One of the best things about traveling is trying the traditional foods of the country. Spain has so many unique and delicious dishes to try, but that’s not the only thing I love about eating here. The culture surrounding meals, dining, and drinking are quite different from the US as well.
The first big difference that takes some getting used to is the schedule of eating. Spaniards eat five times per day: breakfast, second breakfast, lunch, merienda, and dinner. I didn’t realize they ate this many times per day and was pretty surprised when my co-workers told me so. However, they were just as shocked to learn that in the US, we only eat three meals per day.
Breakfast is a small, light meal that you eat before you go to school or work probably around 7:30-9:00 a.m. depending on your schedule, and perhaps you might eat some cereal and fruit accompanied by café con leche (coffee with milk).
Second breakfast is at around 11-11:30 a.m., which you get a break for at work. I usually go to a café with my co-workers and get toast with tomato purée and olive oil (my favorite), but there’s also Argentinian pizza, empanadas with all kinds of fillings, croissants, and lots and lots of pastries! And, of course, we drink more café con leche and maybe even a cup of fresh squeezed orange juice.
Lunch is the largest and most important meal of the day. If you go out to a restaurant, this is when they offer the menú del día (menu of the day), which is one price and includes a first course, second course, dessert, and drink with a few options for each course. As a vegetarian, sometimes it’s a little tricky to order from these smaller menus, but usually the restaurant is willing to modify it a little bit since I’m definitely not the only vegetarian in the huge city of Madrid. However, I work full time and am a poor college student, so I always pack my lunch and eat in the break room with all my co-workers. They all come with huge tupperwares filled with all kinds of different main dishes and full meals (never ever just a sandwich and a side like in the US). There’s also a couple loaves of pan (bread) always sitting in the middle of the table for everyone to share because no meal is complete without it! It took some observing to realize how to utilize the bread when you eat because you don’t just take random bites of it or use it to clean your plate when you’re done. Instead, you rip off smaller pieces of the bread and use it to help scoop your food onto your fork. Also, you aren’t supposed to switch hands when using a knife and fork, but that’s pretty advanced.
Merienda is the meal in between lunch and dinner, and is just a small snack. I usually don’t eat merienda, unless I’m out with friends after work and we go get some ice cream, a pastry, or tapas (which I will mention later).
Dinner is unique because the time that you eat it kind of depends on when the sun sets. Since I’m here for the summer, that means not until around 9:30-10:00 at night. However, sometimes it could be even later. For example, my host mom was really busy yesterday, so she didn’t eat dinner until 11 p.m. The meal size is a bit smaller than lunch, but could still be a significant amount of food.
What’s really important to mention about meal time in Spain is that it is meant for enjoyment. When I eat with others, the meal always last for at least an hour because we all get caught up chatting and sharing stories. If you go to a restaurant, you could be there for hours because you aren’t just there for the food, but to enjoy your company as well.
One special Spanish tradition is tapas. Tapas are kind of like appetizers, except you usually only eat them when you are order drinks, and what’s great about them is that they are meant for sharing. For example, last Friday everyone in the office and I went out to a bar after work (there were about twenty of us). Once we got there, we ordered several different kinds of tapas and the waitresses brought them out to us round by round. They are served on a very large plate with little forks, and everyone passes the plates around and takes what they like. Some of my favorites are patatas bravas, pimientos de Padrón, tostas, or simply just queso! Some bars even give you free tapas as long as you order one drink.
I could go on and on about all of the amazing food here and all of my favorite restaurants, so instead I’ll just mention the most famous traditional Spanish foods.
- Jamón Ibérico – Ham in Spain is a huge deal. You can’t walk anywhere in the city without seeing some raw pig legs hanging from a store window or in bars and restaurants.
- Tortilla española – The traditional Spanish tortilla is not what you might think. Instead, it’s pretty similar to an omelette, except you put in lots of chopped potatoes into the egg mixture.
- Paella – This rice-based dish comes in many varieties like mariscos (seafood), chicken, rabbit, and vegetable. It is cooked in a special large pan and meant for sharing.
- Churros con chocolate – You don’t need an excuse to eat churros because a lot of churrerías are open 24/7 (which is rare in Spain)! I recommend if you don’t use all the chocolate by dipping your churros, just eat it with the spoon when you’re done!
When you’re in a new country learning and observing, you may not realize it, but you are using all five senses including taste. Therefore, if you have fear about trying new foods, you could be missing out on a large portion of the cultural experience. I used to by quite picky when I was younger, but now I think it’s not only fun to try new foods and compare the different tastes and flavors, but it also makes me feel more connected to the country.