Tapas in Madrd. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Tapas in Madrd. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

From seafood paella and chorizo to Iberian ham or calamari – Spain is well known for its various dishes of dead animal. As a life-long pescatarian, life in Madrid presents a daily challenge. I’m used to grocery shopping or eating out in Britain, but finding veggie burgers in supermarkets and scanning menus in Spanish proves to be a rather new experience. You even meet people who aren’t totally sure what vegetarianism is. In a big city like Madrid this is increasingly rare, but I’ve still occasionally had to explain that NO I really, really don’t eat chicken or ham or kangaroo.

Nevertheless, it’s far from doom and gloom: Spanish cuisine, both traditional and more contemporary, offers a surprising – and often overlooked – amount for vegetarians.

Traditional dishes

The humble tortilla de patatas (a.k.a. the Spanish omelette) is a glorious mix of eggs, potato and, according to taste, onion fried in olive oil. Served hot or cold, and often with bread, I actively look forward to coming to Spain for this beauty.

Gazpacho is a kind of cold soup which originates in Andalusia. Made principally from tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and garlic, it’s usually drunk almost as a side or starter to a larger course.

And talking of soups, a friend recently introduced me to Porrusalda, a vegetable soup (which can also be served with cod, beware) from the Basque country. It tends to include carrots, potatoes, leek and onion.

Patatas bravas are a type of tapas, or small dish bought in bars to nibble alongside a beer, and make for an interesting inauguration into the world of Spanish food. One of the spiciest dishes on the menu, they come in a relatively hot tomato sauce and with a range of toppings, including traditional cheeses.

The list of vegetarian puddings is, perhaps unsurprisingly, quite expansive and includes familiar elements like rice pudding and a custard-like sauce called natillas, but also less well-known treats like chocolate con churros, turrón and roscón.

Fresh produce

Before I get too excited about the range of deep-fried treasures on offer, it’s worth considering the joys of home cooking. These are especially valid in a country with such a rich variety of locally grown, fresh fruit and vegetables available. On most streets, there is at least one frutería which sells more or less everything – mangos, melon, olives, peppers, courgettes; the lot – you’d expect a green grocer to. Because it’s often not imported from far-off corners of the world, ripe produce is usually sold for a very reasonable price.

Cereals, pulses, grains…

Of course, the normal range of pasta can be bought in any supermarket in Madrid and I’d even guess that there were more types of rice – especially given the Spanish love of paella – than at home. I’m also lucky enough to live within walking distance of one of the most multicultural areas of the city, meaning that grains like cous-cous and bulghur wheat are also readily available.

Less known is the presence of lentils and other pulses (think: kidney beans or chickpeas, rather than the British Heart Foundation) in Spanish cooking. One common dish is lentejas con verduras, which resembles a simple lentil stew with tomatoes and various other vegetables of choice.

And I could hardly write about Spanish food without touching on the topic of bread. Yes, pan de molde or the square, mass-produced bread that we’re used to in Britain can be bought in supermarkets. But it’s usually much more expensive and bland than the normal, baguette-style pan de picos, which costs around 40 cents and can be bought hot and fresh from lots of corner shops.

The above is meant as quite a basic introduction – in such a large and multicultural city as Madrid, there is a wealth of Chinese, Latin American, Indian and American (to name but a few) cuisine to be sampled.

Even in less international terms, a brief enquiry on a Facebook group of English language teaching assistants opened up a world of Spanish vegetarian societies, markets, cafés and more. These tend to be in central districts with a large student or immigrant population, like La Latina, Malasaña or Lavapiés, but this shouldn’t stop any visitor to Madrid seeking out a new favourite restaurant further afield.

See, in particular, the very helpful and accessible food blog ‘A Part-time Vegetarian/Vegan in Madrid’ for more information: http://www.gogobot.com/a-part-time-vegetarian-vegan-in-madrid-labhaoise-ni-fhiachna

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