One of the joys of being in Spain is the food. This is not to trivialize Spain’s other attractions, which include museums, spectacular landscapes, stone monuments, revered religious sites and the grandeur of centuries-old buildings.
All those are certainly worth flying hundreds of miles for. But along with them is the food, which cajole, tempt and entice visitors with their Mediterranean freshness and heartiness.
Indeed, the food in Spain corners visitors at every turn. On a recent visit to Madrid with my daughter Clarissa, we were seemingly surrounded by food wherever we went. And not just food, but heavenly, flavorsome, grab-your-taste-buds delicious food.
Walking toward Puerta del Sol from our rented apartment, we would pass by shops displaying Spain’s beloved hams in their various permutations: legs of ham suspended from racks, legs of ham lying supinely on wooden boards, sliced ham sealed in vacuum packs, paper cones filled to the brim with bite-size pieces of ham (and chorizo), and ham tucked between slices of crusty bread.
After all, Spain is famous for its ham, the many varieties of which would require an entire dictionary to define (among them: jamon Serrano, jamon Iberico and jamon Jabugo).
The hams were just a starting point. Along the way as we walked the narrow streets and paved sidewalks of Madrid, we’d encounter churrorerias (for churros), chocolaterias (for hot chocolates), cervecerias (for beer and wine), panaderias (for bread) and pastelerias (for pastries), aside from an ice cream bar here, a tapas bar there and the occasional tavern just beyond.
Sigh. If only we had more days to try most of them. With our limited time, we had to pick just a few and forego the others.
Luckily we had help. Before I left for Madrid, Vien Cortes of the Spain Tourism Board gave me a list of suggested restaurants. Likewise, Miguel Ullibarri of A Taste of Spain, which conducts culinary tours in Spain (www.atasteofspain.com), also sent me a long list of restaurants to try.
Among the places they recommended: Mercado de San Miguel, Platea, Lhardy, Chocolateria San Gines, La Barraca, Culto del Plato and and Sobrino de Botin.
In the few that we managed to try, the food was excellent, rich with the flavors of olive oil, the freshness of farm produce and the sumptuous traditions of Iberian cuisine.
One evening, we even attended a dinner show with flamenco dancing at Tablao Las Carboneras, which Vien Cortes and Chet Francisco of the Spain Tourism Board had kindly arranged for us. The show came with a set dinner of tuna and fresh vegetable salad drizzled with olive oil, a platter of Spanish ham and cheese, croquetas, paella and dessert.
It was all we could do to finish the generous servings before the show started—a soulful performance of flamenco dancing by a full ensemble of dancers, guitarists and singers. One advice for those planning to go to Las Carboneras: Try to finish your meal before the show starts. Not only is it embarrassing to be eating while the performance is going on, but you’ll surely want to give full attention to a show that’s full of energetic, passionate dancing and expressive music.
Strolling along the cobblestone streets of Madrid, Clarissa and I stumbled on our own little discovery. Just a few steps from our apartment was a restaurant acclaimed for its gambas called La Casa del Abuelo.
This restaurant has two locations just next to each other: one which serves only gambas and where customers eat standing up, and the other which has tables and chairs and serves other dishes as well.
One taste of the gambas and we almost exclaimed alleluia. Served in a terra-cotta dish, the shrimps were delicate pink gems and came hot and sizzling in olive oil. Every bit was delightful, brimming with the wondrous tastes of the Mediterranean. We used the small loaf of bread that was served free for dipping into the olive oil, mopping up all its earthy flavors.
Equally flavorful were the succulent razor clams cooked with garlic and olive oil and the crayfish which was simply grilled and sprinkled with coarse salt. The crayfish may have been challenging to peel (the chef showed us how) but it was certainly worth every morsel.
Here I’ve tried to recreate the gambas. It still doesn’t capture the full richness of the dish served in La Casa del Abuelo, but it’s good enough to serve to family and friends. And the next chance you get, take that trip to Spain already.
For more information on Spain, contact Spain Tourism Board: singapore
@tourspain.es; tel. +65 67373008; visit www.spain.info; #09-04 Liat Towers, 541 Orchard Rd., Singapore, 238881
A Taste of Spain: www.atasteof
Tablao Las Carboneras, Calle Conde de Miranda, 1, 28005 Madrid (2-3 minutes’ walk from Mercado de San Miguel); tel. (+34) 915428677
La Casa del Abuelo, Calle de la Victoria, 12, Madrid 28012; tel: (+34) 910000133
500 g (½ k) small shrimps (the suahe variety)
Salt and pepper
¼ tsp Spanish paprika
¼ c extra virgin Spanish olive oil
1 head of garlic, peeled and diced
For sizzling the gambas:
1 cazuela (terra-cotta dish) or any microwave-safe dish
½ c extra virgin olive oil
½ head of garlic, chopped
¼ c chopped parsley (optional)
Peel the shrimps and remove the veins (if there’s any). Season the peeled shrimps with salt, pepper and paprika.
Heat the ¼ cup olive oil in a medium pan (do not heat it to smoking point). Add garlic and sauté until just before they turn golden (do not burn the garlic). Stir in the shrimps and sauté for about a minute, or just until shrimps turn evenly pink. Transfer the mixture (including the garlic and olive oil) to a bowl.
Heat the cazuela or any microwave-safe dish in a microwave oven for about a minute. Spoon the shrimp mixture into the heated cazuela.
Pour the ½ cup olive oil into the same pan where you cooked the shrimps. Heat the oil until very hot (but not smoking) then add the garlic and sauté until golden. Remove from heat and immediately pour the olive oil and garlic into the shrimp mixture in the cazuela (see tips). The shrimps and oil will sizzle. If desired, sprinkle chopped parsley on top. Makes 2-3 servings.
For more tips, recipes and stories, visit the author’s blog www.norma
chikiamco.com; follow on Twitter @NormaChikiamco
Use shrimps that are very fresh.
Be very careful when pouring hot olive oil into the shrimps and garlic. The oil will sizzle and could spatter. Keep your face a safe distance from the pans.
If desired, serve this with crusty bread. The bread is good for dipping into the olive oil and sopping up all the flavors.
If you don’t have a cazuela or terra-cotta dish, use any microwave-safe and heat-safe bowl or platter.