Spain is an amalgam of different histories, landscapes, and culture, all of which have had a lasting impact on the nation's music, art, literature and — of course — food.
For example, from fertile fields to dramatic mountain ranges, the landscape and natural environment of Spain has had a big impact on its food culture.
Galicia's 745 miles of coastline is bathed by the Cantabrian Sea and Atlantic Ocean, making fishing an incredibly important resource in the region. The two "kings" of Galician cuisine come from the sea: octopus and mussels. In fact, Galician estuaries produce the largest number of mussels in the world.
Meanwhile, Navarre is considered to be one of the greatest vegetable-growing regions in Spain, supplying the country with vegetables such as tomatoes, peas, cardoon, and chard.
The mix of cultures that have called Spain home have also left their mark.
The cuisine of the Balearic Islands is influenced by the different occupations that they have experienced throughout history. The Phoenicians, Greeks, English, and French have all had a big impact on the islands' recipes and produce. Majorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands, is renowned for its intense "sobrasada" and its sweet "ensaimada" pastries.
It's also impossible to understand Spanish confectionery without understanding the legacy left by the Moors in Spain. Almonds, which are used in many traditional sweets such as “turrón” or nougat, the crème de la crème of sweets in the region of Valencia, was introduced and became popular after the Muslim conquest of Spain.
One of the best known dishes in Spanish cuisine began its life in rural Valencia. Authentic Valencian paella, which is so widely exported and popular, is a rice dish prepared with the best ingredients from the Albufera area. The white rice at the heart of the dish was introduced by the Arabs in the 8th century, and is now the region's star product.
In this way, we taste history with every bite. Many of the country's most famous and well-loved ingredients and dishes tell unique stories from Spain's illustrious past.
Even something as common as olive oil has a millennia-old tradition. The olive tree was first cultivated on a regular basis about 6,000 years ago. The olive tree and its oil have played an integral part in every Mediterranean culture and religion: as a symbol of peace and an element of purification, and also in more practical ways, like being used as a sunscreen and even soap!
Gastronomic historians claim that gazpacho originated as a mixture of oil, vinegar, garlic, and bread that Roman soldiers used to make. It was a refreshing concoction that revived those working in the countryside during long days under the sun. With the discovery of America came the tomato, an ingredient that brought a new color and flavor to this summer soup, and it began to appear on the menus of the aristocracy and middle classes.
European travels to the Americas also allowed for another famous dish. These wrinkled potatoes, grown in the Canary Islands, are small but full of flavor, and can be served as an appetizer or accompaniment to a main course. They arrived in the Canary Islands from the Americas, and from there it was transferred to the peninsula.
Despite this long history and fascinating past, Spanish food has also been some of the most innovative and forward-looking in the world.
Thirty years ago, Ruscalleda managed to place Sant Pol de Mar, the small coastal town in Barcelona, where she was born and where the restaurant Sant Pau was located on the international gastronomic map. She is the only female chef to have been awarded seven Michelin stars.
The most famous innovator is the iconic Spanish chef Ferran Adrià. His restaurant elBulli started life as a beach bar and ended up gracing the front covers of international publications, and Adrià became widely regarded by many as the best chef in the world.
Special to Mediterranean food cultures is the family side of food and cooking, and many top restaurants remain a family affair. Juan Mari Arzak was one of the driving forces behind the New Basque Cuisine, which put the Basque Country on the international gastronomic map during the 1980s. Now 75, he remains at the helm of the family business, along with his daughter, Elena.
Today, Spanish food inspires the world.
Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa explains why Spain reminds him of home: “Among the many countries of Europe, I feel Spain in particular has much in common with Japan. I’ve visited a number of different countries in the past, but there’s just something about Spain. (...) I believe it is the diverse sense of similarities between Spain and Japan that has allowed the cuisines to both stimulate and have a profound mutual effect on one another”.
Spanish desserts have become very popular in Latin America. There is a great churro tradition in Mexico. In fact, Mexico City has a legendary 24-hour churro store, El Moro, which was founded in 1935.
Return to Spain: An Open Kitchen to learn more about Spain's iconic flavors, faces and fusions.
The food mapReal Academia de Gastronomía