Are you infatuated with traditional Spanish cooking? In this article, we reveal the secrets of authentic Spanish cooking, interweaving techniques for creating traditional Spanish food with interesting Spain food culture facts.
Traditional Spanish Cooking
Because of its position at the crossroads of Europe and Africa, myriad cultures have influenced traditional Spanish food, resulting in the incredibly diverse and distinctive flavours we love today. Here’s a brief timeline of influences:
- 1000 BC and throughout the 8th and 7th centuries BC – When the seafaring Phoenicians arrived in southern Spain, they introduced sauces and fresh olives to the Spanish culinary world. The Phoenicians also established trade routes with ancient Greece, triggering a flow of olive oil and figs into Iberia.
- 218 BC to the 5th century – The Romans enriched the Spanish culinary landscape with the art of viticulture (grape cultivation), the custom of mushroom foraging, and techniques for fish preservation.
- 711 AD to the 15th century – The Moors introduced rice, saffron (azafrán), eggplant, almonds, pistachios, and sweets with cinnamon, peaches, apricots, quinces, nutmeg, and citrus fruits such as lemon and orange.
- 13th and 14th centuries – The Spanish conquest of the New World flooded Spain with a huge variety of new culinary discoveries: tomatoes, potatoes, corn, capsicums, paprika, spicy peppers, zucchini, beans and cocoa.
Today, it’s almost impossible to imagine Spanish cuisine today without essential ingredients such as olive oil and saffron.
Traditional Spanish Cooking Methods
Translated from the Spanish, ahumar means ‘smoke, smoke-dried’, ‘to fill with smoke’ and ‘to blacken’. Ahumar — the ancient process of drying and preserving meat and fish — is still popular in modern day Spain. Since smoke particles are antibacterial, this cooking technique can slow the growth of micro bacteria in food, while lending a rich, smoky flavour and dark, caramelised colour to the food.
Spanish cooking incorporates two types of smoking techniques: cold smoking (where food is exposed to wood smoke or timber sawdust in slow combustion) and hot smoking (food is steeped in hot, humid air and dense smoke). The flavour and scents of smoked food result from the material that is burned: olive wood, spices and herbs. The most popular smoked meats in Spain include pork tenderloin, bacon, jamón (ham), bacon, chorizo (sausages), chicken, pheasant, wild boar, eel, herring, trout, tuna, and salmon.
Also known as a la parrilla (from the Spanish word for ‘grill, broiler’) or a la plancha (‘griddle’), la brasa describes the Spanish cooking technique of the process of chargrilling or roasting meat, fish or vegetables over the embers of a wood fire. Cooking food a la plancha gives meat and vegetables a golden, crispy exterior with a juicy, moist interior.
Throughout Spain’s history, this has been a dominant form of cooking. In the wine regions like Rioja, people working in the vineyards would grill lamb chops over a fire erected with vine shoots. Spanish fishermen would thread freshly-caught sardines on sticks and bury them in the sand to cook over hot coals. Catholic pilgrims journeying to Santiago de la Compostela would wrap quails in grape leaves and grill them over a campfire. Hunters in La Mancha would build a fire from holly oak to grill rabbits. In Valencia, people would build outdoor fires with orangewood prunings to cook paella.
In modern times, Spanish chefs have turned a la brasa into high art — opting to smoke traditional Galician beef alongside more unusual choices such as oysters, cod cheeks and baby eels.
The taste of grilled food can be manipulated by controlling the intensity of the heat (which can enhance the flavour of the raw ingredients), the intensity of the smoke, the type of wood, spice or herb, or the choice of basting oil.
Majar — ‘to pound, crush’ with a mortero or almirez, or mortar and pestle — is one of the first and most important steps in many Spanish recipes. Often, a few peppercorns, cloves of raw garlic, almonds and a wisp of saffron will be crushed, mixed with white wine, and thrown into a simmering soup or stew to enrich its flavour and thicken its texture. In Catalonirwa, the mortar and pestle play a crucial role in crafting the region’s famous romesco sauce: roasted tomatoes are ground up with garlic, toasted almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts and dried sweet peppers (ñoras), with olive oil beaten in to create a thick, delicious sauce.
Escabecho, from the Persian word for ‘stew with vinegar’, is an ancient way of preserving food in a spiced vinegar marinade. Escabeche arrived in Spain with the Moors, who used vinegar to preserve fish such as anchovies. In rural Spain, hunting prevailed for centuries. People would prepare their hunted game in a marinade and seal it inside clay pots. In order to conserve the meat, the marinade contained a strong dose of vinegar. The olive oil in the vinegar marinade would float to the top to create a protective seal, allowing the escabeche foods to be kept for several months during winter.
Today, escabeche is made with a mix of white wine, vinegar, olive oil, onion, garlic, salt, peppercorns, pimentón (Spanish paprika), cloves and bay leaf.
Rehogado is the Spanish word for sautéeing or frying foods lightly in olive oil. From the time of the ancient Greeks and Phoenicians, olive oil has been at the heart of traditional Spanish cuisine. The Sephardic Jews and Moors refused to cook in pig fat, instead favouring the rich delicacy of olive oil.
Fried foods are an important part of Spanish culinary history. Traditional Spanish cuisine is abundant with examples of delicious foods immersed in bubbling hot olive oil, from golden-brown fried potatoes to fish, chicken (pollo), torrijas (a Spanish version of French toast), and traditional rosquillas (doughnuts).
Excited to try some delicious and authentic Spanish food right here in Brisbane? Book a table at Moda Restaurant today!