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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.

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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.

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