Thanks for commenting,

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 08, 2020:

Peggy Woods,

Ah, you were lucky to know what they were before going. I had no idea one word would mean something so different in a different country. And my husband spoke fluent Spanish. I'll never forget the look on his face! Ha. He wasn't THAT fluent, was he? Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 08, 2020:

Liz Westwood,

Well, you are from the UK and you probably knew what a tortilla was before ordering. I will never forget that incident because we were so surprised when plate after plate arrived. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 08, 2020:

Bill Holland,

That is funny coming from such a wordsmith as you are. Words are such puny and inadequate means of communicating what we really want to say in any language. I have a friend who is working on a Master's degree in Literature and right now she is taking a class on Hermeneutics. As I understand it, it is the study what the context of writing or what a word or phrase means by what is around it. So "up" may not mean "up" if it is used in a different context. So you say "bottom's up" to "drink something down". Language is such a mess. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 08, 2020:

Lorna Lamon,

It is funny how words are such a poor description of what we really think. I often think that words and language are totally inadequate to the task of communication. I did have to laugh at myself too, some of the things I said made people look at me funny but usually they knew what I meant. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 08, 2020:

BRENDA ARLEDGE,

It will be a part of my life and memory forever. I was very privileged to be able to experience it. Mostly it was a very exciting time for me. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 08, 2020:

Rosina S Khan,

Yes, I agree with you. Adapting to the culture you are living in is the best way to experience new things and get the flavor of the whole culture. I'm glad you found my food differences amusing. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

William Kovacic from Pleasant Gap, PA on November 08, 2020:

Educational and entertaining, Denise. .Sounds like you had a lot of fun! To me, it sounds a little stressful but glad you enjoyed it!

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on November 07, 2020:

Denise incredible experience and an informative hub. Spain is beautiful and you shared a lot from your side of it. I am glad you got the chance to enlighten us I heard lots, but you made me see so much more in this lovely place.

James C Moore from The Great Midwest on November 07, 2020:

Live and learn. When I took French in high school my teacher said that the French spent 3 hours or so at lunch. Is the siesta the Spanish version of that tradition?

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on November 06, 2020:

I enjoy reading about your experiences in Spain very much. I think living there would be interesting. The tortilla experience sounds amusing!

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 06, 2020:

Barbara Purvis Hunter,

Yes, me too. I think the lockdown has made me think of those times more fondly than ever before. It will be nice to get to visit my grandkids again. I dream of the day. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 06, 2020:

Eric Dierker,

Absolutely. The "oops" kind of learning is the one that stays with you best too. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Ivana Divac from Serbia on November 06, 2020:

I really enjoyed reading this article. You were on quite an adventure! I especially liked the tortilla incident. Cultural differences are something that can be a little stressful at times, but they're something to fondly laugh about later.

Kalpana Iyer from India on November 06, 2020:

What an interesting narration. People in India tend to eat dinner late too, mostly around 8-9 PM. We find it surprising that western countries eat so early. We would be heading to our refrigerators late into the night for a snack if we ate by 6 PM. It is always interesting to go through food habits of other cultures. You learn so many new things. Thanks for sharing your story.

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on November 06, 2020:

What an adventure. I don't recall any major gaffs on my part when in Italy (I pretty much stuff to pasta) but I DID find it frustrating to want to go shopping, but have to delay my plans because all of the stores were closed for the afternoon nap. Thank you for sharing the phrases; it's interesting to learn how other cultures view things.

Treathyl FOX from Austin, Texas on November 06, 2020:

What do I think? I think … be it ever so humble, there's no place like home. There are so many places in the world I would love to visit. But I don't want to live there. I always want to come back home. I have never been to Spain. But I would love to go to the tapas bars. I read that they are different based on the region. (P.S. I just love your HUBs.)

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 06, 2020:

The same exact thing happened to one of our friends who ordered some extra tortillas in Spain, except he did not order quite as many as you did. Haha! Fortunately, when we went there, I knew what tortillas were in Spain.

Liz Westwood from UK on November 06, 2020:

Your article makes me want to return to Spain. We tend to favour eating earlier and, when staying in Spanish hotels have sometimes struggled to adjust to eating later. The tortilla incident made me laugh.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on November 06, 2020:

If I had to know the language to eat, I would starve. lol It's probably just as well I never went abroad, eh? Thanks for the fun read, and blessings to you always, my friend.

Lorna Lamon on November 06, 2020:

It can be a daunting experience, however, I think when you live in a foreign country the best thing to do is just embrace it. Getting to grips with the language and local phrases can be a minefield and when I was living in Italy I used to end up laughing at my food order which was not what I expected. You have certainly had some interesting experiences in Spain Denise and some fond memories as well.

BRENDA ARLEDGE from Washington Court House on November 05, 2020:

Denise,

It sounds like you had quite a time.

I visited Spain once in my younger days and I definitely remember the food.

For the first 3 days I lived off of ham and cheese...one thing I could say and the other thing that looked at least similar to foods I eat.

The hamburger is not like we all have here in the United states...I often wondered if it was horsemeat.

But i came to love 4 and 5 course meals...each one consisted of one dish..like soup then salad then meat...etc.

I remember the streets and stores being empty due to Siesta time.

I really do think they have a great idea...taking a nap in the middle of the day.

I know i get tired.

Plus then the evening night is cooler than strolling around in the heat.

I got lost once abd took a taxi...only 1 block away. No wonder the driver was laughing.

I love the old architecture and the stores with hand made items.

It was worth the adventure. Lots of memories.

I'm glad you got to spend time there. It will be a part of your life forever.

Rosina S Khan on November 05, 2020:

Denise, when you go to live in a foreign country, there will be cultural differences. The idea is to adapt to whatever you can as smoothly as possible. I enjoyed reading about your food experiences in Spain. Thanks for sharing.

Chrish Canosa from Manila Philippines on November 05, 2020:

This line is so relatable - " It was an impressive display for the window but I thought it was too awful to eat such a cute little piglet."

My nerves couldn't wait to go out!

Thanks for the virtual tour ;-)

Enjoy the rest of the night!

Barbara Purvis Hunter from Florida on November 05, 2020:

Hi, What a wonderful time of discovery and learning new ways of shopping, ordering and meeting people. I will be happy when we can travel more without the fear of the Pandemic.

Thanks for sharing your adventure.

Bobbi Purvis

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on November 05, 2020:

Marvelous. How fun. A couple of "oops" here which are fun. I figure I made more discoveries by mistake than books.