Tapa Tapa Tapas – Spain [Franklin Smith]

8 01 2011

Tapas.  I am sure that everyone has heard this word.  And then after hearing it, they turn away in disgust — mostly because in America, tapas signifies some foodie-gourmand-‘my taste buds are better than yours’-type of eating that leaves normal folks hungry and poor at the end of the meal.

But with some very limited experience here, my attitude has changed.  Tapas in Spain are amazing.  It is like having a multiple course meal for the price of a hamburger.  Here is what you do: walk in fearlessly to any of the number of tapas bars in the city you are patronizing.  Do not be intimidated by the old men or the black tie/white shirt waiters.  They only add to the atmosphere.  You can see a menu if you want, or you can just point to whatever looks good behind the bar.  There is a ton of food back there, and most of it costs around 2 euros.  Granted, there is usually only enough for 4-5 bites, but there is so much variety to choose from.  Jamon, cheese, Spanish tortilla, anchovies, croquettes, fried cod, spinach with chickpeas, shrimp, octopus, meatballs, chicken wings, chorizo, white esparagus, etc etc etc.  So, you just keep ordering tapa after tapa after tapa.  Then after the 4th or 5th plate, you realize, “wow, I’m pretty full”, and you walk out of the place with an amazing and strange mixture of food in your stomach.

Tapas (Madrid)

Apparently these tapas are from Madrid

Tapas are different in every region of Spain, partly because most of the ingredients are fresh and local.  So, if you are by the sea, you are going to be eating a lot of seafood tapas.  But tapas are also different because one region is so distinct from another.  Your experience in the south in Granada is going to be worlds apart from your experience in the north in San Sebastian.  The surrounding culture influences a tapa experience just as much as the ingredients themselves do.

My favorite so far has been Granada.  Here, you don’t even order anything specific — you just resign yourself to fate, because tapas come free with any drink.  Ordering a glass of beer or wine gives you free food.  The waiter looks at you and then decides what you need, no questions or preferences asked.  They frequently give out massive bagel sandwiches, with ham and cheese in the middle.    I never even dare to request a specific tapa, in fear that I might throw off an unspoken bond of understanding established with the waiter.  In some ways it is easier — all you have to do is sit back, drink your beer, and eat whatever they put in front of you.  The best part is, at the end of the night, you have gotten free beers out of the deal (or free tapas, depending on how you look at it).

Granada Sandwiches

How to libate in Granada

On the other end of the tapa spectrum is San Sebastian.  There is a different language up there in Basque Country, and instead of tapas, they call them pintxos (peeeeenchos).  In all of the bars in this city, there are platters upon platters filled up with different bite-sized portions of picturesque, saliva-inducing food.  And everything is impaled with a toothpick, for easy access.  The technique here is almost like a buffet; grab an empty plate, and then work your way down the bar, filling it up with whatever strikes your fancy.  The barman keeps track of how many you have eaten, and you pay at the end of the meal.  Each toothpick-skewered portion costs 1-2 euro.  If you aren’t careful, you can end up like that fat kid in Willy Wonka, eating everything in sight, and then getting kicked out because you can’t pay the 100 euro bar bill that you have somehow accumulated in only 15 minutes.

My goal now is this: weirdly alluding back to Pokemon (pokedex, categorization of diversity), I want to make a ‘tapadex’, an encyclopedia of tastiness that can be shared and bettered by tapas-eaters all over the world.  Hopefully it won’t ever have an end.

Note: The images above are not originally Franklin’s. Clicking on the image will take you to the original site.


George Castañas – Spain [Franklin Smith]

8 11 2010

Today, the elementary school I work at celebrated “the foods of autumn”.  School closed an hour early, and about 75 Spanish children invaded the nearby park with some parents to get their snack on.  And snack they did.  Typical Spanish autumn fare is not what I expected; roasted chestnuts, walnuts, dried figs, and pomegranates.  While American kids are still gorging themselves on Halloween candy, these Spaniards are being oddly healthy.


Newspaper: Spanish for cup

By far the most interesting of these foods are the roasted chestnuts. This is the Spanish variety though, and they are called castañas, and they are everywhere.  The grocery stores carry barrels of them you can buy per kilo.  Today, the Spanish mothers took castañas, roasted them over a fire, and wrapped some in newspaper for personal portions.  Eating a castaña is like eating a peanut; you have to peel back the hard outer shell and a second inner skin to reveal the treasure inside.  The actual nut looks like a big walnut, but with a saltier taste.  The castañas are hot, and they fall apart in your mouth when you are eating.   Walnut + hot boiled peanut + a Pringle = hot roasted castaña.   By the end of our celebration, the park resembled a massacre. Kids were passed out on benches surrounded by castaña shells and torn-up newspaper, the only remains of this fall feeding frenzy.

There are also vendors in my town that sell castañas on the street corners.  Their carts are surrounded by a wet steam smell of barbequed nuts, and if you look closely, you can see that most of the salesmen are missing at least one finger.

The second unique Spanish food I learned about is a little walnut and fig sandwich called a casera.  Rip the fig in half, put the walnut inside, close the fig, and eat.  It gives you the crunchy texture the fig lacks that, after eating, you realize you always wanted in figs but had never known it.  Best of all, it can be eaten in one bite.

Pomegranates are ripped apart and the seeds are eaten straight from the fleshy cobwebbed part of the fruit.  Sprinkle some sugar on top, but don’t let them stain your clothes.  (Also, if you are a beautiful girl in Ancient Greece, watch out if the God of the Underworld tries to convince you to eat one.)

These traditional fall foods have a mysterious earthy feel to them, like they came out of the depths of some lost forest, covered in dirt.  They are healthy and savory, but in the end, there was still some nagging part of my memory that kept reminding me of the sweet corn-syrupy and sugar-crashing goodness we all associate with this time of the year.  These kids are really missing out.

Side Note: The image used in this post is not Franklin’s. Clicking on the image will take you to the original site.

Space Jamón – Spain [Franklin Smith]

13 10 2010

Jamón: it’s what’s for dinner (and lunch, midnight snack, maybe even breakfast too).

I want to spin you a tale about a substance which, through just the mention of its name, will bring most Spaniards to the point of frenzy.  When prepared in the right way it will dissolve in your mouth, leaving you with a fiery Iberian desire for more.  They save the best for Christmas, with short Spanish grandpas hoarding small pieces in the deep recess of a dark attic.  I told the kids in my English class that it was my favorite food here, and I basically received a standing ovation.

Jamón. It could be translated and watered down to something like “Spanish Ham”, but that would really be an unintelligible act, because there is nothing else like it in the world.  Or, to be more precise: jamón ibérico de bellota.  The best pigs are only fed on acorns (bellotas), giving them the perfect fat content in order to be mind-blowingly delicious.  Once fattened up, the pigs are killed (there are even festivals just devoted to this), salted, cured, hung, and aged.  This isn’t Oscar Meyer or Boar’s Head quality– those brands seem like they don’t even come from the same animal as jamón.  Try to imagine a thinner and fattier prosciuttio, and try to think of an overwhelming feeling of warmth.  You could eat this stuff without teeth.  Half of the time, you just put it in your mouth and enter into a trance, returning to consciousness to find yourself blindly groping for the next piece.

I usually buy packaged jamón in the grocery store.  (Not the highest quality, but I’m on a budget, see?).  It is basically as cheap as lunchmeat in the USA, and at the bigger stores you can buy whole legs, about 15 pounds for $75.  Or, if you are serious about your jamón, you can go to the ‘jamón only’ stores (and there are tons of them).  Going into these stores is like being transported to the set of a Rocky movie, bumping into hanging slabs of meat amidst primitive grunts and utterances.  (But if you punched the meat here, they would definitely throw you out instantly.)  And eating it in a restaurant is the best; at some of the more ridiculous ones, they have the leg of jamón sitting out in the open, and they cut your pieces in front of you.

I was told that the proper way to eat this jamón is to ‘let it sweat’.  Take it out of the fridge and its plastic packaging.  Let it sit on a platter for a little while.  Drink some wine while you are doing this.  In time, it’ll reach room temperature and the full salty flavor will come out.  The only utensils to use are your fingers, making the eating of this meat a full-body experience.

When I was in tenth grade I did a presentation on this meat, thinking that Spaniards must be more than a little crazy to be so obsessed with this stuff.  All that I read just didn’t make any sense.  But now that I understand it a little more,  I wish that I could bring a couple slices back in time to 16-year-old Franklin and let him taste the substance behind the words.  All I can say is: hopefully on my way back to America, customs doesn’t decide to look inside my suspiciously ham-shaped duffel bag…


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