The History Of The Most Famous Spanish Dishes
Did you know that the word “tapas” comes from the verb “taper” which means “to cover” in Spanish? Get to know all the history behind it!
Spanish cuisine is some of the most famous in the world, and iconic Spanish food and drink like paella, churros, sangria and tapas are now widely available across the world.
But it is the origin stories of these delicious dishes that is one of the most fascinating aspects of them, and will help you appreciate even more just how special they are.
This week on the La Española food blog, we take a look at the early beginnings of some of Spain’s most iconic dishes.
Today when you think of tapas, you probably think of a selection of little bowls with delicious Spanish appetisers to fill up on. Maybe you think of a cool tapas bar in a hidden laneway in Spain or beyond.
But did you know that the word “tapas” comes from the verb “taper” which means “to cover” in Spanish? There’s a couple of stories about the origins of tapas.
The main story is that King Alfonso X of Castile was unwell and only able to eat small meals at a time, accompanied by wine. Some historians say that after he recovered he decreed that all wine should from now on be served with a small snack. Enter tapas.
Regarding its name, the other tapas legend is that hundreds of years ago, those who ran bars or restaurants would serve their customers drinks covered by a slice of cheese or bread to keep dust and flies away. This in turn led to the word “taper” (to cover) being used and this became “tapa” and “tapas”. In Spain, a lid is referred to as a “tapa”.
Paella may now be considered Spain’s national dish and replicated the world over, but it was actually invented in the mid 1800’s as a peasant dish that those who worked the land created with what they had on hand.
Farmers in Spain’s Valencia region would take basics like rice and other vegetables, herbs and spices they farmed like onion and tomatoes, and cook them all together over a wood fire in a pan that they then ate directly from. The word “paella” came from the Latin word “pan”, and these days the dish is still traditionally served in its own pan, piping hot.
Some people believe that paella dates back even further than that, to the days of the Moors in Spain, where servants of royalty and the aristocracy would mix what was left over from royal banquets together to enjoy.
Today, paella is an entire industry of its own, with special kitchen tools available to make the most authentic paella, including paella pans often referred to as a ‘paellera’.
Sangria is a fruit-filled Spanish red wine punch that is particularly enjoyable on a hot summer day, but its invention is the most fascinating thing about it!
Water in the days of the expansive Roman Empire 2000 years ago was notoriously filthy and unhygienic, so drinking it wasn’t an option. The story is often told that Romans located on Spain’s Iberian Peninsula would add fruit, sugar and spices to red wine to enjoy as a refreshing tipple. “Sangre” means “blood” in Spanish, a reference to the deep red colour of this delicious drink.
Spaniards brought the recipe for sangria to the Americas in the 1800s and the rest is history. In 1964, the drink premiered at the New York World's Fair. The alcoholic drink is now enjoyed the world over!
Churros are arguably Spain’s most famous dessert - delicious strips of fried dough, often served rolled in cinnamon and sugar. Nowadays, there are entire restaurants dedicated to selling churros, but the Spanish snack has a detailed history.
While it is mostly recognised that Spain invented the staple churros recipe, variations were also found centuries ago in Portugal and even China! Some food historians even believe they have found versions of the delicious yet basic recipe in Ancient Greek literature.
Spanish farmers may have invented the dessert, but Spanish settlers took the recipe to Spanish settlements in the Americas, and people continued to fall in love with the fried dessert, taking thesimple method and adding their own cultural twists, like serving them with chocolate dipping sauce or whipped cream.
So where does the word “churros” come from? Some believe it is a reference to the horns of the Iberian Peninsula’s ‘churra’ breed of sheep, which are ridged.
Gazpacho is one of the best Spanish summer dishes. The cold soup is packed with ingredients like puréed tomato, capsicum, cucumber, garlic, salt, onion and olive oil. It is so refreshing and tasty. But where did the recipe originate?
Spanish chef and food historian Clara Maria de Amezua has dated the invention of gazpacho back as far as 600BC, when locals in the Andalucia region of Spain took basic ingredients and pounded them in an early mortar and pestle.
As Spain was such a cultural melting pot, it is hard to pinpoint where the name “gazpacho” comes from, but historians have pointed to the Hebrew word “Gazaz”, which roughly translates to “to break into small pieces.”
Patatas bravas are a hearty Spanish tapas favourite, with a name that basically means “spicy potatoes”. The appetiser is made from cubed cooked potatoes drenched in a spicy tomato-based sauce. It is true Spanish comfort food.
The dish was invented over 500 years ago in the Spanish capital of Madrid, although some associate it with the regions of Catalonia and Extremadura. By then, Spanish explorers had returned from their expeditions to South America and tomatoes were one such ingredient they returned with - forever changing the course of food history.
Patatas bravas were simple to make and didn’t require extensive ingredients many people just didn’t have access to. The dish became widely available in Spanish tapas bars in the 1950’s and continues to impress today.
Often looked at as a close cousin of gazpacho, salmorejo is a diamond in Andalucia’s culinary crown. A fellow cold tomato soup, salmorejo differs from gazpacho in that it is creamier, and has the addition of bread and often, egg and Jamon iberico. It is generally lighter in colour than the bright red gazpacho, and is more of a pinky-orange hue thanks to the bread in it.
Like gazpacho, salmorejo was a peasant dish that has been dated back centuries to after the aforementioned introduction of tomatoes to the European continent. It can be enjoyed on its own or as a dip.
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