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FAQ – What is the Essence of Spanish Food?
Q: Does Spanish food equal tapas?
A: No, not really, but in the UK the two terms have become pretty much synonymous. The origin of tapas, the ancient practice of a bar providing small bits of food to customers to cover their drinks in order to keep out dirt and bugs, is now well known and a bit of a cliche. Tapas is just one part of gastronomic culture in Spain and has been interpreted in a different way in the UK to suit tastes.
Q: So, what is the difference between tapas in the UK and in Spain?
A: Essentially the same typical dishes are present. Readers will probably be familiar with tortilla de patatas, patatas bravas and gambas al ajillo and suchlike, but the concept is different in the two countries. In Spain, tapas are a sort of appetiser to be enjoyed with drinks (but not necessarily given free any more). The portions are very small and rarely would tapas be considered lunch or dinner, unless an afternoon’s bar hopping were to go on longer than expected! In the UK of course, eating tapas means going out for a meal, sitting down at a table and ordering many small dishes to share. I think this is mainly because their is no ‘slot’ for Spanish style tapas in UK daily schedules – they finish work and then eat! Therefore, of course, going out for tapas in the UK means going out for Spanish food, where you will find the same 20 or so dishes in every Spanish restaurant (often referred to as a ‘tapas bar’, although Spain-savvy readers will know that they are anything but).
Q: So what is Spanish cuisine over and above tapas?
A: For me, Spanish cuisine is a style more than a collection of dishes, although of course the most common Spanish dishes are now world famous and often put forward as a representation of Spanish gastronomy. More than anything, it often makes very little sense to talk about ‘Spanish’ cuisine as there is such as huge variation in styles and ingredients from province to province.
Q: But presumably there are some basic themes shared from region to region?
A: Absolutely. If you look at a national gastronomic style in terms of ingredients and technique, it is easy to see the common aspects of Spanish cooking. As far as ingredients go, the keywords are fresh and basic. Few dishes rely on complex combinations of subtle flavours and exotic herbs and spices. The basic ingredients for many dishes are onion, garlic, olive oil and perhaps tomato. Add to that a limited range of herbs and spices – pimenton, saffron, parsley, rosemary, bay etc. Cured meats from the north of Spain such as chorizo are a common addition, but not necessarily the primary focus of the dish – instead look to simple, fresh cuts of beef, chicken, pork and fish and/or seafood. Finally, don’t forget basic accompaniments such as pulses and rice.
Q: And technique?
A: Spanish food is often considered oily, and not without good reason. Frying in olive oil is perhaps the primary cooking technique, along with grilling (a la parilla) and roasting for meats (asados). But with excellent extra virgin olive oils and judicious use, frying gives a distinctive edge to many Spanish dishes.
Q: So, if you were going to create an ad hoc ‘Spanish-style’ dish for dinner tonight, what would it be?
A: Well, here’s one I did a couple of weeks ago that worked really well. In a heavy based pan, heat chopped garlic in a top quality olive oil just enough to take the sting off. Fry off some pancetta cubes, or bacon or ham or even chorizo and then throw in a can of precooked butter beans. In another pan, lightly cook some green asparagus tips – I use a small covered frying pan with a just a tablespoon or two of water so that they steam instead of boil, and then add to the mix. Drizzle the hole lot with lemon, more olive oil if required and some fresh chopped parsley. Serve with some crusty fresh bread for a great lunch. It might not be an authentic Spanish dish, but it certainly has the right style to it that it could be.
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